Letter Poems Deliver: Experimenting with Line Breaks in Poetry Writing
Written by Julie Wollman, PhD, for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) website readwritethink.org, this Common Core-aligned lesson plan invites students to adapt narrative-style letters into poetic format, forcing them to think carefully about where to end each line. This lesson plan is made up of two forty-minute sessions. For updates to this lesson plan and more resources for teachers, visit readwritethink.org.
- explore and discuss various poems to demonstrate a growing awareness of how line breaks affect rhythm, sound, meaning, impact, and appearance, and can substitute for punctuation in letter poems.
- demonstrate their understanding of line breaks and how format creates dramatic effect by writing their own letter poems.
- Ask students to informally share what they think is the difference between a letter and a poem. Discuss how line breaks are one characteristic way in which poetry and prose, like letters, differ, yet some poems seem like they could also be written as prose. Explain that today we will focus on letter poems. Letter poems sound like letters and communicate personal messages like letters, but are written in the form of poems. Ask students to talk about letters they might have written—letters to friends, thank you letters, business letters, letters they wrote but perhaps never sent (share your own examples, too). Explain that many of these could be turned into a powerful poem. The same is true of e-mail messages (in essence, informal letters). Discuss how students and their families may use e-mail in their daily lives. E-mail messages can also be turned into effective poems.
- As a group look at the Letter Poem Creator, either via LCD projection or on individual computers if available. The tool demonstrates how letters can be rearranged to make poems. Then look at the letter form of “This is Just to Say” on chart paper and read it aloud. With student input, demonstrate on chart paper or board how this letter might be made into a poem using line breaks. As students suggest where to place line breaks, ask for their rationale. Talk about why lines are broken where they are in poetry (effect on sound, meaning, appearance, emotional impact). When students are satisfied with the poem they have created from the letter, show them the original poem version by William Carlos Williams. Compare this with the student-created poem. Read both aloud (and compare with another read-aloud of the letter format). Discuss differences in line breaks and possible reasons for these differences, noting that a poem’s format is the author’s decision. In particular, focus on why Williams might have chosen to set it up the way he did—how he used line breaks to affect meaning, sound, appearance, and emotional impact or emphasis, as well as to replace punctuation.
- Next students will work in small groups looking at a letter poem, “Dear Grandma” in letter form and rewriting it as a poem (as has just been modeled in the large group). Tell them to experiment with making the letter into a poem by using line breaks. This can be done on paper or computer, using a word-processing program, which makes playing around with alternatives very easy. Circulate and support small-group work. Encourage students to read aloud their results and compare with a read-aloud of the letter form.
- Once each small group has rewritten the letter as a poem, ask them to share with the whole class what they did and why. If they composed on a computer, copies can be printed for all students to look at, or each group can quickly transfer its handwritten version to an overhead. This sharing of poems should lead to further general discussion both about how line breaks function and authorial choice.
- Finally, tell students that this letter was originally a poem. Hand out the poem “Dear Grandma” and discuss similarities and differences with how they turned the letter into poem. Focus on thinking about why the author wrote it as she did (e.g., why are some lines so short and others much longer?). Ask students to summarize what they have learned about line breaks. As this sessions ends, tell them they will be writing their own letter or e-mail poems next time and should start thinking about ideas for these.
- Before the next session students can further experiment with line breaks using the Line Break Explorer, which invites manipulation of line breaks in an online poem. Similar to magnetic poetry, this interactive encourages experimentation with a poem’s format to create the desired effect.
- At the beginning of the second session review briefly what you did in Session One by asking students to summarize the activities and what they learned or still have questions about. The online, interactive Venn Diagram can be used to have them compare letters and poems, as a way to organize their review of the previous day’s work. This resource could be used during (as a whole group) or after (independently or in pairs) the oral discussion of what they’ve learned.
- Remind students that they will write their own letter or e-mail poems today. Have students brainstorm some ideas for addressee and purpose for their letters (see Sample List for ideas or visit the MarcoPolo NEH EdSitement Web Resource for numerous sample letters and ideas. Get enough ideas on the table so that every student has some sense of what they might write and to whom (or what).
- Explain that each student will compose the letter, or e-mail message, first and then rewrite it as a poem. Model starting one yourself, beginning with “Dear….”
- Provide quiet time for thinking and writing, and after awhile invite a few students to share their work so far. As students finish their letters or e-mail messages have them transform these into poems.
- Once the poems are drafted, invite students to confer with a partner or group, get feedback on their poems, and perhaps revise their work, thinking about how the format affects meaning, impact, and sound when read aloud. Final drafts may be shared aloud or published in a class collection of letter poems, or sent, if e-mail messages.