Memory Lane with a Poem in Hand

This week my students and I have been exploring poetry. Since the beginning of the unit I’ve looked forward to handing them “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke; I just knew it would engage them in debate and get them to think critically and use textual support for their claims. Yesterday I excitedly handed them copies of the poem. I had them partner up and directed them to work through the reading process (set a purpose, preview, plan, read with a purpose, connect, pause and reflect, summarize) and analyze the poem. As they read and discussed with their partners, I traveled around the room and eavesdropped on their conversations. After three class periods of this I got the overwhelming sense that most, if not all of my students, felt the poem was about an abusive father. As I sat reflecting over my lunch break I found myself disappointed. I’d hoped for more diverse views. I wondered what this said about the lives of my students and their own personal experiences. I was proud that they’d come to their conclusions through logical means and could provide textual support to back them up, but felt sad that they’d completely missed the ambiguity of the poem and could only see one possible interpretation. However, I would not allow my enthusiasm for the poem to be diminished. I decided Papa wasn’t going down without a fight.

Today I walked into class armed with…a story. A personal story. I’d decided that to counteract what was shaping up to be a one-sided debate, I’d spin my own personal narrative.

My story:

       When I was a little girl, my father had a huge collection of records. Yes, actual 45s that you put the needle on and they’d spin round and round and play music. (I know, a foreign concept to many of my students.) Two of my favorite records were The Monkees and Don McLean’s album American Pie of which my favorite song was “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night).” At this time in my life, I was my dad’s shadow. We’d go hunting, fishing, and camping together; I’d help him change the oil in his truck and follow him around as he did yard work and chopped wood. I was daddy’s little girl. 

      My father worked in a carpet mill as maintenance personnel. He worked with his hands. When he came home from work he was often dirty. He wore big heavy work boots. My dad was rough around the edges, but he sure loved me and always made time for me in the evenings. He often spent time reading to me in the evenings before bed and every now and then we’d dance. 

      My dad would put on one of his records, often my favorite, and he’d stand me up barefooted on top of his work boots and dance me around our dining room. Sometimes my mom would join us and I’d be sandwiched in between the two of them clinging to my father’s waist for dear life. Sometimes he’d pick me up and carry me around dancing to the music. I loved this time with my dad and still cherish those memories today.  

 After telling this story, I asked my students to get out their copies of the poem from the previous class period and spend a few minutes reading through it one more time. I gave them time and then posed the question. So, what is this poem about?

It worked! I got two different answers. I may have changed some minds, I may have misjudged the previous day, but I got two distinct answers. I had the class divide up into two corners depending on their interpretation and discuss the evidence that supported their claim. Both sides then presented their evidence and I was able to show them that, yes, it was possible to have two very different interpretations of the same poem and neither interpretation was “better” than the other as long as they could provide the textual support for their interpretation.

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