Using poetry in second language classes to connect text-based and visual storytelling

This blog post was originally going to be part of a longer one in which I was writing about a number of ways I have used poetry in my classes. However, it turned out that I had a lot more to say about that topic than I initially thought, and so I’ve decided to divide them up and share them individually.

Poetry is a literary form that is having a resurgence in popularity, and because of its typically shorter length is ideal for use in second language classes. One example of how I have used it in my classes is to explore the connections between text-based storytelling (i.e. just reading words in a document) and visual storytelling (used here in a short film with no dialogue). I’ve included detailed instructions for how I’ve done it, with examples so you can adapt and use these strategies for yourself.

“Il a mis le café 
Dans la tasse …”

The poem I’m writing about in this blog post is Jacques Prévert’s “Déjeuner du matin”. Written in 1945 as part of Prévert’s collection of poetry published in “Paroles”, this poem uses simple phrases written in passé composé and evocative imagery that lends itself well to visualizing a storyline. You can find the poem here, along with some background on Prévert and context if desired. I don’t go into the post-war background of the poem and its author, although that certainly could be interesting with a group of students wanting to engage with that part of the story.

I have introduced this text in a number of ways in my classes. The simplest way is to read the poem with the class, but I have also cut each verse into individual lines, which I then placed in an envelope, using one envelope per group. I divided my class into three groups, and gave each group and envelope. They read each line and used context clues in the text to predict the order of the phrases. I showed them the last verse, in its correct order, so that they know how it should end. I then had the groups try to predict which order the verses should go in, and lay them out on a table. To check for understanding, I showed a short film version of the poem with no dialogue, found here.

By this point, I knew that students had looked up any necessary vocabulary words and understood the basic meaning of the poem, so I asked students to summarize their thinking using the following questions:

  1. Dans une réponse de 2 à 3 phrases, décris comment ta compréhension du poème a changée après avoir regardé le film. (In a 2-3 sentence answer, describe how watching the film changed your understanding of the poem.)
  2. Comment est-ce que l’utilisation du passé composé dans ce poème influence ta compréhension? Selon toi, pourquoi l’auteur a-t-il choisi ce temps du verbe? Donne des exemples spécifiques pour valider ta réponse. (How does the use of the passé composé in this poem affect your understanding? Why do you think the author chose this tense? Give specific examples to support your answer.)
  3. Dans ton opinion, pourquoi est-ce que les personnages dans le film sont anonymes? Comment est-ce que cela influence ta compréhension? Donne des exemples spécifiques pour valider ta réponse. (Why do you think the characters are not named in this poem or in the film? How does that affect your understanding? Give specific examples to support your answer.)
  4. À ton avis, quelle image dans le poème est la plus importante / frappante? Quelle image dans le film est le plus frappante? Explique. (In your opinion, which image in the poem is the most important / striking? Which image in the poem is the most striking? Explain.)

Because these are higher level thinking questions, students need a fair amount of thinking time to respond. These questions would typically be given in a second class block, after the poem itself was introduced. I put these questions on a sheet of paper divided into 4 quadrants, with one question in each quadrant. Depending on the group, they will either discuss the questions in a group of 4 and collaboratively answer, or they can be divided into 4 groups as a class and discuss each question separately before returning to their “home” group to share their answers and finalize their responses.

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