Cinquain Poems for mixed levels

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I did a lesson today that turned out a lot better than I expected. I’m blogging about it because my reflective goal for this month was to start paying attention to the things that go well in class, not just the things that go oh so wrong.

Some background on the class:

Once a week, I have a class where we can do mini-projects to fill some of the gaps in their coursebooks. There are 12 students in this class and they are in the first grade of middle school (around 13 years old). They have been studying English for varying lengths of time, from six or seven years to just a couple years. In my class, they are using the newest edition of Teen Talk, a book which has (in my opinion) a lot more text than a conversation book needs, complete with questions that guide students’ opinions to the “right” answers. And so I try, each week, to introduce opportunities for creative thinking and expression.

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Today’s class:

This is the last class of the day on Thursdays, from 8:30 p.m. to 9:20 p.m. The students have already been in the academy for two hours (Teen Talk at 6:30 and CNN at 7:30). Last Thursday they asked me if we could do something related to Christmas during this week’s class.

Some background on the project:

I learned about cinquain poetry about two years ago. Asked to submit “something creative” for a final class project, I was completely at a loss and made a note to myself never to do that to my students (promptly forgotten). Luckily someone in a different course had mentioned cinquain poetry in passing and I decided to look it up. Not only was it perfect for the “creative” project, it was adaptable enough to use in my classes as well.

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Today’s class: 

I started by writing the word “cinquain” on the board and letting them guess the pronunciation (following from the pronunciation work we’d been doing in the Teen Talk class).

Then I asked them to guess the meaning. One student noticed that the origin looked like French. Another student (the shyest in the class) said that she’d learned a little Spanish when she lived in California. One of them asked for a hint and I told them it is a number. The Spanish-learner started counting on her fingers and her face lit up when she got to five, which she said aloud.*

Cinquain poems have five lines each and look a little like a diamond (although to me they look more like Christmas trees). They are written on a single topic and usually tell a story.

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I explained the three ways of writing cinquain poems:

  • 1) with individual words (1 word, 2 words, 3 words, 4 words, 1 word)
  • 2) with syllables (2 syllables, 4 syllables, 6 syllables, 8 syllables, 2 syllables)
  • 3) with parts of speech (1 noun, 2 adjectives, 3 -ing words, a phrase, a synonym to the original noun)

I explained the rules for the poetry:

  • 1) Write about just one topic.
  • 2) Tell a story.
  • 3) Include an action.
  • 4) Include a feeling.

Someone asked me how to do syllables and we went around the room counting syllables in their English names. This was a great moment, because they (and I) discovered that some of them were much better at this than others.

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I told them that they could choose any of the three styles of poem they want, but that the first one was probably the easiest, but might have a boring result.

The results were telling:

The weaker students in the class all chose the first style. Some of them were able to tell stories and others just wrote words on a Christmas-y topic.

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The mid-level students nearly all went for the syllables style. I was surprised, but maybe they wanted to challenge themselves or maybe they were daunted by parts of speech but wanted to show that they were above isolated words.

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The higher level students used a mix of syllables and parts of speech styles, except one – who asked if she could adapt the words style to 2-4-6-8-2 so she could tell the story she wanted. Another thing I saw in the higher level students was a greater emphasis on the story they wanted to tell. 

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What really fascinated me about the project…

Was how each student took it and made it their own. They adapted it to their own levels and helped each other or asked for help when they ran into difficulties. They practiced until they got it the way they wanted it, then wrote it on colored paper and decorated it.

As a follow-up, I asked them to each come to the front, read their poem, and show the pictures they’d made. And I learned another new thing: none of them know how to read poetry aloud.

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A lesson for another time.



*I can just imagine what her brain did to count to five in Spanish, take a look at how many fingers she’d counted out in Korean and then translate that to the required English that matched the French on the board, all in a split second. Humans are amazing.

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