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Lesson Plan . “Picture Poem” .

Dan Johnson

Picture Poem: a lesson in autobiographical poetry
Fifth Grade Autobiography by Rita Dove
from Words with Wings: A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art selected by Belinda

Students bring to school a number of photos from their life (they do not have to be in the pictures
personally). Their poem will serve as a connection between their memory of the event and the photo

Students will learn two main skills during the course of this lesson, namely the use of powerful
verbs to describe action or in description and alliteration.

It is vitally important that prior to teaching this lesson, you encourage students to bring
in pictures from home that “describe their lives.” Also, have read a number of generic pictures
that students can use if they forget/don’t have pictures.

1.Use the “three-voice reading strategy outlined below to read Fifth Grade Autobiography by Rita
Dove. Between each reading, give the students 2 to 3 minutes to sketch what they think the photo
discussed in the poem looks like.
a.Teacher reads the poem aloud. Before beginning ask the students to think carefully about
the words and images as well as the sonic (sound) quality of the poem.
b.Students read the poem silently. Ask them to "listen" to their internal reading voice as
they read for these same qualities.
c.Students read the poem in groups of two or three, taking turns reading each line
out loud. This method forces them to respect the line breaks in the poem and they will often
notice things they missed during the first two readings.
2.Invite students to share their pictures with a partner or with the class. Alternatively, take student
suggestions and make a “class drawing.”
3.Students look through the pictures they have brought with them and pick up to 3 to show to a
partner. They should discuss the memories they have of the events/people in their photo.
4.Students choose one of the photos to write about. Their poem should be more than simply what
is in the pictures. They should also include memories they have about people/places as Dove does
in the mentor poem (“I used to wrap it for him every Christmas.”)
5.Students spend 5 minutes writing simple sentences to describe what they see in the picture. The
title of their poem should reflect the grade they were in when the pictures was taken, not when
they write the poem.
6.Review some of the lines in the mentor poem and work backward to create a simple sentence
that might have been elaborated to create the line in the poem.
7.In their second draft, students elaborate on some (not all) of their sentences to include more de-

d. johnson . 2009
Lesson Plan . “Picture Poem” . Dan Johnson

8.Students highlight all verbs in the mentor poem.
9.Make a list of the power verbs (“squats,” “flounces,” “bulge”) in the mentor poem and discuss
other words that might have been used that would be less/more powerful.
10.Students highlight verbs in their own poem and try to replace some of them with more “power-
ful” verbs.
11.Reread the mentor poem out loud and ask the students to listen for places in the poem where
nearby words begin with the same sounds (“photograph fishing,” “sits squared”).
12.Discuss with students the poetic device alliteration.
13.Find places in the mentor poem where adjectives, adverbs, or other words could be added to
create other alliterations (“I am staring jealously at my bragging brother,” “My gracious grandfather
sits to the far right”). Make sure to discuss whether these new alliterations “fit” within the poem.
14.In their final draft, students find places in their own poem to create alliterations. They should
also be sure their new alliterations make sense.
15.Students find a new partner (who hasn’t seen their photos). Students read their poem to their
partner 1 to 3 times while their partner draws what the photo might look like. Students then share
the actual photo.

d. johnson . 2009
Lesson Plan . “Picture Poem” . Dan Johnson


I was four in this photograph fishing

with my grandparents at a lake in Michigan
My brother squats in poison ivy.
His Davy Crockett cap
sits squared on his head so the raccoon tail
flounces down the back of his sailor suit.

My grandfather sits to the far right

in a folding chair.
and I know his left hand is on
the tobacco in his pants pocket
because I used to wrap it for him
every Christmas. Grandmother's hips
bulge from the brush, she's leaning
into the ice chest, sun through the trees
printing her dress with soft
luminous paws.

I am staring jealously at my brother;

the day before he rode his first horse, alone
I was strapped in a basket
behind my grandfather.
He smelled of lemons. He's died-

but I remember his hands.

d. johnson . 2009