I became the Director of Secondary English Language Arts for the Oklahoma State Department of Education in July 2018. My friends have often asked me, “Do you miss the classroom?” I certainly miss getting to teach students, and I recently had an opportunity to teach a lesson at my former school district of thirteen years.
Katy Carmincke invited me to be a guest teacher for her Creative Writing 2 students at Deer Creek High School. I taught some of these students in Creative Writing 1 two years ago. I immediately knew I would teach a poem of some kind. I landed on Sherman Alexie’s Fibonacci sequence poem “Requiem for a Pay Phone,” published in Shampoo in 2009. I liked this as a mentor text because of its surprising and strange organization of stanzas based on syllable growth and reduction. Take a read:
I wanted my lesson to be as student-driven as possible, so I developed a lesson with an inquiry approach. As far as handouts, I needed the original poem, and then I created another handout that included the poem with alternate line and stanza breaks, an explanation of the Fibonacci sequence, and some definitions for requiem and elegy.
The day of the lesson was a Friday. I arrived at the end of lunch, a couple minutes before the bell rang for class. Mrs. Carmincke introduced me to her students, and then I took over. The class was fifty minutes long.
I began the lesson by explaining that we would be studying a poem. First, I wanted students to simply listen to it, to focus on its content. (I didn’t want them to get distracted by the unique structure quite yet.) I read the poem aloud, and then asked students to turn and talk with a neighbor about what they noticed about the poem’s speaker and anything else about the poem. Then we shared out as a whole class. One student said, “So it’s gonna be one of those poems.” I nudged her to explain more. “You know, like it’s a romance thing. He likes her and doesn’t want her to get with other guys,” she said.
Then I passed out the original poem to students. Now they could see the Fibonacci structure, even if they didn’t know the formula quite yet. I wanted them to discover that on their own. Once everyone had a copy of the poem, I said we needed to hear the poem again. Since students had already heard me read, I felt confident that a student could now read it fairly well. I asked for a volunteer and got one. She was one of my former students who sometimes had a stutter, but she read the poem smoothly. Then I asked students to use their pencils, pencils, and/or highlighters to annotate the poem. “Mark anything that stands out to you, that you are curious about,” I said. Once they had had some time on their own, I asked them to compare their notes with a partner and to add any further annotations to the poem. Then we shared aloud as a whole class.
Students pointed out a number of things:
- the way the stanzas get bigger and then smaller
- the use of “all that” at the beginning and end of the poem
- how the beginning and ending of the poem are the most powerful
- the wonderful phrase “mosquito dark”
- theories on who the speaker was–including wondering if he was a psychotic ex or if he was engaging in self sabotage
- how the broken lines and stanzas reinforce an idea of cut-up thoughts
- how the pay phone could be a symbol for a deep desire
Students had not gotten precise enough about the Fibonacci sequence yet, so I asked them to count the number of syllables in each stanza. I modeled a couple lines for them: “All–one. That–one. Autumn–two. I walked from–three. Now look at the bottom of the poem. Is there a pattern you see?” I asked. As students continued to count and label the stanza’s syllables, the room buzzed louder with energy and excitement. “At this point do you even need to count the syllables for the longest stanzas?” I asked. “All you need to do is some basic math: 13 plus 21 is…34.”
By this point, the class period was winding down. We had been interrupted by the intercom for the principal to announce the school’s teacher of the year. I had been so involved in the lesson that I had not been paying attention to time. We only had about fifteen minutes left. I had to abandon my plan to have students determine a definition for what a requiem was.
Now that students had investigated the Fibonacci sequences, I wanted to show them the poem in a different format. I had reformatted it to reflect a more traditional structure with relatively equal line lengths organized into five stanzas:
I passed out the second handout and asked students to compare and contrast the two different versions. Students agreed that the original poem by Alexie had more emotion and that his structure helped to create a more interesting and relatable speaker. I had had a guiding question prepared for this (How do the Fibonacci breaks affect/change/impact the poem?), but students basically got there on my own without any nudging.
Finally, I had students brainstorm some ways to use this poem as some inspiration for their own writing. I stressed to them they did not have to respond by writing a poem; they could write anything. I felt that an obvious answer would be to write a requiem for another inanimate object, but none of the students landed on that. Instead, they came up with these four ideas:
- Through prose, write the back story that informs this poem.
- Use a specific/unique form of structure to create emotion in a piece of writing.
- Write the scene of dialogue for the very last time the speaker called and learned to let go. (Students had decided this was a doomed relationship.)
- Write another Fibonacci sequence poem from the perspective of the person being called.
At some point toward the end of the lesson, as students continued to theorize about the obsessive and perhaps creepy nature of the poem’s speaker, I could not help but reveal to them that Sherman Alexie has admitted to harassing women. This news broke during the #MeToo movement, and I was absolutely devastated to hear the news. I wrote my master’s paper over Alexie. As a class, we talked about what it means to like an author or actor’s work versus the author or actor themself. Bill Cosby came up as an example.
We concluded the class with a group picture. I was struck with how very quickly the fifty minutes flew by. We didn’t even have time to write anything in response, which I really would have liked. If this were my classroom, we would have taken some time the following class period to write in response to “Requiem for a Pay Phone.” Alas, I had to bid farewell, but it was so wonderful to be back in the classroom, albeit for less than an hour.