In class today I introduced action verbs through two poems from the American Life in Poetry website. I chose “My Father’s Left Hand” and “Spitwads.” Both poems have some excellent action verbs like catapult and waggle. I read the poems aloud and had volunteers come up to the SmartBoard and circle some of the action verbs that stood out to them. Their classmates shouted suggestions (some of which were not always correct, but that allowed us to discuss the differences), and then we identified the strongest action verbs in each poem. We also addressed any words that weren’t verbs (and said why) and words that didn’t convey much action. For example, some students thought splat was an action verb in “Spitwads,” but it’s actually functioning as a noun. After we examined these two poems, I showed my students photographs and had them write a sentence about each photo that included at least one action verb. For students who wanted a challenge and wanted to show off their English swag*, I told them they could include two or more action verbs. To end class, they wrote a sentence on an index card as their ticket out the door and underlined the action verb in their sentence.
I have four sections of Pre-AP English II, and to entertain myself I sometimes change up the lesson in my later hours. In sixth hour, I asked all my students to act out the motions of the father’s hand in the first poem I read aloud. Each time I read a new action verb, their motions changed, which helped to emphasize the difference between a “blah, vanilla” verb and an action verb. In seventh hour, I decided to have a drama student stand in front of the class and act out the hand motions. One student suggested we turn off the lights for dramatic effect, but I thought we wouldn’t be able to see him. “I’ll help!” one student announced, and he shined his iPhone like a spotlight on the drama student’s hand. He did a terrific job, and afterward, I thanked him and told the class “to give him a hand.” We laughed at my unintentional pun and clapped for him.
All this to say, it wasn’t until seventh hour that a student (actually, it was the spotlight-er) thought to ask what the father’s right hand was doing. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that the father had probably had a stroke. He couldn’t move his right hand at all! That’s why his left hand did so many actions like flutter, flap, and fall. At the end of the poem, the father’s hand trembles “until it’s still,” indicating he has fallen asleep. One student in sixth hour interpreted this lack of motion as death, but I disagreed with him.
What do you think?
My Father’s Left Hand by David Bottoms
Sometimes my old man’s hand flutters over his knee, flaps
in crazy circles, and falls back to his leg.
Sometimes it leans for an hour on that bony ledge.
And sometimes when my old man tries to speak, his hand waggles
in the air, chasing a word, then perches again
on the bar of his walker or the arm of a chair.
Sometimes when evening closes down his window and rain
blackens into ice on the sill, it trembles like a sparrow in a storm.
Then full dark falls, and it trembles less, and less, until it’s still.
*I use the word swag not to sound cool, but to make my students dislike this annoying term. If their 30-year-old teacher says swag enough, maybe they’ll stop using it themselves. Ha!