300-Level Understanding Poetry (Writing-Intensive)


Virtually all students do revisions of their essays. I purposely don't compare the one I get [draft] with the one I grade [final]. I don't want that to influence me one way or another until I write the final comment. Then I look back and see whose it is because I want to write a personal comment. I still don't try to figure out what specific changes are made between the draft and final paper. But I guess the theory is that every time you get students to rewrite there's going to be some improvement. Most students get better at writing. -- Professor Todd Sammons

The writing helped me to learn the content because just sitting in class and discussing it is helpful, but when you actually write it down and understand it, that's really when you learn and remember it . . . those are the things that stick with me and that really make me think . . . -- Student


The primary objective of the course is to learn how to read, talk about, and write on poetry. Students survey the history of English lyric poetry from the Middle English through modern periods and discuss in-depth the variety and range of the poetry. Through peer letter-writing, essays, and individual projects, students develop analytical skills to understand and appreciate an often-misunderstood, perplexing genre.



Students write Monday/Wednesday/Friday letters for one another and the instructor. They decide on the content of their letters, though the discussion must be analytical and relevant to the assigned poems. Students write their letters on poems and readings assigned by the instructor. He recommends that students write something they find personally appealing. Each letter should be a one-page, single-spaced letter addressed to the class and instructor, duplicated and distributed to the class on the day the class meets. Letters need not be polished pieces of writing such as essays; however, letters should be focused, clear, and grammatically correct. (Click here to see Instructor's Guidelines for the M/W/F letters.)

In the beginning letter writing was a chore, but I began to realize how much it was helping me to be more objective. I've learned to be more thoughtful in both reading and writing. --Student
Students read the letters on their own time; occasionally, the ideas in the letters are discussed in class.

The letters are graded on quantity and quality. For the quantitative portion of the grade, the instructor constructs a scale determining the number of letters required to earn from an A+ to F. For example, students who write twelve of the twenty-one letters possible earn an A+; six letters equals a C; four or fewer letters are equivalent to an F. The qualitative portion of the grade is determined by the analytical discussion in each letter. The instructor grades all the letters, then computes the qualitative grade by averaging the grades on each student's five best letters.

The peer letters are a terrific disciplinary device. The student is encouraged to read, analyze, and synthesize the material. Since I am a creative writer, the letters afford me the opportunity to write for an audience. Practice. Practice. Practice. -- Student
PURPOSE: The letters provide students with frequent practice in poetic analysis and the use of technical vocabulary. Students engage in conversations about the study of poetry with their peers and the instructor. When students write for audiences other than the instructor only, they exert more effort in the crafting of the writing so that careful editing and proofreading are natural steps in the process. The letter format also frees students to be more imaginative, more willing to risk ideas, even more eager to read the interpretations of others in the classroom.

Since there are twenty-one possible letters that can be written during the semester, students may choose which poems to write about and still earn an A+ for the quantitative grade. The one-page limit not only forces students to be focused and succinct, but also makes the reading of a number of letters manageable.

Letter writing helped me the most in learning the content of the course. We needed to know about the different authors and their works and be able to analyze them. –Student 
Students are required to write three essays, each increasingly more difficult than the prior essay and all based on analytical skills learned through the semester. The first three-page essay is an explication of a poem each student selects from among three possibilities. Students determine the central situation of the poem, the audience, and the poetic techniques employed by the author. These three objectives are derived from a heuristic the instructor uses for the reading of a poem and introduced early in the semester.

The second essay is a five-page analysis of the metrical and sound patterns of a poem selected by the student from the course text, an anthology. The third essay is a seven-page summary and evaluation of a critical article on a specific poem. Students prepare drafts of each essay, meet in peer review groups (see Related Activities below), and receive instructor feedback. Students are strongly encouraged to revise their essays before submitting a final copy. Essays 1 and 2 are worth up to five points each for the course grade; Essay 3 is worth up to ten points.

PURPOSE: In each of the essays, students demonstrate their understanding and evaluation of a poem. Specifically, they apply strategies for reading poetry such as trying to determine a poem's context, imagery, language, musical devices, metrical patterns, and poetic form. The essays, a more formal analysis compared to the weekly peer letters, are an evaluative tool to determine if students are really learning the course content. The essay becomes the mode for more detailed discussions of a poem's sense and methods.

For their last major out-of-class writing, students select from several options a "creative" project worth ten points of the course grade. For example, students may select at least twelve poems (a "mini-anthology") grouped together for reasons discussed by the student in a five- to ten-page essay. The students may also read a book of poems by any single poet, select one of the poems to represent the poet, and write an essay justifying their selection in terms of the rest of the poems in the book. Or students read a book of poems selected from a particular era or dealing with a special topic or printing only a certain kind of poem. The student selects one of the poems to represent the era, the topic, or the genre, and writes a lengthy essay justifying the selection. Other options are writing a parody of a poem with an accompanying essay explaining the parody and justification for its effectiveness, or writing a poem and explaining the student's writing process, the poem's intended meaning, and any influences on the writing of the poem.

PURPOSE: The main intent of the individual project is to have students select a project of personal interest and to extend the analytical skills learned in the course. Students have a broader, less confining menu of options and can apply lessons in form, structure, and language sense by composing their own poems. Interestingly, each of the options requires a detailed essay requiring the student to explain and justify his/her choice(s) or poem in the language characteristic of poetic analysis.

Students keep a written record, usually a few sentences, of their reactions to personal reading in the anthology. In addition to the assigned reading, they are expected to read and respond briefly to other poems in the text. The logs are graded by the number of pages the student has read by the mid-term date and by the last day of class. For example, only five pages read per class session earns a D, whereas twenty-five or more pages per class session results in an A+ for this portion of the course grade.

PURPOSE: Students' daily log of reactions, questions, comments about this self-selected reading provides a record of their ongoing growth in understanding poetry. The grade, determined by quantity of pages read, is not punitive, and rewards students for going beyond the course requirements. Students are constantly practicing their analytical skills in an informal, fairly easy format.

The midterm consists of multiple-choice items and essay questions. In the final examination students are given two poems and asked to explain what characterizes one poem as pre-twentieth century and the other as written during the twentieth century. Students are given additional poems to evaluate. The midterm and final exam are each worth ten points for the course grade.

PURPOSE: Students demonstrate their ability to use the analytic tools to read poems carefully, to identify the traits of pre-modern and modern poetry, and to evaluate ineffective versus effective poetry.


After each essay students apply variations of peer review techniques to their writing. In a procedure directed by the instructor, students read each other's drafts quickly and write comments about the drafts. (Click here to see the Peer Response Sheet .) When the instructor calls time, students must pass the draft and comment sheet to the next reader. However, students are not permitted during the session to discuss verbally the drafts they are reading. The intent is to read and to respond to as many student drafts possible during the class period. Students also submit to the instructor photocopies of their essays with their names written on the copies. After students have peer reviewed essays in class, they receive the written feedback from their peers the same day, and the instructor takes home the photocopies. The instructor turns over the title page before reading each essay so that the identity of each student does not influence his feedback. His comments, written on a separate sheet attached to the draft, are returned with drafts to the students at another session. It's good to see other people's writing in the peer review. It was helpful to see how they wrote the essay and then being able to critique someone else's writing. Once those of us who wrote about the same poem got together to discuss how we wrote the essay and our different approaches to the poem. That was even more helpful because you could have the give-and-take of questions or say, 'I see that's what you meant,' or ask 'Well, what about this?'-- Student
For the first essay the instructor places students into groups that have read and written about the same poem. They are directed specifically to discuss the student's analysis of the poem and to overlook format and conventions. After reading the first paragraph of a student's essay, students state what they think is the central idea of the essay. Students switch papers and read only the last paragraph, then compare it to the opening paragraph for similar ideas. The papers are switched again, read entirely, then students select the least effective paragraph. All comments/suggestions are written on individual sheets of paper attached to each essay under analysis. The draft and comment sheet are handed to the next reader. Finally students each take home another student's essay and write a letter to the student proposing suggestions for improvement. The process usually takes the entire class period. For the second essay students undergo the same process of peer evaluation as they did for the first essay.

The peer review process for the third essay differs from the review on previous essays. Students are provided a "peer editing sheet" with specific instructions to read a student's essay thoroughly, then to summarize the student's use of articles supporting his/her interpretation of a poem. In the second part of the peer review, students evaluate the essay using a rubric developed by the instructor. The criteria include an evaluation of the essay's organization, use of examples, cohesiveness, writing style, and reader-interest. The remaining directions to the students are to cite the essay's most convincing paragraph, then to select the least effective paragraph and suggest ways to revise this paragraph. If there is time, students analyze the use of quotations in the essay. As essays are passed from student to student, each student responds to the next set of directions on the peer editing sheet. When the original essay returns to the writer, he/she receives one peer editing sheet with feedback from up to five different students.

At the end of each peer review session, students have the option of submitting the essay as is or revising the essay after reading the feedback from their peers and the instructor. Even after receiving a grade, students may revise an essay based on consultation with the instructor.

PURPOSE: Through peer review, students learn from their peers the multiple interpretations or readings of a poem, varied applications of strategies for reading a poem ( e.g. imagery, context, figurative language), and different writing styles. Students also receive immediate, specific feedback from their peers, as well as the instructor, which may be consulted in the revision of essays. Many students gain self-confidence about their writing while those less-skilled learn how to write essays by reading the competent work of others in the class. Peer review is collaborative, allowing for many voices to be heard and consulted.

I must compliment our instructor for the care with which he assigned the peer review to our drafts. I received excellent reader feedback, which helped me to target the less competent areas of my essay. Then when I later read my instructor's feedback, I noticed several weaknesses cited in common with those of my peers. Furthermore, the excellent peer review sheet helped me to explicate a rather tricky metaphysical poem. His neatly typed comments and suggestions about style show a dedication to the teaching profession which is too often lacking. The care with which he reads our work inspires us to take greater care with the work we turn in. --Student
Students are required to meet with the instructor at the beginning of the semester to discuss what they perceive are their writing strengths and weaknesses, and any other concerns. Throughout the semester students are invited to continue talking with the instructor to discuss their written work with him. Very often students bring to the conferences their drafts, the feedback received during peer review, and the instructor's written comments.

PURPOSE: In a class where writing is the primary mode of evaluation and record of one's learning, periodic meetings with the instructor are most helpful to the student in addition to specific written feedback. Students can ask the instructor to clarify the written feedback or to ask for help with points not addressed by his/her peers or the instructor (e.g. references to articles, specific grammar problems). In the initial conference, the instructor begins to establish rapport with his students and conveys the idea that his role is to guide and encourage students to build on their writing weaknesses and develop their writing strengths. From self-awareness and self-assessment students can work toward improving their writing skills.

Professor Sammons comments on his class (excerpts from an interview):

The history of peer letters actually stems from problems dealing with lower-level literature classes. How do you get students to do the reading before they come to class? My first solution to this problem was to give quizzes. I started to do that . . . but it seemed that there were problems with the quizzes. You had to design the quiz, you had to use class time to give it, then you had to grade it. Plus it's punitive. My next step was to go to something I learned about journals. So I told students to write in their journals before class, usually on a topic I assigned before the next class meeting, like 'pre-reading' exercises. Then I found out from Roger Whitlock, a colleague in the English Department, that he assigns 'Monday' letters. It was a very simple idea--students write a letter for distribution to class at the beginning of every week. It didn't have to be analytic writing. These are distributed to everyone, and it was a way of getting other voices in the classroom. It also had the effect of getting students to do the reading. This was a wonderful idea. I started doing this about six years ago. At the sophomore level I frequently use the letters as the basis of class discussion.

I do something that Roger doesn't which is grade the letters. . . I decided that these letters took so much of the student's time that I really wanted to reward them for it. I split the grade into two parts: frequency and quality. . . Even if they get a B, which is very rare, the average together [quantity and quality] is a pretty good grade. . . . Sometimes for some students it's just an exercise to get a grade, but most of the students really care about the writing of their letter, which they are writing to the class and not necessarily me. They don't want to look foolish. It's a good way of getting other interpretations and other voices in the classroom. . . . What I do for the first couple of letters is try to indicate which ones are best and why. The other thing is that writing these letters is really self-correcting. . . . They can see which letters are the better ones. Everyone gets a B or an A. I save my stringency for the essays.

Frankly, one of the things that really surprises me about this whole business of reading their peers' papers in class is just the whole P.R. of reading other students' papers, the sort of confidence that inspires them. They'll say, 'Mine's not so bad' or 'Mine is better than that' or 'I really should have done it that way.' I want them to read many different papers rather than just one quickly -- it's almost like holistic scoring. Some feedback is good, some not so good. That may not be the most important thing.

I'm leaning toward some sort of structured feedback in the peer review. I think that's the way to go. Sometimes I think there are real obstacles to students taking instructors' feedback, obstacles that have nothing to do with anything except some sort of problem with authority. . . . One of the things I'm inching toward is identifying mentors among the class to help students who are having some trouble.