Some students absolutely love poetry. But for many, it’s just not their thing. And that’s totally fine! As English teachers we don’t have to convince every student to love what we love, but we can give them a way to start to understand this genre that alludes many people (not just high school students). One way to do this is by using the TP-CASTT method early in your unit on poetry if you do a separate unit for poetry.
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What does TP-CASTT mean?
The TP-CASTT organizer is a means to complete a step-by-step analysis of poetry. The steps are: T = Title, P = Paraphrase, C = Connotation, A = Attitude/Tone, S = Shift, T = Title (again), and T = Theme. By analyzing a poem using a step-by-step method, students are strongly guided through key elements, including poetry terms, to establish understanding.
The focus of teaching the TP-CASTT method is to give students a tool that guides them to independently analyze poetry. You can use a variety of poems. If you teach 9th or 10th grade students, a good poem to start with is “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. It’s a poem that can likely relate to other works you’ve studied as a class as the themes have to do with oppression and showing a false self in order to self preserve. Some of the language of this poem is easy for many students to understand, but there is higher-level vocabulary that many students will have to look up, so it can be an appropriate challenge. It’s also a great one to do for TP-CASTT because it only has 3 stanzas, making it short enough to show students how the strategy works without taking your whole class period.
If this poem doesn’t work for you or your class, there are multiple options available in the resources for this lesson, as well as through the websites www.poets.org or www.poetryfoundation.org. Search through yourself and make selections for students so you can select suitable options for your classes.
Before you jump right in to teaching the TP-CASTT strategy, I suggest warming up with listening to an episode of the podcast Poetry Unbound. The episodes are short – usually 10 minutes or less – and focus on a reading and some analysis of a poem. Our resource has several suggested options for great episodes. Students should record their own observations of the poem featured in the episode. Then, provide students a few minutes to discuss the poem in pairs, small groups, or as a whole class.
Poetry Terms Reference Sheet
Next, give students a reference sheet for poetry terms. These terms mean something when applied to poetry, but just looking at a bunch of terms without much context doesn’t serve a purpose. Therefore, be sure to tell students that this is a reference sheet that they’ll use during this lesson and future lessons, but no need to memorize the whole set of terms right now.
The handout in our resource features 15 definitions of poetry terms that students can use throughout the unit.
Class Practice With the TP-CASTT strategy
Once students have taken a cursory look at the definitions, share a copy of the text of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear The Mask” and a copy of the TP-CASTT handout (included here). You’ll guide students through each section of the strategy.
Title: Students should look at the title and make initial observations and guesses about what the poem might be about. What might it have relate to? This stage is completed before students read the poem.
Paraphrase: Students paraphrase each stanza in words that they understand. Some poems tell a story while others describe a feeling or condition. Regardless of the topic or purpose of the poem, in this stage, students should just paraphrase on a literal level. In this stage students would also need to look up any unfamiliar words.
Connotation: For this stage students should think about specific words in the poem that could represent something beyond the literal meaning of the word. This works well for “We Wear The Mask” because mask is a pretty obvious symbol that most students can pick up on. They should write down what “mask” might represent here as well as any other words that might have a meaning beyond the literal. This is an area where students should mention any terms from their reference sheet and the role they play in the poem such as allusions, symbolism, figurative language, imagery, personification, and so on.
Attitude: Here students will think about the attitude conveyed in the text. What is the emotion of the speaker? What words indicate that? Why might the speaker be expressing that emotion? Again, this works well with “We Wear the Mask” because there is one main attitude, and it is clearly established from the first line of the poem. You can ask students what specific words and phrases suggest a feeling/emotion/attitude and this can show how powerful the role of every word in a short poem is. For instance consider how much emotion is expressed in the line “with torn and bleeding hearts we smile.”
Shift: Is there any shift in tone in this poem? Many poems contain this shift, but some do not. Key words that could indicate a shift might be “but,” “although,” or “yet.” If there is a shift, students should write down how this affects the message of the poem.
Title: Now students examine the title again. What do they think the title means now that they have looked more closely at the poem?
Theme: The theme of the poem is a one sentence “takeaway” message. This can be difficult for many students to determine, but it is a powerful piece of the process of understanding and analyzing poetry. Once students have completed the work for paraphrasing, thinking about connotations, and thinking about attitude, they should be able to at least attempt to define the theme for the poem. The theme for “We Wear the Mask” could be “people often cover up their true feelings in order to self-preserve.”
The theme is a one-sentence message that goes beyond the poem and often suggests a truth about humanity and how we live.
If you need a more in depth lesson for teaching theme (in the context of stories), check out this blog post: A Fantastic Lesson For Teaching Theme.
Independent Practice for TP-CASTT
Depending on how my students are doing I will then have them work in pairs or solo to analyze a poem using their TP-CASTT handout. Another accessible poem for early high school students is Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing With Feathers.” You can circle around the room to informally check for understanding.
For homework or in class the next day, you can have students complete another independent practice where they select their own poem from one of the poetry websites you give them or have them choose a song that love and have them complete a TP-CASTT for that song.
End the class with a discussion about when a TP-CASTT might be useful for poetry analysis. Ask what parts of TP-CASTT helped them understand the poem more? Ask what parts of the process where the hardest. Listen to wear they are in their journey of understanding poetry.
Your Free Lesson For Teaching TP-CASTT:
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