Language Arts: Ready for Page Three

Hillary Lerner
Coming into the classroom, there is a buzz of excitement. “Are we doing page three today?” a student inquires enthusiastically – a question that has become part of the routine during the 8th-grade poetry unit.
Page three in our poetry anthology is Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” a deceptively simple looking poem involving only one-syllable words. The class has been itching to discuss it for weeks as it is different from anything else we have looked at and appears to be a straightforward piece that may feel like a break from the intellectual complexities of John Donne, Emily Dickinson, or Yehuda Amichai. I wait on “We Real Cool” until almost the end of the poetry unit. Short as it may be, simple as the individual words on the page may appear, it has a much deeper meaning than what is on the surface, and at the end of the class study of poetry, students are finally ready to jump in. 
“It’s written in rhyming couplets,” someone offers, but others disagree. Can it be in couplets when it is using mid-line rhyme?  Don’t all of the lines rhyme? The last one doesn’t, does that mean something important? Right away students debate with each other about the meaning of the rhyme. They posit that the mid-line nature of the rhyme could indicate that the “we” becomes cut off from their lives and choices. They consider the significance of the repetition of “we” as a line-end that does not continue to the last stanza as though with death “we” are cut off and the poem, in terms of its structures and meter, cut short. They consider the word choice. What once appeared simple becomes an intricate way of drawing in precisely those most vulnerable to the perils described in the poem. By selecting simple, common language, Brooks is able to reach a disaffected, poorly educated group of young people more easily. She is literally speaking their language. The line use of enjambment where Brooks chooses to break the lines in different places from the ends of sentences makes the poem appear disjointed and choppy like the lives these people end up spiraling into. The fact that one sentence moves onto the next line shows that once one decision is made, the people cannot help but make the next poor choice – they are already sucked in.
Once the class is able to take this poem and dissect it so completely, they are ready for independent work. Each 8th grader has recently completed their own poetry anthology selecting and analyzing four poets of their choice and connecting them in some way. One student examined poetry through the eyes of refugees, another delved deeply into poets who use complicated imagery, others selected emotions to express such as darkness. For all of their poets, they were able to analyze each selected poem in a profound way so that in their writing it becomes clear that Shel Silverstein has the same precision of language and structure as William Shakespeare. They are able to pull the profound out of favorite poems from their childhood and see the why behind the ways in which poets write. They are also able to stretch themselves and see what is now the familiar in traditionally difficult and dense poetry. By the end of the unit, they see why we did not read page three early on.
“We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks from The Bean Eaters published 1959
We real cool.  We
Left school.  We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon.