Recalling “The Luncheon Ladies” at Manassas Battlefield Park

In October 2010, I had a unique opportunity.  I got to read a poem and present a lesson plan through Journey Through Hallowed Ground’s “Of the Student, by the Student, for the Student”:

…the program began a multiyear effort working with middle schools and the Civil War National Parks within the Journey, starting with Manassas National Battlefield Park and Stonewall Middle School

I have to say, I was very nervous.  That might sound silly, considering I do have teaching experience, but most of my experience has been with adults.  Okay, actually all of my experience has been in adult education.  Getting up in front of a bunch of tweens scared the heck out of me even more than getting up in front of a bunch of Ph.D’s would have (though I can tell you I would find that experience nerve wracking as well, since I am not an academic).

I soon learned, though, that the kids really were interested in poetry and the battlefield so long as I could keep them engaged. This meant, “Don’t talk so much, Katherine.  Let them talk, and then let them do.”

Well, it worked.  By the end of the session, students had held a lively discussion and handed in a few lines of poetry, some of which packed a powerfully emotional and historic punch.

The lesson below is just a bare-bones guideline that grew into a hands-on experience.  We read the poem “The Luncheon Ladies” which describes the ladies who came to First Manassas to ‘watch the war.’  That poem has some seriously sensory elements.  For example, the poem references tarts.  So it dawned on me that to bring the students into the poem, it would be good to have some sensory objects available.

With the help of the awesome chaperones, I handed the students three things:  some straw from a bale of hay, a piece of taffeta  and a strawberry tart-like cookie, all provided by the JTHG staff.  These items allowed the students to better experience what it must have felt like to wear a fru-fru dress and sit in a field while eating tarts and waiting for the show to begin–except it didn’t turn out to be just a show.

After going through the reading, the lesson plan and sensory materials, I told the students that since they had already put themselves in the place of the “luncheon ladies,” next I would like them to write their short poem as if they were the men on the field.  I asked them questions like, “What do you think these men felt when they saw their wives or daughters or mothers sitting there watching?  What do you think they said to the ladies?”

As I mentioned before, the poems that came out of that exercise were impressive.

I am not writing this to pretend I am a great teacher of history (one should be a historian for that, and I am not a historian).  I am not writing this to announce a change in career and a move to middle school teaching.  I am saying, though, that if someone like me can get up and read poetry to kids and suck them into it, most anyone can.  It just takes the tools.

Okay, it takes a little nerve plus drama because if you don’t read a poem with emotion, you will generally lose your audience–unless you are famous, of course, which is another thing I am not. 🙂

Before Reading

Discuss Way to Read Poetry: Explain reading according to punctuation.

Discuss Imagery: Talk about the 5 senses and how they are used in poetry.  Explain that using imagery helps paint word pictures.  Use items for each sense (i.e. wool, hay, photos, etc).

Discuss Persona/Point of View: Talk about how poets can take on the persona of others.

Review Simile and Metaphor

Preview: Show them the book’s cover and read the author’s and illustrator’s names.

Build Background: Show children the rich illustrations throughout the book. Guide them to notice the time and place of the pictures.  Note pictures from the park.

Predict: Ask children to make various predictions about the book. “Why would someone write a book of poetry about a battlefield?  What is so important about a Civil War battlefield?”

Distribute: Hand out copies of the poem with photo on it.

Pre-Teach Vocabulary: Discuss briefly key concepts and vocabulary in the poem.  Point out words that indicate imagery and persona.

During Reading

First Reading: Have students read silently or whisper-read the text by themselves.

Read Orally: Read poem to the students.  Read with emotion.  Use hand and body gestures.

After Reading

  • Paraphrase: Have children paraphrase the poem.
  • Analyze: Have children pick out simile and persona.
  • Summarize: Summarize what was learned from the poem.
  • Connect: If the children have read, heard, or experienced related stories, ask them to make connections to the current poem. “How do you think the person in the poem must feel?  Have you ever felt like this, or have you seen a movie or read a book in which the person felt like this?  What kind of picture is being painted here? Have you tried to paint pictures with words before?”  Hand out and explain sensory objects.
  • Write: Write one or two lines of poetry.  Try to use persona and as many senses as possible.  Similes and metaphors are a plus!
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