Facilitating a Common Threads session


Mark Schorr  reflects on leading a Common Threads workshop. Common Threads is a  program of MassPoetry that seeks to have 10,000 people in the state read these seven poems in  April, National Poetry Month. Schorr  has a PhD in English and American Literature from Harvard University; he currently serves as the Executive Director of the Robert Frost Foundation in Lawrence; and he has been teaching at Cambridge College in Lawrence since 2004.

As a guest speaker in a colleague’s Learning to Learn class at Cambridge College, my modest goal for the 16 students and their teacher was to focus on Elizabeth Bishop’s “In The Waiting Room” as a basis for comparison to one or two other poems in the package. In the course of an hour and a half, I wanted  the group to develop some critical skills as the basis for their judgments about these seven poems. Here are my notes on my experience:

  • I provided a hard copy of the entire package for each group member. This allowed each to read the seven poems at a comfortable rate. The goal here was to set up all the material so that each poem introduced could receive a careful second read-through if and when the discussion focused on it. Here are the discussion questions from the kit offered to Common Threads leaders.  (5-10 minutes)
  • I did not assume that the students knew how to read out loud, that any of them liked poetry, or that they knew what questions to ask of a poem. Instead, I used a quick round of introductions focus on the question, “What was your prior experience with poetry?” to bring in each person’s background and biases. (20 minutes)
  •  I read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem aloud because I had recently heard that poem read well by Lloyd Schwartz, and I tried to give it the same bright reading. (10 minutes)
  • Made sure that there was one laptop with an Internet connection and an amplified speaker so the group was able to go to YouTube. They found reasonable audio renditions of each poem discussed, mostly from the Poetry Foundation’s website, and also found other more eclectic versions. (10 minutes)
  • Each time a new poem came into the discussion, we took the time as a group heard at least one rendition of the poem, and to read through the text carefully yet another time. (10 minutes for Pinsky’s “Samurai Song,” 10 minutes for Kevin Young’s “Ode to New England” )
  • There was great interest in Young’s language, so I focused on questions one and two from the packet, which brought this part of the discussion home by having each group member write a 4-5 line version of the New England ode. Several volunteered to read these versions, and the rest noted interesting features of language that each version focused on. (15-20 minutes)
  •  I did not reveal which poem was my favorite (among Robert Pinsky, Elizabeth Bishop or Kevin Young) Instead, I tried to have each understand each poem by gathering evidence from the text and by listening to the oral renditions of the poem that we were able to gather. (15-20 minutes)
  •  Encouraged further discussion of short YouTube clip of Pinsky’s “Samurai Song.” The group analyzed the Dutch director’s reasons for having Pinsky enter an elevator, reading the poem in transit, and finishing the poem as he exited the elevator. This led to a discussion of what some considered being the main theme of the poem self-sufficiency, and to other student readings of parts of Pinsky’s poem. (5-10 minutes)
  •  At this point, I returned to the five questions on page 7, and made sure the group could apply them to the poems that had entered the discussion. They would feel free to use them for the remaining poems about which we did not have time to talk.(10 minutes)
  • At the end of the discussion, I spent five minutes polling the students on their attitudes to the poems that they had just read and studied.
  •  Spent the remaining time introducing the festival website. In doing so, I showed the group how they could spend the day in Salem walking around the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (always with the set of questions on page 7 in their pocket!), experiencing the same kind of enjoyment as we had just experienced in the previous hour and one half.


Perhaps the most interesting student response was the question how was I able to know just how to read the poem out loud. I mentioned that a few weeks before, I had heard Lloyd Schwartz’s rendition in a public reading and that I tried to put some of the same brightness into the poem that he had added. We then listened to Miss Bishop’s very flat reading of the poem, and the students noticed a difference between the Schwartz approach and Miss Bishop’s rather laconic reading. Hearing these differences led to a discussion of versions and interpretations centering on questions four and five on page 7 about the music of the poem.