The Secret Code of Poetry: And the Art of Understanding It is a year-long poetry course for Catholic students that serves as a literature course for seventh, eighth, or ninth grade. The two essential items for the course are the student text and the student workbook. An optional book, The Secret Code of Poetry: Daily Lesson Plans, should be helpful for scheduling, but you can use the other two components without it.
The course is laid out in five units plus two concluding lessons for a total of 27 lessons. The style of the lessons varies depending upon the content. The course is a fairly sophisticated study of the structure of poems and poetic devices, and it pays equal attention to deciphering the meaning of poems—the literal and other layers of meaning embedded within poems.
Students are introduced to many classic poems within both the student text and the workbook. Poems that are used in the lessons are sometimes incorporated into the lesson, and there is also an anthology of more than 100 poems at the back of the text.
Students are to create their own poetry notebook where they will copy poems, write their own notes or questions, and maybe illustrate them.
The lessons gradually teach students how to analyze poems on many levels, such as the literal meaning, rhyme schemes, meter, organization, patterns (in sounds, meaning, imagery, etc.), and poetic elements (e.g., alliteration and metaphors). Students also learn to look up information about the author and types of poetry for which they are known to provide additional context.
Students will be assigned poems to memorize and recite, and they will sometimes get to choose their own poems.
Reading the introduction in the text is essential since it begins to introduce elements of poetry, and it is accompanied by the first of the workbook activities for students to complete. After the introduction, the first five lessons (Unit One) lay some groundwork. The assignment for the first lesson is to copy the poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib” in their poetry notebook, leaving the facing page blank for notes. At this point, students are told to pay attention to images and sounds that engage the emotions and the imagination, but they need not write out their notes on this unless they wish to. The rest of the lessons in this unit present more information about poems. Students will memorize “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” and Lesson Four has them copy William Blake’s “The Tiger” and begin memorizing it as well. By Lesson Five, they should have learned enough to begin analyzing the literal meaning, imagery, and the sounds found in “The Tiger,” and pages in the student workbook walk them through this, providing space for them to write their observations. The student workbook is an essential part of the course, but students will not work in it for every lesson.
The units gradually add more elements of poetry for students to analyze. The second and third units include workbook activities that help students apply what they are learning to poems mentioned in the textbook or additional poems. Students will also write and recite their own poem at the end of the third unit.
Units Two and Three cover a great deal of information, and each of these units has a substantial review with activities in the workbook. It might take students more than one day to complete each review! There are tests at the end of the first three units. At the back of the workbook is an answer key for the lesson and test questions that have predictable answers.
The fourth unit has two lessons that have students apply what they have learned by doing a multi-layered analysis of one of six poems—all six poems are included in the anthology. Students will also memorize and recite their chosen poem.
Unit Five goes in a different direction with a study of the history of poetry from ancient to modern times in a series of five lessons. Students will analyze, memorize and recite poems representative of the different eras. By the end of the course, students will have their own notebook full of copied poems that are accompanied by their own notes and commentary.
The conclusion consists of two lessons that are briefer and don’t have workbook activities. During the concluding lessons, students will add at least three more poems to their notebooks and memorize a poem of their choice. They are given a final project to write a report on one of the poets listed in the lesson.
The Secret Code of Poetry does an excellent job of teaching the mechanics of poetry, skills for analysis, and appreciation of many classic works. The skills learned here are likely to also apply to broader literary appreciation and understanding, and they should also contribute to improved writing skills.