Encourage distance learners with creative “Color Poems”

Invite students to play with language and color during this most unusual of fall seasons.

I subscribe to The Paris Review’s Daily Poem blog and everyday in my email inbox I receive a poem that gives me something interesting to think about. I read these emails nearly every time to see if the poem-of-the-day inspires an idea I can explore with my students.

About a month ago in one of those emails, I noticed a poem titled “Yellow” by American poet Kay Ryan. Here’s that poem:

Photo by Anton Darius on Unsplash
Yellow is the most
primary of the colors,
owing nothing to any
of the others. Many
descendants come back
repentant and sullied
to celebrate yellow’s
anniversary, but yellow
is unapproachable, not
antisocial but not
interested in sitting
at the table with
tainted yolks or
nouveaux chartreuses
or any of the other
abuses of the palette.
Yellow’s indifferent
to blue’s inducements
and despises orange,
red’s bastard coinage.
He’s selfish, yes you
could say he’s selfish:
but it is Spring’s wish
just at this brief
first note before her
fantasia to soft petal
every shade but acacia.

Wasn’t that fun?!

I like how Ryan’s poem personifies the sunniest of colors. She adds unexpected dimension and surprising personality to this bright hue by applying emotions and motives to the color.

In addition, Ryan’s poem packs of punch of new, interesting vocabulary to introduce and revel in. Sullied. Tainted. Fantasia. Acacia. Wow!

Upon reading the poem three or four times (it’s that rich with meaning!), it occurred to me that students might do well with writing a poem based on this idea with a color of their own choosing.

American poet and educator Kay Ryan | Poetry Foundation

To investigate the idea further, I decided to write a color poem about the color “rust,” using Ryan’s as inspiration. Also, just for fun, I published it on my writing portfolio blog. Here’s my color poem titled “Rust:”

Photo by Zsolt Palatinus on Unsplash
Rust is the inescapable 
color of weakness and 
an erratic reacquaintance. 
He's the embarrassing residue 
oxidizing at the edge 
of iron's brawn. 
A popular environmentalist, 
he was a favorite at the 
very first Earth Day in 1970. 
Unlike his obstinate cousin, 
Rust also goes by 
Copper Mountain. 
Crayons know him as 
Burnt Sienna. 
Redheads call him Ginger. 
The tint of McRib, 
he imitates the 
machine-formed pork hero: 
in and out of our lives -- 
back for a limited time -- 
and then gone for months 
(or years) on end.

I am mostly happy with the result, but I also know it’s merely a start.

My real intention with writing “Rust” was to provide students an example written by someone other than the famed Ryan.

I also wanted to give students some ideas for what they could include in their poems, such as:

  • some practice with personification
    • Students think creatively when they imagine colors as people with emotions, preferences, and relationships with others.
  • some history of their color
    • For example, I did some quick online research to learn that the color rust was shown in color palettes that reflected the world’s first Earth Day.
  • some alternative names for their color
    • For example, I googled some paint palettes from the 1970s in order to find some alternative names for “rust.” That’s where Copper Mountain, yam, and others were found.
  • some color wheel knowledge
    • Researching basic color theory may help students when they discuss how how their color relates to other colors.
  • some unexpected allusions
    • That’s where my obscure reference to the McRib came into play. I like the playful edge it gives to my poem and I like how it lightens the mood of my lines.

To help students wrap their minds around this idea, I created the handout pictured below and assigned the poem using Google Classroom.

Download the PDF file of this handout:

The back of the sheet contains the two mentor texts.

I assigned the poem on a Tuesday to be due the following Tuesday and asked kids, among the other details shown on the sheet above, to write a poem 15-25 lines long.

Most students seemed to enjoy this project!

Below, I’ve shared the poems that were turned in by three of my students, two juniors and one senior.

As I read the poems my students turned in, I enjoyed noticing their color choices. After all, the colors we choose to write about do reflect a bit about our personalities. In addition, it was interesting to see how well the students used the mentor texts to inspire the information they included in their verses.

I enjoyed this one so much. I especially enjoyed the variety of imagery the author included. That horse’s saddle that shines in the light of the arena! So visual!
The personification on this one is effective. I especially notice the question the writer asks in his poem. Yes, the final two lines are unclear, and if we submit this for a contest later this fall, we’ll fix that, but overall, this student had success with this poem structure.
This handwritten poem explores the variety of names we can apply to good ol’ purple. Get a load of “heliotrope!”

This was a fun experimental project to try, and I intend to refine it for next time.

One idea I’ve already thought about adding: asking students to find copyright-free images to illustrate their poems, similar to the photos of the yellow leaves and rust corrosion I included above the mentor poems in this post. To be sure, that would add a multi-media dimension to this project.

In closing, so many of my high school students are grappling with the challenges of learning at home and keeping up with myriad assignments… while also continuing to maintain part-time jobs and household responsibilities. It was my hope that this poem would allow them to play with language and color during this most unusual of fall seasons.

For more ELA teaching ideas, news about student writing contests — plus more poetry ideas — enter your email below to receive my monthly newsletter. In return, you’ll receive this Treasured Object Poem guideline sheet to teach your students how to write these highly personal and expressive poems. It’s one of my absolute favorite poetry projects!

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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