Ekphrastic poem mentor texts by high school students

Use art to hone descriptive writing skills

Six examples of ekphrastic poems written by my students

Images of the artworks that inspired each poem

A link to my mini-lesson handout

In November, I posted about a lesson I was planning to teach on ekphrastic poetry. Well, I’m happy to say that the lesson was taught and the poems were written. At the conclusion of that previous post, I indicated that I would soon pass along to you some examples of the poems written by my students. This post will do just that.

In case you’re unfamiliar with ekphrastic poetry…

An ekphrastic poem is a poem written in response to or about a work of art. These poems will naturally hone your students’ descriptive writing skills, as well as help them engage creatively with art and words.

For a classic ekphrastic poem, show students Ode on a Grecian Urn by the Romantic Era poet John Keats.

According to the Poetry Foundation website

“An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.”

Poetry Foundation

Without further ado, six of my students’ poems from that November lesson appear below. (Feel free to use them as examples for your students as they embark on creating their own ekphrastic poems.)

It’s amazing how each artwork below reflects the unique interests of each of these students.

Here’s the link to the handout:

Here’s the link to the ekphrastic poetry handout I created for my classes. And by the way, this was also a project students could choose for our writer’s workshop portfolios! If you choose to incorporate an ekphrastic poem into your workshop, this handout makes a great info sheet for students to reference as they work.

One more note: I recommend that students NOT randomly search “Google images” for art, but to instead peruse Google Arts and Culture for a juried source of masterworks.


…for many students, viewing and responding to art is uncharted territory. To that end, ekphrastic poetry is a good way to expose students to art they might never have reason to investigate or ponder.

In addition, I like that ekphrastic poetry shows high school students a new way to express themselves while developing their descriptive writing skills and providing practice in word choice, imagery, and sensory language.

If you’ve never tried ekphrastic poetry with your students, give it a try. I think you’ll all enjoy it!

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Featured Photo by Yamaitrop Vioreenlack on Unsplash

Resources for Everyman, the Morality Play

A media mix brings Everyman to life

My senior British literature classes ended the first semester with a study of Everyman, the 1510 morality play.

Again, just as with The Canterbury Tales and Le Morte d’Arthur, I felt challenged to find a supplemental text and activities as a result of the minimal two-page treatment our older textbook devoted to the play. When barely two pages of a translated Everyman script appear in the text, it makes it difficult for readers to recognize the importance of the literature. Therefore, my job was to find other materials in order to make Everyman come alive for my students.

Morality plays visited medieval villages and presented pageants.
This medieval village may have, at one time in the high Middle Ages, have hosted travelling miracle plays and eventually morality plays. | Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

And in the end, I did manage to create lessons and activities that — based on reflections written by my students at semester’s end (plus test scores, obviously) — resulted in engaged students and knowledge gained.

In case you’re unfamiliar with this play, Everyman represents the beginning of English theater and is the best surviving example of a kind of medieval drama known as the “morality play.” Everyman uses allegory to present a message prevalent in British society — and Europe, in general — that good deeds are necessary to earn salvation in the afterlife. This theme illustrates that the play was written before the Protestant Reformation when Europe was largely dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.

Despite its rather didactic religious overtones, Everyman can be great fun!

That’s why, in addition to some basic publisher-supplied worksheets to help my students learn some vocabulary and context, I decided to have students perform and watch Everyman rather than read it from a textbook.

To that end, I’ve included some basic details about the materials I used. Here are those Everyman resources:

1. Stage Performance: Splendid Productions’ Everyman

This play, professionally produced and performed by a theater troupe in the United Kingdom, captivated my students with its unusual scenery, ridiculous humor, outrageous characters, and creative treatment of the medieval play.

Actors perform Everyman, the Morality Play
The character Friendship entices Everyman with a funny proposition in Splendid Productions’ version of Everyman, the morality play. Photo: Splendid Productions

The play lasts 55 minutes. Since watching it, plus having a short discussion couldn’t quite be squeezed into my sixty-minute class, I spread Everyman across two class periods, watching about forty minutes of it one day, and then finishing on the following day.

I created this fun Everyman “playbill” for my students so our in-classroom viewing would seem more like a real in-theater presentation.

A playbill resource Marilyn Yung made for Everyman, the morality play.
I created this “playbill” for my students from photos found on the company’s website. | Photos: Lewis Wileman

I prepped students by explaining that the play would differ somewhat from the reader’s theater version of Everyman we had read earlier (see below for a link to the reader’s theater product on Teacher Pay Teachers), and I also challenged them to notice how the treatments differ.

To view Splendid Productions Everyman, you will need to create an account on Vimeo.com, and then purchase the play for $10.50. Your purchase will allow you to access the video for thirty days.

I really can’t recommend this Everyman production highly enough. I think your students will love it.

Three actors perform Everyman, the Morality Play
The entire Splendid Productions’ Everyman cast consists of three actors. Two actors (at left) perform the myriad roles in the play: Friendship, Riches, Strength, and of course, Good Deeds, the only character that will follow us into Death. The third actor (at right) plays the role of Everyman.

My students were engaged the entire time with Splendid’s presentation of Everyman and found it funny, compelling, and meaningful. It’s $10.50 well spent. (One can order a DVD instead of streaming the play via Vimeo on your computer; it will be formatted to play in U.S. players.)

2. Translated Text: Norton Literature Anthology

No, we didn’t read this Everyman translation in full. Since it’s an especially cumbersome text and both of my British Literature classes are late in the afternoon when energy levels lag, I decided to read a mere one or two pages of this version. I did this so students could hear a short blurb of a traditional translation of the play, and then compare it later to the other genres discussed in class.

A photo of an Everyman resource, Norton Anthology of English Literature, that contains Everyman the play.
My trusty old Norton anthology is always at the ready!
3. Script: Reader’s Theater for Everyman

I ordered this Everyman reader’s theater play from Teaching and Motivating Teens on TpT.

A picture of another Everyman morality play resource.
This reader’s theater script from Teaching and Motivating Teens at TpT is a winner.

Divided into three acts, this reader’s theater version of Everyman was a lot of fun. I let students choose the roles they would like to read, and encouraged them to be dramatic and over-the-top with their voices and gestures. My students, however, are quite reticent and shy, and require quite a bit of prodding to even “pretend” to be dramatic!

Overall, reading this play was a winner! The script showed them the gist of the play’s action and helped them master the play’s characterization and dialogue.

4. Video: The Emergence of Drama as Literary Art

Watch this TED Ed video to give your students some context for this famous play. The video discusses the differences among mystery plays, miracle plays, and finally morality plays, which were allegorical moral stories with characters with names such as Charity, Knowledge, and Patience.

A photo of an allegorical character, Patience, similar to other characters in Everyman, the morality play.
This 1539 engraving by Heinrich Aldegrever shows Patience as a human character. Public Domain

These characters teach viewers a lesson, one sanctioned by the prevailing Roman Catholic Church. Definitely use this video to connect Everyman to earlier dramas.

This video provides a sufficient dose of context. It reveals how morality plays developed out of the tradition of mystery and miracle plays.

If you teach a traditional British Literature class like I do, I hope this post provides some new resources for teaching Everyman. It’s a fun play and lends itself well to a mix of interpretations and media. Bookmark this post so you can find it when you need it the next time you teach this foundational text.

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Treasured Object Poem worksheet
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Finally! One-pager success!

Plus: the idea that finally made one-pagers work for my class

One more try. That’s right. In December, I decided to give one-pager graphic essays one more try.

In case you’re unfamiliar with one-pagers… visit Spark Creativity for a complete explanation and also some awesome one-pager templates.

One-pagers, in a nutshell, offer a way for students to demonstrate their learning from a text in a more creative format than the traditional written essay. Students can fill up a page with drawings, text excerpts, doodles, and other graphic elements to show their understanding of a text. One-pagers, and especially the more structured templates Spark Creativity also offers, can be used by students to show their knowledge of:

  • theme
  • symbolism
  • figurative language
  • setting
  • characterization
  • and other literary tools used by the author in the particular text.

Of course, one-pagers also encourage students to show how they personally connect to a book, including how the text is relevant to their own lives and/or current world events.

During the 2019-20 school term, I attempted one-pagers twice, once in both the fall and spring. However, I was less than impressed with the results. I just didn’t receive quality, in-depth work from my students. The work was messy; the drawings were bare-bones. The necessary critical thinking and creativity just wasn’t evident in their one-pagers. In short, it was disappointing…

…especially since I knew success with one-pagers was possible.

After all, other teachers regularly utilize them in their classes and experience awesome results. I’ve often looked with envy at the colorful, well-developed one-pagers created by other teachers’ students in some of the private Facebook groups I follow.

But, for me, one-pagers had fizzled. Twice.

My disappointing results could have been due to the simple fact that the first time for any new project or assignment is always a challenge. Heck, I struggled with writer’s workshop the first few times I attempted it as well, but I stuck with it and now I wouldn’t give it up. Ever. My experience with one-pagers had been pretty much the same.

Or maybe students perceived the one-pager as an unchallenging project. Thinking back, it may have seemed like an easy way out of an essay… as in Okay, if I just fill up the page with a few pictures and a quote, I’ll be able to get this done in no time. (Sure enough, some students flew through their one-pagers, with some finishing in about thirty minutes!)

Who’s to say why one-pagers weren’t working in my classroom? Still, considering all the potential that the creative project offered, I wasn’t ready to quit.

I just wasn’t ready to give up on the idea.

So last month, as my reading class wrapped up their unit on Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, I gave one-pagers another go.

I provided this box of crayons, markers, and even a Frederick Douglass stamp for students to use to make their one-pagers.
I provided this big box of art supplies (including my nifty Frederick Douglass rubber stamp!) for students to use to create their one-pagers.

As I had done in the past, I made sure to…

  • provide mentors (also from Spark Creativity)
  • supply a well-stocked box of markers, crayons, and colored pencils
  • require students to use lots of color and to fill up the page
  • hype the artistic side of the project to my students comfortable with drawing, while stressing at the same time that the one-pager is not primarily an art project

Also, I supplied my awesome Frederick Douglass rubber stamp (from Stamp Yo Stuff on Etsy) and helped students as needed, even suggesting ways to sneakily add in the “e” they left out of Frederick. (Yes, that happened!)

But this time, I tried a new idea that radically improved the quality of our one-pagers:

(drumroll, please)

I enlarged it.

Why, you ask? Well, as I was laying out the art supplies, I remembered last year pondering if the 8-1/2″ by 11″ size was simply too small for some of my older, adult-sized students to handle.

Heck, if some of my football players could barely fit in their desks, no wonder they had trouble adding pictures and text and whatnot to those small-ish boxes!

One-pager templates can be enlarged to help students.
The original sized template is at left in the photo above. I enlarged it by 145% onto 11″ x 17″-inch copy paper. Using the larger paper made this project work better for my students.

Maybe, I thought, one-pagers would work better if the paper was larger.

And the results were outstanding… finally.

It’s crazy how something so simple makes such a difference! The larger size allows students more space to get more creative. For example:

  • They can add more text.
  • They can write more about the connections they make to the text.
  • They can use the extra space to write larger and more neatly. (It seems that the extra space is more forgiving and encourages kids to spend more time on their drawings and doodles.)
  • They can even use the 8-1/2″ x 11″ templates to plan out their ideas before executing their final one-pager drafts on the 11″ x 17″ paper. (Several of my kids did this without my prompting them to!)

Whether you have students use plain paper or the templates from Spark Creativity, stock up on 11″ x 17″-inch paper the next time you do one-pagers. It doesn’t have to be poster board or even construction-weight stock. Copy paper is fine.

If you do use the templates from Spark Creativity, enlarge them to 145% to nearly fill up the page. Any remaining margin will work great for side notes or brief explanations your students may need to make to explain their ideas.

As you can see below, I’ve included several one-pagers created by my students last month. These one-pagers were created over the course of about three 50-minute class periods.

Obviously, some of the one-pagers below are stronger than others in textual evidence and in idea development. Still, I’m excited about the overall quality of each of these and know that at last… the one-pager can be successful in my classroom!

One-Pager example made by a high school student for Frederick Douglass' Narrative.
As with all the one-pagers shown in this post, this paper measures 11″ x 17″. The larger size made this project more successful for my students.
One-Pager example made by a high school student for Frederick Douglass' Narrative.
Look at all the words this student was able to put on this one-pager!
One-Pager example made by a high school student for Frederick Douglass' Narrative.
This one-pager features my amazing Frederick Douglass rubber stamp! It was a gift that I believe was found on Etsy.com.
One-Pager example made by a high school student for Frederick Douglass' Narrative.
It’s a great feeling when you see students willingly spending solid blocks of time on a project!
One-Pager example made by a high school student for Frederick Douglass' Narrative.
I appreciate how this student spent a lot of time explaining all the connections she made to the text.

Yep, I’m a big fan of the one-pager. And I’m definitely glad I stuck with them, giving them three opportunities to succeed. If you’ve had trouble in the past with one-pagers, I suggest that you try it again, but this time, enlarge the templates or paper size. Hopefully, that’ll do the trick and your students will amaze you with their creativity and insight.

Cheers to 2021!

Need a new poetry lesson?

Enter your email below and I’ll send you this PDF file that will teach your students to write Treasured Object Poems, one of my favorite poem activities. I know your students will enjoy it!

Treasured Object Poem assignment sheet
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Le Morte d’Arthur: Resources for high school

My quest with my high school seniors into British Lit continues with one of the last two texts in our Medieval Era unit: Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. This text, published in 1485, provides the tales of the legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. (A post on our last medieval text, Everyman, is in the works, so stay tuned!)

The translation of Le Morte d’Arthur offered in my classroom textbook presented me with a challenge once again. True, this older edition Prentice-Hall textbook has proven sufficient in many cases this fall; however, its treatment of Le Morte d’Arthur — a mere two-and-half-page excerpt — is just too sparse. Not enough of the text is provided to delve deeply into the various plots, not to mention themes and motifs.

Tintagil Castle can bring Le Morte d'Arthur to life for high school students.
Tintagil Castle | Photo: Dietrich Krieger, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As a result, an Internet search was in order to find additional resources, which I did.

(Read about those excerpts in the list of additional resources below.)

Still, once I found two alternative texts for my students to read, I discovered another problem with Le Morte d’Arthur: how exactly to approach this monumental text.

I gotta be honest. Since it was my first time teaching Le Morte d’Arthur, I was a little overwhelmed.

As a result, I decided to narrow my focus. I knew that if I focused on ONE THING, I could adequately cover this text on my initial experience with teaching it. The narrowed lens through which we viewed this text? Characterization.

With the various characters present in the King Arthur tales, there seems to be value in taking a few minutes to study those characters to learn their traits and how those traits impact the tales.

To address characterization, I decided to create a worksheet that would help students focus on four different characters we came across in our readings from those two alternative texts. (Get links to those excerpts below in the list of additional resources.)

Here’s a link to the worksheet I created, which can be found on TpT:

“The Characters Who Built the Chivalric Code” worksheet activity

At the top of the sheet, the instructions read as follows: “One objective of reading Le Morte d’Arthur is that we understand how Sir Thomas Malory built his characters… that is, the characterization he used in the story to provide a chivalric code for the tales. Notice how Malory’s characterization teaches a code for behavior.” 

This activity required a fifty-minute class period with students working independently. During our previous read-alouds of the two excerpts, students had listed characters as we approached them in the story. When we finished reading and discussing, students then chose their four characters for this sheet from their lists.

This worksheet for high school students teaches students about characterization in Le Morte d'Arthur.

Standards Addressed in This Activity



Common Core State Standards

Here are a few other Le Morte d’Arthur resources I used

One-Minute Middle Ages: In introducing Le Morte d’Arthur, I asked students to recall the One-Minute Middle Ages presentations they gave at the beginning of the Medieval Era unit.

I called on students to recall and briefly share their topics as a review activity before moving on to Le Morte d’Arthur.

These topics included chivalry, the Black Death, feudalism, the One Hundred Years War, pardoners and indulgences, the Roman Catholic Church of that era, Middle English, pilgrimages, alchemy, and courtly love.

We gave these short talks at the start of our Canterbury Tales unit. Click here for that post.

Documentary: “Arthur, King of the Britons”

After this quick Middle Ages review, we watched “Arthur, King of the Britons,” a documentary hosted by Richard Harris, who starred as King Arthur in the 1967 movie Camelot and, more recently, as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movie franchise.

Extending for 53 minutes, this BBC documentary speculates whether King Arthur actually existed. To do this, Harris visits Tintagil Castle on the western coast, the supposed birthplace of the legendary king. He also visits the towns of West Camel and Queen Camel in Somerset. Many believe these two towns to be the origin of the famed Camelot.

“Arthur, King of the Britons” is a comprehensive documentary. It kept my class’ attention as it showed archaeologists excavating pottery shards, which have been used to date activity at Camel.

Another interesting theory put forth: the marshy tidal lands around Glastonbury Tor may have provided the waterways that carried King Arthur to his final resting place at the Tor.

Glastonbury Tor is a possible burial site of King Arthur.
Glastonbury Tor | Photo: Eugene Birchall, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The film’s makers reach no definitive conclusion on the existence of King Arthur, but does raise thought-provoking questions about the origins and reliability of the King Arthur legends.

Translated text: The Crowning of Arthur

As mentioned earlier, our current textbook does not provide much more than an all-too-brief excerpt of the King Arthur tales. In the photo below, the text offers a much more in-depth narrative. I printed out this excerpt for my students and posted it online for my remote learners.

An excerpt from Le Morte d'Arthur can help high school students understand the stories better.
Find this translation and excerpt by Kenneth Baines at this link.

This particular translation of The Crowning of Arthur from Book I of Malory’s text tells the story of how King Arthur found his destiny by pulling the sword from the stone.

Translated text: The Siege of Benwick and The Day of Destiny

This particular translation from Book VIII of Malory’s text tells the story of the fatal fight between Sir Modred and King Arthur that ends with a slain Arthur being taken to his final resting place, Avalon.

The Death of KIng Arthur by James Arthur, 1860.
The Death of King Arthur | James Archer (1823–1904), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Newspaper Article: The many legends of King Arthur in pop culture

I used this article to help students review what they already knew about the King Arthur legends. This article lists fifteen popular books, films, and plays that have featured bits and pieces from the King Arthur tales. My students were familiar with some of these; it’s good to help students new information to their existing knowledge.

A bronze sculpture of King Artus at Tintagil Castle by the artist Rubin Eynon.
King Artus by Rubin Eynon at Tintagil Castle | Image by MonikaP from Pixabay

I hope the resources listed in this post help you with your British Literature course. Teaching these texts represents new territory for me (as with SO many other aspects of 2020…lol), but I’m managing to introduce my students bit by bit to these foundational texts of western culture.

If you have any resources or teaching ideas to contribute, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me via my Contact page. I look forward to hearing from you!

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This sheet about Treasured Object poems helps high school students write these personal poems.
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Writer’s Workshop for high school

Cultivate creativity with writer’s workshop for grades 9-12

Writer’s Workshop with my high school students will be coming to a close next Wednesday. We started our Writer’s Workshop at the beginning of the second quarter. Currently, my juniors are wrapping up their second drafts of the eight projects they’ve chosen from a menu of ten listed on their project sheets.

Our workshop routine goes something like this:

  1. Brainstorm/plan/outline to get started on a project. Reference instructions and mentor texts for each project in the folders at the front of the classroom.
  2. Write a first draft. 
  3. Using the correct responder sheet, have a friend, parent, or someone else respond to your writing. They must answer four to six questions from the sheet, writing their suggestions and feedback in the blanks on the back of the responder sheet. Your responder must give you suggestions and advice. 
  4. Revise and/or rewrite to create an improved second draft.
  5. Print out a second draft and put in the WW  box for me to read. Your second draft must contain significant revisions or it will be returned. Include these with your highlighted second draft:
    1. First draft
    2. First draft responder sheet with feedback 
  6. Give me up to a week to return your second draft.
  7. Make final revisions and edits and print out a final draft.
  8. Keep the following with your final draft until the day you turn all projects in:  brainstorming/pre-writing(if you have it), first draft, responder sheet, second draft. Staple all of these together, placing your final draft on top of the stack.

So far, this process works for my classes. I’ve used this basic framework with both middle school students (7th- and 8th-graders) and high school students (both juniors and seniors).

A high school students writes during Writer's Workshop.

One change I made this year: I did not require a “turn in half of your projects” checkpoint mid-way through the schedule. Instead, we talked briefly about how it was their responsibility to budget their time, making sure on their own that they were on track to turn in a completed portfolio next week. I think it’s good to allow students to organize their own time, and really, most of them are able to do that. After all, many already have part-time jobs and extra-curricular activities to work around.

I love writer’s workshop because it allows me to get to know students on a deeper level when we conference. I really enjoy reading about their lives, their goals, hobbies, and their beliefs. I’m convinced that a strict schedule of academic writing does not allow that kind of interaction.

For example, my students are writing…

  • How-to Articles on: barrel racing, dirt track car racing, chess, professional eyelash application, mowing hay, bee-keeping, baking a melt-in-your-mouth pumpkin pound cake
  • Reviews of: favorite books, new and classic movies, and area restaurants (one of which needs some serious customer service training)
  • Narratives about: sports tournaments, house fires, rodeo competitions, close calls on thin ice, beloved grandfathers, poor decisions
  • Poetry that celebrates: Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, a prized saddle, a grandmother’s necklace, a trusty racing helmet
  • Arguments about: the dangers of stereotypes, the ethics of working hard, community pride,

These topics reveal my students’ personalities and show them a more personal side to writing. A variety of writing tasks has the potential to show students how fun, expressive, clarifying, and even therapeutic writing can be.

A variety of writing tasks has the potential to show students how fun, expressive, clarifying, and even therapeutic writing can be.

To achieve variety in my Writer’s Workshop project list, I’ve experimented over the years, usually keeping a few tried-and-true projects while swapping out some tired ones with fresh assignments.

Here’s my current menu of Writer’s Workshop projects:

  1. Treasured Object Free-Verse Poem (poetry); min. 10 lines
  2. Memoir (narrative); This can be based on an existing “Essay of the Week” narrative; 750-2,000 words
  3. Movie/Game/Book/Restaurant Review (argument); 500-1,000 words
  4. Slice of Life (narrative); 250-350 words; focused on one ordinary moment
  5. How-To Article (informative); 500-1,000 words
  6. This I Believe essay; (argument); 750-1,000 words
  7. Ekphrastic Poem; (poetry); min. 20 lines 
  8. Fictional Short Story (narrative); 750-2,500 words
  9. Your Choice Prose: argument, narrative, informative; no specific word count requirement
  10. Social Change Lit Reveal; (informative); 500-1,000

This list purposely includes a balanced mix of writing discourses: poetry, narrative, informative, argument. In addition, the Social Change Lit Reveal, a new project, is actually a detailed presentation that students can create using Google Slides, Prezi, or another application of their choosing. (Since this is a new project, I will be sharing this in a future blog post. Stay tuned by becoming a follower!)

My Writer's Workshop project sheet alongside writing by high school students.
This is the printed project sheet for my version of Writer’s Workshop. The full step-by-step process is listed on the back for students to reference. All materials, including explanatory sheets for each project, are maintained in the classroom and online in Google Classroom.

I must give credit where credit is due

I must make sure to tell you that Corbett Harrison of Always Write is my Writer’s Workshop guru, and I’ve borrowed and then tweaked his materials and basic procedure, which he outlines at his ridiculously comprehensive website. Seriously, this site is amazing and one to check out as soon as your schedule allows.

Read about how I’ve customized Harrison’s workshop procedure in these two posts: Here’s What Writer’s Workshop Looks Like in My Middle School Classroom, and It’s a Wrap: Three Take-Aways from Writer’s Workshop.

Timing is everything: The 2021 Scholastic Writing Awards are coming up

I have another motive for Writer’s Workshop. I use it as a way for students to create work suitable for the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. The entry deadline for the competition in our region is in early January; however, my students will submit their entries before the holiday break. A few have already created their online accounts to do just that. All that’s left is to upload their entries and send in the entry fees ($7 per entry), which my school pays.

During Writer's Workshop, my high school students write articles and stories for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
A screenshot of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards website. Visit this site to learn how to enter your students’ best writing Writing contests build writing confidence!

It took me a few tries (like about three!) to finally figure out how to utilize Writer’s Workshop in my middle school writing classroom several years ago. Since then, I’ve refined it and adapted it to older students in my current high school position. I wouldn’t consider teaching ELA without incorporating one full quarter to the Writer’s Workshop. It allows students to experience the more personal, “non-academic” side of writing that they miss in a system that elevates standardized test scores at the cost of creative expression.

Need a new poetry lesson?

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A sheet that explains how to write Treasured Object Poems.
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Eight poem ideas for high school students

Poetry: it’s what the world needs now

I don’t write poetry often, but I am writing more of it lately. Y’know, short little poems that reflect a mere fraction of my life and mindset at any given moment. Some of them I like and some of them I toss, but I’m still writing them anyway.

That’s because writing even just a little poetry does help me in other ways. For example, writing poetry causes me to reflect on the nuances of writing…

  • the appearance and sounds of words
  • interesting turns of phrases
  • the rhythm and meter of language
  • the ability of words to precisely capture memory

Yes, sharing these nuances of writing with students is the best part of my job.

And that’s what’s awesome about poetry: it allows me to share my enthusiasm for words, language, and writing in general. Therefore, this year, I’m attempting to not only write more poetry, but to add more poetry into my high school English classes.

High school students look at poetry on a laptop computer.

And I’ll be honest. So far, it’s been rather “hit and miss.”

Some kids love poetry, others loathe it. Some kids dash out their thoughts with ease; others wrestle with getting a word — any word — on the page. I’m not alone in noticing this dichotomy with my students.

In his Lit Hub article “Teaching High School Students the Wildness of Poetry,” author Nick Ripatrazone writes:

“Poetry, for high school students, can be both mystery and magnet. They communicate in epigrammatic bursts—digitally, in the hallways, in swift mouthings across the classroom—so they understand the spirit of poetry.”

Nick Ripatrazone

In other words, all kids get poetry regardless of their comfort level with it. After all, it’s in the language around them that they see and hear everyday.

That’s why I feel as if I walk a thin line when I teach it in my classroom. Ripatrazone continues, “Yet teachers know that to quantify that experience in class—to write or, God forbid, to analyze poetry—is to court skepticism.” I feel this statement.

When I make poetry fit a standards-based lesson plan, I often kill its spontaneity, wit, and beauty.

But just because I fear killing the spirit of poetry with a lesson plan doesn’t mean I should avoid it altogether. We should still read and write poetry in the classroom. As Ripatrazone writes, “We still give poems to kids, though. Not merely because of the curriculum; (but) because we believe that poetry is a way to slow down the mess of life. Poetry is both calm and storm.’ “

We believe that poetry is a way to slow down the mess of life. Poetry is both calm and storm. — @nickripatrazone

That being said, I want to show my students how poetry really can help them tap their creativity, spark memories, and cope with the “calms and the storms” that 2020 has loaded on us.

I’ve attempted to convey the power of poetry to my students with the eight poem ideas below (listed in no particular order). Skim through each and find one that may work for your kids!

A photo of a mural of Frida Kahlo illustrates this post about ekphrastic poems, a type of poetry for high school students.

Students transform the visual to the verbal with ekphrastic poems.

Ekphrastic Poems for High School Students

A photo of a girl with stripes of colorful paint in a rainbow pattern illustrates this post about color poems, a type of poetry for high school students.

Invite students to play with language and color.

Encourage Distance Learners with Creative Color Poems

A photo of a girl writing illustrates a post about treasured object poems, a type of poetry for high school students.

Need a fun poetry activity to use with your students? One that will also hone their sensory language and revision skills?

Treasured Object Poems: A favorite poetry activity for all grades

Poet George Ella Lyon illustrates an article about Where I'm From poems, a poem for high school students.

These poems never fail to produce highly personal, touching, and honest poems.

Where I’m From Poems

Two girls wearing face masks illustrate a post about corona virus acrostic poems, a type of poem for high school students.

Students illustrate life during the pandemic by creating an acrostic poem.

Corona virus acrostic poems perk up distance learning

A photo of a headline poem, a form of poetry for high school students.

Watch older students create stunning expressions from everyday language

Headline poetry for high school students

A photo of a girl with a red balloon illustrates a photo for The Sometimes Poem, a poem for high school students.

Teach poetry. Teach revision.

The Sometimes Poem by YA Author Kate Messner

A photo of a neon sign that reads "this must be the place" illustrates The Favorite Place Poem, a poem for high school students.

Have students create content with a poem about their favorite place

The Favorite Place Poem

Thanks for reading again this week! If you’ve tried some of these poetry activities before, feel free to share your experience by leaving a message below or clicking on my Contact page in the top menu.

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Poetry and high school students

Plus resources for finding mind-blowing poems

I’ve been including more poetry this year in my high school English classes. I’ve asked students to write color poems, ekphrastic poems, treasured object poems, and others.

And we all have good reason to write more poetry… y’know, 2020 and its healthy dose of angst and apprehension, and yes, our hopes and dreams for a brighter 2021. However, if you need another reason besides 2020 to teach more poetry, here’s one:

Poetry is trendy.

More people — teens and adults alike — are reading poetry. “The share of adults reading poetry grew by an astounding 76 percent between 2012 and 2017,” writes critic Ron Charles in this 2018 Washington Post article. He cites a 2017 study from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) titled “U.S. Trends in Arts Attendance and Literary Reading: 2002-2017.” The results are even more dramatic for young people,” Charles adds, noting that during that same time period…

“The percentage of poetry readers age 18-24 doubled.”

Ron Charles, The Washington Post

That’s something to think about.

There are a few reasons for this kind of growth:

  • The rise of social media, most notably Instagram, where “Instapoets” like Canadians Rupi Kaur and Atticus, plus others, post verse regularly.
  • Poetry’s less defined “rules.”
  • Poetry’s capacity for acute personal expression.
  • Its connection to music, which permeates the airwaves, in addition to printed and online pages.
Instagram Poet Rupi Kaur inspires high school students to write poetry.
Instapoet Rupi Kaur | Baljit Singh, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever the cause, I’m using poetry more in my high school English classes to offer students an additional writing discourse, to tap their creativity, and to provide them more exposure to the literary arts in general.

An added bonus: poems serve as great “text pairings” with novels, nonfiction books, and articles.

Poetry and my students

I’ll be honest. Poetry earns mixed reviews in my classes. Some students (especially the girls) enjoy it, others (usually the boys) not so much. Either way, though, no one has rejected it wholly. And I’m using that as a sign to continue to incorporate it into my class.

Here are some comments (used with permission) from a few of my students about the poetry we’ve been writing in class:

I really like to write poetry. I would like to do more in class, because it is short, but really deep and meaningful.
The poetry that we have written so far has opened up a chance for me to get myself writing more creatively. I don’t mind to be writing it at all.
No, I don’t really like the poetry we have been doing because I am not very good at writing it and thinking up stuff to use in my poems.
As to whether this student enjoy the poetry we’ve written this fall, this student wrote, “Not really, because it is hard to write poetry. I would way rather write a story or something of that type instead of poetry. It is hard for me to think of things to go in poetry.
I like poetry personally. I love to describe things in abstract ways. I love how you can make up silly, interesting things, and they make sense. I overall love it. Besides the ones with rules.
I have sort of enjoyed the poetry so far. I’d like to have more free-style poetry, if that make sense. I enjoy writing the most when there are less limitations.

Like I said, my students offered mixed reviews, including those last two comments that suggest some students like writing poetry — when they can call the shots. In fact, using mentor poems to formulate their own verse turns them off. Clearly, these students possess the confidence to craft their own verse without the need for a prescribed structure.

For other students, though, it’s a different story.

They’re not used to the lack of structure present in free verse poetry. In addition, they often have the misconception that their poetry MUST always rhyme. As a result, they become even more discouraged with the difficulty that rhyming adds. For students to connect with and write poetry, they must be able to dive in and express themselves. Counting syllables and forcing rhyme words onto the page ruins that.

As for reading poetry…

One of my biggest conundrums has been locating exciting poetry to share with students. For that reason, I’m always on the lookout for poetry that is original and unusual… that presents ideas in a way that catches our attention and invites analysis.

Graffiti that spells out the word poetry.
Photo: Unsplash

True, some students shrink from all that analysis and ambiguity, but I believe that many students simply aren’t accustomed to sophisticated writing that demands analysis. If it’s hard to understand, they presume that something is wrong with the poet or with themselves, the reader.

Encouraging kids to embrace confusion as they read difficult texts is a good reason to expose them to poetry.

But what is good poetry?

According to the Emily Dickinson Museum website, “Emily Dickinson once defined poetry this way: 

‘If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?’

Emily Dickinson
American Poet Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson | Unknown Owner, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Finding poetry on a somewhat regular basis that truly astounds, touches, and perhaps, even perplexes us with its language, is difficult, but it can be done.

The easiest way? Subscribe to a free daily poetry email. I subscribe to The Paris Review Daily Poem. In the Review’s daily posts, I’ve discovered several awesome poems that I’ve used as mentors, interesting reads, or texts to pair with books and articles.

South Carolina poet Katherine Williams, whom I discovered on Quora, calls the following sites the “big three” for finding exciting poetry:

In fact, Williams writes that one reason some readers may find poetry dull is because they haven’t stumbled upon great poetry yet. “If you don’t love poetry, you just haven’t found the right stuff yet,” she writes in her Quora post.

That’s why I’ll keep looking for amazing poetry and experimenting with more verse in the classroom. As I discover new techniques and mind-blowing poems, I’ll send them your way.

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Treasured Object Poems for high school students
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Canterbury Tales lesson plan resources

Five activities plus two videos

Teaching high school English after eight years of middle school is throwing me for a loop! There’s so much new content to learn, especially for my senior curriculum and its emphasis on British literature.

Side note: Yes, I’ve studied British literature for my master’s degree, but my schedule only allowed me to study from Romanticism to contemporary; I haven’t studied the earlier works in any formal way.

Until now.

So basically, I’m feeling my way through British literature, but having a lot of fun doing it. We began the school year with the earliest literature from the Anglo-Saxon era. We read The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Beowulf, and Dream of the Rood. (For three recent posts on my Beowulf unit, click here, here, and here.)

So on Friday last week, as we transitioned from a study of The Canterbury Tales to Le Morte d’Arthur, it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to share with you the resources I used and/or created to teach the tales this first time.

Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales
My job: make this guy seem cool. | Geoffrey Chaucer, 1343-1400

I used and/or created a handful of resources to teach The Canterbury Tales. Here are six of them presented in the order that they fit into my lesson plans:

1. Video: Overview of the Middle Ages in World History by Khan Academy

To transition from the Anglo-Saxon poetry to medieval literature, I showed students this video from Khan Academy to help them visualize the breadth of the time period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. Seeing where on the timeline Beowulf, for example, was written, and relating that to the time period of Chaucer, including the events between, was helpful. Here’s the video:

2. Video: How the Normans Changed the History of Europe by Mark Robinson

We also watched “How the Normans Changed the History of Europe,” to focus on the most pivotal event between the writing of Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales: the Norman Invasion of 1066 B.C. Noting how one result of the invasion, the elevation of French and the suppression of English, provides some context for understanding the message Chaucer sent to the ruling class when he composed The Canterbury Tales in English.

3. Narrative Essay of the Week Assignment

I worked this assignment into my regular rotation of weekly homework assignments known as Articles of the Week (AOWs) and Essays of the Week (EOWs).

I discovered an essay on Literary Hub by YA author Amber Sparks titled “Escaping into Books about the Middle Ages is My Self-Therapy.” After reading the article, I created a handout for students to read.

After reading, students were to do two things: 1) write a short reflection of the essay, and 2) use Sparks’ essay as a mentor text to write their own narrative about their own forms of self-therapy.

Another way to think of it: an assignment for students to write about what brings them joy or solace in troubling times.

A big bonus to using this article: it shows that contemporary authors find inspiration in the revered texts of the medieval era. In other words, these medieval texts aren’t obsolete; they are actively used by professional authors today.

In other words, medieval texts aren’t obsolete… they are actively used by professional authors today.

4. One-Minute Middle Ages

For this activity, which I discovered in a Canterbury Tales Study Guide published by Glencoe McGraw-Hill, I asked students to select a card from a bundle of about twelve.

Glencoe McGraw-Hill Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales

On each card was a topic for them to quickly research online and then present to the class in a brief presentation. Topics included the Black Death, chivalry, Boccacio’s Decameron, alchemy, the Hundred Years War, and others.

Nearly all of the topics were mentioned in both videos listed above.

I liked how the videos introduced these topics, and then the students delved deeper into them in these short talks. I allowed students to use Wikipedia for the sleuthing needed for these informal mini-presentations; I feel Wikipedia is sufficient for introductory research.

I will definitely use this activity again. Kids seemed to like the informal nature of it, and it broadened their knowledge of the medieval ages.

Cards student chose to make their presentations for The Canterbury Tales
Pick a card, any card! Students chose “blindly” from these cards and then did some quick research to present their “One-Minute Middle Ages” talks.

5. “Roller Skating Fiasco,” a memoir by author David Mike

This is an essay written by an online friend of mine, David Mike, whom I met when we both were more active contributors on Medium.com. Mike is a published author. Find out more about his book, Dishonor: One Soldier’s Journey from Desertion to Redemption at this link.

His short memoir titled, “Roller Skating Fiasco,” is one that I used as a mentor text for a characterization mini-lesson a few years ago in my middle school ELA classes. As I was preparing to teach The Canterbury Tales, Mike’s essay crossed my mind as I remembered how it told of taking a pilgrimage of sorts to a roller-skating rink back in his youth. Find the essay here.

While at the rink, Mike notices and records a variety of skaters. This recollection reminded me of Chaucer’s tales and the variety of pilgrims involved. For examples, Mike writes about:

The Roller Bully… “This guy usually would seek out people with hats or other removable articles of clothing. Once he pulled up beside the kid as if he was in the race car scene from Grease, the Roller Bully would look directly into the victim’s eyes, snatch the loose item, and spin to skate in reverse so as not to break eye contact.”

The What-were-you-thinking-putting-on-those-skates-you-should-have-stayed-home-and-played-Dungeons-and-Dragons-with-your-friends-guy… “That would be me. Seeing me skate was like watching a cross between a daddy-long-legs trying to climb a plate glass window and an orangutan trying to break dance.”

David Mike also writes about other skating rink characters, such as the Damsel in Distress, The Skate Ninja, The Testosteroller, The Wall Clingers, and The Most Popular Girl in School. All of these represent quite different types of skaters, similar to how Chaucer wrote about quite different types of pilgrims.

How I used this resource:

At the beginning of our study, we read Mike’s memoir in class and then I asked students to think of a destination that is visited by many different types of people. We thought about places like the beach, a shopping mall, a professional, an airport terminal.

Then I asked each student to complete this quick, low-stakes assignment: Each student made a list of six to eight different types of people they might encounter at one of those places. My students said they thought this was a fun thing to do. Also, it was fun to hear what each student came up with after everyone finished. Here’s one character list that one student wrote:

The Beach
  • The fat guy that lathered sunscreen all over his body.
  • The athletic guys throwing a ball back and forth in the water.
  • The mom making her kids wear life jackets, floaties, and spray on sunscreen.
  • The old couple laying out in MINIMAL clothing trying to get a tan.
  • The popular girls going back and forth from the water to lying on their towels every 10 minutes.
  • The paranoid mother watching everyone’s kids, waiting for someone to drown.
  • The drunk guys who just came to drink and sit at the pavilion.
  • That ONE guy that thinks he’s hot stuff trying to flex his abs for the popular girls.

6. Article of the Week: Thomas Becket’s Bloody Tunic

I also like to google the internet and find interesting stories (and hopefully current ones!) that I can sprinkle into my AOW schedule. If I can directly tie ancient texts to current day topics, it’s a huge win in my book.

For example, in 2018, the Vatican returned the bloodied tunic worn by Sir Thomas Becket to Great Britain to commemorate the murder of the revered archbishop of Canterbury. I thought this article from The Guardian by Catherine Pepinster made the tales of all those varied folks making their pilgrimage to honor Becket all the more real. Score!

A high school writing assignment about The Canterbury Tales and Thomas Becket's tunic returning to Britain

7. A Pilgrimage Poem: A Chaucer-like Prologue

This was a fun culminating activity for our pilgrimage through The Canterbury Tales. I asked students to write a twenty-line poem about a pilgrimage to a favorite destination. Here were my instructions:

  1. Your prologue must have an introduction that explains your pilgrimage, i.e. where you’re going, when, why.
  2. Include character sketches of three travelers/pilgrims who represent very different social backgrounds. These can be people here at school, celebrities, or public figures… but people most of us will know.
  3. DO NOT use your characters’ names in your poem or say them out loud as you work because we’ll be guessing these when you read your prologue aloud to us later this week.
  4. Conclude your prologue with a few lines about yourself and what your pilgrims and you hope to gain by taking the pilgrimage.
  5. Your prologue must be a minimum of 20 lines–with at least 8 rhyming couplets.
A mentor text helped

I provided students a prologue I had written on the assignment sheet. You can see my attempt, “The Suffolk Teddy-tales,” about going to England to see an exhibition about the career of Ed Sheeran, one of my favorite songwriters and performers.

This project required about two 50-minute class periods. We ended the project with each student reading their prologue aloud to the class. After each student finished, the class tried to guess their pilgrims. Most guesses were successful, except in a few cases. It was a good first-try for this project and I definitely plan to do it again next year.

I’ve posted the handout below on TpT. View it here.

A high school writing assignment on The Canterbury Tales

Yes, our Canterbury pilgrimage is now over and we’re moving on to the valiant world of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

And even though I’m yet again besieged with new content, I’m also excited to learn more. After all, it’s my responsibility to find the personal significance in every piece of literature that I read and teach. If I do that, it will certainly prove how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to learn from these great, foundational British texts.

Have any Canterbury Tales tips that I and others should know about? Feel free to leave a comment to share your ideas! Follow my blog for an upcoming post on my experience with Le Morte d’Arthur.

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Book bentos: my first attempt

Resources I used plus what I’ll do differently next time

To conclude first quarter, my independent reading class usually produces some kind of summative project for a book they read during the previous eight weeks. This fall, instead of the usual book report, I came across the “book bento” idea in a private Facebook group. It basically takes the look of a bento, a common Japanese to-go meal, and applies it to a book. Instead of an arrangement of individual food portions, it’s an arrangement comprised of a book surrounded by tangible objects that connect to the book.

Find this Instagram account, @bookbento for lots of examples from Read It Forward of Penguin Random House. Here are three:

Unfamiliar with bentos?

A bento is “single-portion boxed meal that is usually composed of staple carbs (rice or noodles), meat or fish, and an assortment of pickled or cooked vegetables,” writes Samantha Cubbison of Japan Objects.com. Bentos boxes, the partitioned box that holds the food portions, come in all shapes, sizes, and materials and are known for the way they attractively present and transport food. Read here for more about bento box history and its evolution through the years.

Remember in The Breakfast Club, when Molly Ringwald’s character had that fancy sushi lunch? She was eating from a bento box.

Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club eats out of a bento box.
Molly Ringwald eats her lunch from a type of bento box in The Breakfast Club.

Here’s a typical bento meal. Notice how the box holds the foods in precise, geometric arrangements.

Bentos display food beautifully

Three reasons I tried book bentos

Since I had been wanting a new creative project to try, I decided to give book bentos a “go” for three reasons. Here they are:

  1. The project would require minimal prep.
  2. Students could complete it on their own outside of class.
  3. It would give them a break from the traditional typed essay.

As I prepared for the project, some online sleuthing led me to an article by Joyce Valenza, assistant professor of teaching at Rutgers University.

A Japanese bento meal

Her post on the School Library Journal’s “Never Ending Search” blog contains several links, such as one to this awesome Hyper Doc created by Lisa Highfill and Rachel Kloos.

I added the Hyper Doc to my Google Drive and showed it to my students. I did make a few clarifications as I explained the assignment, but it was sufficient to use “as is” for my first book bento attempt.

Valenza’s post also offers a list of seven tips that inspired the instructions for my assignment, which I eventually uploaded to Google Classroom for my kids.

The instructions for my assignment:

  1. Make a book bento for one of the books you read during first quarter.
  2. Arrange and take a balanced, well-composed square photo of your book surrounded by 6-8 objects that connect to ideas and/or details from the book.
  3. Your background should also connect or at least “make sense” for your book. Be sure to explain how it connects.
  4. Write a review of your book on Goodreads.com. You’ll need to create an account.
  5. Open the Novels Class Book Bentos Google Slides Presentation (see photo below) that will eventually contain all of our book bentos and accompanying writing.
  6. Add your book bento photo and two to three slides after it. On one or two of these slides (depending on how much space you need), you’ll explain your connections to your objects and background with two to three sentences each. On one of the slides, you’ll include your book review.

I tried to make it interactive, but…

Most book bento projects, including the one outlined by Valenza, suggest adding interactivity to the assignment. This can be done with a website such as Thinglink, Piktochart, and others mentioned in Valenza’s post. And this was in my original plan because I love the dynamic that Thinglink added to my own Anne Frank book bento shown at the top of this post. Unfortunately, however, some of my students had trouble creating their free Thinglink accounts. In addition, because I had used all my views on my own free version, I was unable to access theirs.

Watch my video to see my bento and Thinglink in action:
In this video, I show my book bento in Thinglink so you can see how the interactivity is SUPPOSED to work.

Google Slides to the rescue

So instead, I decided to create and share a Google Slides Presentation for the entire class to edit. Basically, students would create a slide for their photo in the presentation, and then add two to three slides on which they would describe their connections and their book review. Here’s the title screen of my presentation:

The title slide for a Google Slides presentation about book bentos
Here’s the title screen for the Google Slides presentation. I shared it on Google Classroom to my students and asked them to drop in their book bentos and their written connections.

What I’ll do differently next time

  1. Increase rigor by requiring students to cite textual evidence to support their connections. I’ll require this next time for at least some of the items. Because I decided to do book bentos late in the quarter, I felt students would have been hard-pressed to return to their books to search for precise lines to support the use of their items. Of course, if they read on a digital version of their book, this wouldn’t be an issue since they could easily search for keywords.
  2. Rule out Photoshop! I never saw this one coming. I actually had students finding images online (see the first bento below), duplicating them, and then dropping them into their composition filled with other items they found online. Yes, maybe it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but just once, I would LOVE for kids to look away from their screens and do an assignment with their hands. Next time I’ll specify that they must find actual tangible objects.
  3. Put more emphasis on mimicking the bento box’s design and placement. Objects should be arranged geometrically with balance and neatness. Items shouldn’t be angled or scattered into the arrangement.
  4. Figure out the interactivity portion of the assignment. Whether I use ThingLink.com or another similar app, this should make the project more fun and complete.
  5. Ban flash photography. The glare! The glare!
  6. Keep photos square. Challenge students to arrange their objects into a square shape so their photos can be easily uploaded to Instagram and other apps without cropping.
  7. Give students a heads up. Tell students about the project at the start of the quarter so they have opportunity to think about connections as they read and also have more time to locate objects.
  8. Schedule a photo-taking day. I might consider scheduling a couple of class periods for photographing the book bentos. I set two due dates for the project: one for the photo and one for the connections and book review, which concluded the assignment. Several students were late with their photo. In their haste to get it turned in, a few resorted to Photoshopping photos they found online or just throwing together a few props at the last minute. If we dedicated class time to take the photos, higher quality compositions might be the result.

Some final book bentos created by my students appear below.


A book bento for A Small White Scar by K. A. Nuzom
I love the color and variety of the objects in this bento! However, this bento contains objects that have been “Photoshopped” into the arrangement. Next time, I’ll specify that students are to find and use tangible objects for their book.
A book bento for Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It helps to have a book with a prominent and colorful cover. This bento features a copy of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, but you wouldn’t know it by the plain cover.
A book bento for The Outsider by Stephen King
The Outsider by Stephen King
A book bento for The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I printed a color copy of the classic cover of The Great Gatsby for the student to tape to her plain black and white edition.

Overall, I’m pleased with the book bento project. It’s a fun way to make visual connections with literature to document what we learn and think about as we reflect on a book and its characters, theme, setting, and other elements.

If you’re looking to put a twist on your next “book report” assignment, think about trying book bentos! And if you have a book bento tip for me or other readers, feel free to chime in!

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Treasured Object poem instructions
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Ekphrastic poems for high school students

Merge art and writing with these ekphrastic poetry resources

Last week in my junior English classes, we started our fall journey into Writer’s Workshop. Every year, I change out a few of my Writer’s Workshop projects from the year before to enliven the selection both for them and for me.

As we continue further down the path this week, I plan to introduce them to ekphrastic poetry. Their ekphrastic poem is one of eight projects (out of a list of ten from which they choose) they’ll complete and submit in a writing portfolio on December 16.

Students work in Writer's Workshop to write ekphrastic poetry.

An ekphrastic poem is a poem written in response to or about a work of art and is one of my two new projects on the list this time around. According to the Poetry Foundation website

“An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.”

Poetry Foundation

The word ekphrastic comes to English from the Greek. It can also be spelled ecphrastic and it recalls the Greek word for “description.” The word alludes to the abundance of details used by the classic Greek poets to describe an object. In effect, these writers wanted “to transform the visual to the verbal,” explains writer Jackie Craven in “What Is Ekphrastic Poetry?”

The best way to transform the visual to the verbal? By experiencing the art with words… hence, ekphrastic poetry.

Of course, the genre invites creativity. In her article, Craven writes that an ekphrastic poem may:

  • be about a piece of art
  • be about how a piece of art makes the viewer feel
  • be rhymed or unrhymed
  • be metrical or free verse

Two more tips for ekphrastic poems:

  • Use lots of adjectives. Describe the artwork’s elements as precisely and fully as possible.
  • Incorporate movement and sound. Use powerful “kinetic” words to convey the action of a scene in the art. In Writing About Art, a City College of New York text, the book’s author, Dr. Marjorie Munsterberg, calls attention to the word choice employed by Victorian writer John Ruskin in his description of The Slave Ship by J.M.W. Turner. Here’s an excerpt:

“It is a sunset on the Atlantic after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rain clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night.  The whole surface of the sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low, broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm.” 

Ekphrastic poems have been written about this painting, The Slave Ship.
The Slave Ship | J. M. W. Turner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To introduce ekphrastic poetry, I’ll pass out my project sheet, which, along with the basics of the genre, also features this self-portrait painted by late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).

My students will write a first draft of an ekphrastic based on this painting by Frida Kahlo.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait as a Tehuana, 1943, Mudec Milano, 3 maggio 2018

Then I plan to project and scroll through this ThoughtCo. webpage on my white board. It provides definitions and examples of well-known ekphrastic poems alongside their respective artworks. For instance, an excerpt of Anne Sexton’s “The Starry Night” appears beneath Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” appears alongside a photo of an ancient Greek vessel.

Anne Sexton wrote an ekphrastic poem about Van Gogh's Starry Night.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night

For a mentor text written for Van Gogh’s painting above, click here: The Starry Night by Anne Sexton. For more ekphrastic poems alongside the art described, have students check out “The Poet Speaks of Art.”

The ThoughtCo. webpage ends with a practice poem for students to try that describes Kahlo’s “Portrait as a Tehuana.”

Since I know many students will be unfamiliar with Kahlo, we’ll watch this video from Artrageous with Nate. It’s about four minutes long… just enough to explain the basic details from Kahlo’s life of tumult, fame, and creativity.

Watch this video from Artrageous to provide your students with just enough information about Kahlo’s life to practice writing an ekphrastic poem in class.

After we watch the video, we’ll draft out a quick ekphrastic poem that’s based on Portrait as a Tehuana. We’ll do this in a hot second and then share out our extremely rough poems. The point? To show students the basic gist of ekphrastic poetry and to pave the way for another future poem inspired by an artwork of their own choosing.

Because I want students to identify with their own chosen artwork, their Frida Kahlo poem won’t be the one they submit with their portfolios. I really want them to seek out an artwork that speaks personally to them.

Of course, I’m sure I’ll hear some groans from a few students who just want to “get the project done,” so I’ll need to help them locate some additional artworks. After all, our school is hours from an art museum. The best way I know to quickly show a wealth of art to students is to ask them to visit the Explore tab at Google Arts and Culture. Here, they can explore art by subject matter, color, location, and more filters to uncover an endless supply of masterpieces.

Stay tuned for a future post with some of the ekphrastic poems my students write for this project. I’ll be sure to post and include them on my project list for the next time we journey through Writer’s Workshop.

There’s simply not enough art in our lives.

In our news-weather-sports culture, art is too often relegated to the unfair stereotype of the stodgy art museum. Or art is presented as overly complex and steeped in psychology. Or it’s considered something one either can or cannot do… that’s it not a skill like any other that requires practice and years to develop. Just imagine how student attitudes about art would change if they spent as much time drawing (a skill they can practice at 17 or 70, by the way) as they do shooting baskets!

Need a new poetry lesson?

Enter your email below and I’ll send you this PDF file that will teach your students to write Treasured Object Poems, one of my favorite poem activities. I know your students will enjoy it!

Treasured Object Poetry student handout
Treasured Object Poems

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