In our writer’s workshop process, I simply make a few suggestions for revisions and edits on a student’s second draft. I address the most glaring issue that will help the writer improve for his or her third (and usually final) draft. In this case, the most glaring issue was the overuse of “get.”
I circled the four “gets” and in the margins, I wrote “Replace weak verbs.” When I returned it to the student, we talked briefly. I suggested his poem would be stronger with a variety of powerful verbs mainly because the reader wouldn’t be distracted and pulled out of the poem by all the “gets.”
Here’s the student’s third and final draft:
The poem is much stronger, don’t you think?
Sometimes it just takes a little more time to think of a better word.
I also wondered to myself how this poem was the student’s second draft. How did the student who gave him feedback on his first draft not catch this obvious issue? Lazy editing?
Probably, I thought, acknowledging that enabling students to provide effective feedback is still one area in my high school writer’s workshop process that needs improvement.
This poem allowed a quick fix for a common problem. And it caused the unnecessary repetition to be readily recognized and quickly and effectively repaired. This is yet another reason I like teaching poetry. It truly does teach some concepts more efficiently than I can.
Thanks for reading again this week! How is your poetry practice? Do you encourage and/or assign students to write poems? Do tell. And by the way, my next post will focus on the “Treasured Object” poem. I love this easy-to-write poem that allows students to get personal and write about a belonging they wouldn’t part with for the world. Follow my blog to catch my next post!
Watch older students create stunning expressions from everyday language
This year, for the first three days of school, I again indulged in headline poetry with my students. It was a new activity for my new high school students and I was glad for that. (I’ve introduced headline poetry to middle schoolers in the past. Click here and here for two posts on that.)
To start the activity, I simply held up and read aloud a few laminated poems created by former students. After reading, I asked, “What did you notice?” Students tended to mention the unusual word choices, strange phrasing, unexpected metaphors, and other observations. They also mentioned the poems’ originality and freshness.
I also read this excerpt of a poem written by award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The poem is called “A Valentine for Ernest Mann.” Here’s the excerpt:
So I’ll tell a secret instead: poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes, they are sleeping. They are the shadows drifting across our ceilings the moment before we wake up. What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them.
–-excerpt from “Valentine for Ernest Mann” by Naomi Shihab Nye (1952)
I read this poem excerpt to illustrate how headline poetry (and found poetry in general) is built on the notion that poetry is hiding all around us in the language we find in our everyday lives. Signs, posters, bumper stickers, magazines, mail… these provide the words that can create powerful poems.
Many students visited while they cut out words, and that was fine with me. On the other hand, many other students worked quietly… especially as they entered the arranging phase where they sorted words, and then positioned twenty to thirty of them into intriguing lines and phrases to create stunning experiments in language.
Since I asked students to make sure their poem was “about” something (it’s not just random words), many students spent a lot of time thinking about the words they had selected. I asked them to take it slow, and allow a theme to surface as they arranged and rearranged their cut-outs into a poem of at least ten lines.
And then some students were impatient or just didn’t seem to think anything meaningful could come from this form of writing. However, as they continued to work, they usually discovered a theme emerging.
Overall, it was again the perfect activity for reluctant writers and enthusiastic ones alike to kick off the year.
Here are the steps we took to create our back-to-school headline poems:
Get an envelope and put your name on it. Keep your cuttings in it.
Select some newspapers and magazines, leaf through them, and cut out interesting words and phrases from headlines. It is best to collect somewhere between 75 and 100 words and phrases from different sections of newspapers and magazines to gather a range of vocabulary, as well as selections of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
Scatter the words and phrases on a table and look for themes, synonyms, rhyming words, etc.
Arrange and rearrange the words and phrases on a page and read them aloud to check for fluency and impression. Because there is a visual quality to headline poetry, the placement of text can contribute to the presentation of ideas and meaning.
Create a poem that consists of at least ten lines.
Yes, you may create one word with individual letters, but remember: this is a form of found poetry.
When the desired order and placement of text is achieved, glue the words onto a blank sheet of construction paper.
Reflect. When you are totally finished with your poem, write a paragraph to explain the impetus for your poem. What ideas did you decide you were trying to convey with it? How did you choose this theme/subject matter/topic? Did you change your mind as you worked? What words or phrases especially helped you shape the meaning of your poem?
Try these bonus tips to get even more out of this activity:
Use as many different types of magazines as possible. Collect a wide selection that might include Vogue, Motor Trend, Better Homes and Gardens, Wired, Forbes, People, Elle, Architectural Digest, and Gourmet. A variety of subject matter will yield a better mix of words.
Provide 11- x 17-inch paper. Bigger paper allows more freedom with layout.
You will likely have a student ask if a line can be made with one word. Take the opportunity to talk with your student about why he thinks the word will be more powerful on its own. If allowing that word to stand on its own adds to the meaning of the poem, fine. If he’s just trying to race through the project, then nope.
Two more tips:
Encourage students to play with the layout. The examples here show poems that occupied the entire sheet of paper. I did have one student who arrange dtheir poem in one corner of the page. I found that one particularly striking. You can see it on the far right in the picture below.
Invariably, a student will ask if they can create a word out of individual letters. I allow kids to do that once; however, it does defeat the spontaneous nature of headline poetry, which is a form of found poetry. It’s not really found poetry if you can make any word you want, right?!
If you haven’t tried headline poetry yet, make a note on your calendar to try it soon. It’s a non-intimidating way to jump into writing, and for many students, that’s a definite necessity. Use this handout from NCTE for more guidance and resources.
Thanks for reading again this week! I meant to post this sooner (as in right after we created these poems), but the year took off and I’m only getting to it now. Leave a note or comment about your experiences with headline poetry. What could I be doing differently or better? Got any other ideas? Click like if you enjoyed this post and follow my blog to stay in touch.
Last spring in my middle school language arts classes, I taught theNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave for the eighth year. It’s the autobiography of Douglass, who was born into slavery. In his formative years, he experienced an epiphany: literacy equaled freedom. As a result, he taught himself to read and write. Years later, sure enough, he escaped from bondage.
As a free man, he became an outspoken leader for civil rights and suffrage and was eventually appointed United States Minister to Haiti. Douglass’ narrative is one of my favorite books in American literature for its honest and raw portrayal of the horrors of slavery conveyed with Douglass’ frank, accessible, and often poetic prose.
It’s an important book that is as relevant today as when it was first published in 1845. As a result, students find the text compelling and riveting. They are spellbound as they read of the realities of slavery often for the first time.
During the unit in which we read Douglass, one of my brightest students—let’s call her Ellen—endured a new low in her personal experience with anxiety and depression. She had battled these demons for a few years then, but did seem to sink even deeper during the month or so that we spent studying Douglass’ text.
It was a tough spring. At a time when her peers were looking forward to spring break, the April dance, and their graduation to high school, Ellen found it difficult just to get to school. She was often absent. On a good day, she was late to first period by half an hour.
As we read Douglass’ account of his life, Ellen seemed bored and detached. And, to be honest, I worried at the time about the content of the book being detrimental to her fragile state. How helpful can it be to read about the atrocities of human bondage when one is already suffering from negative emotions from all sides?
When we read Douglass’ stories about his various masters and life primarily as a city slave, Ellen stared blankly across the room or at the wood grain Formica pattern of her desktop. She did not turn in assignments, and only rarely contributed to class discussions. However, she would take usually do well on the occasional reading comprehension quizzes. Even so, I could tell she wasn’t engaged with Douglass. Or that’s what I assumed.
One day at the end of class, near the culmination of the unit, she casually mentioned to me, “I wrote this poem last night.” An introspective girl, Ellen enjoyed writing poetry and it wasn’t the first time she had asked me to read something she had written outside of class.
I glanced at the title, “Master Mind, and then skimmed through the stanzas as the next group of students coasted in for the boisterous last class period of the day. I noticed Frederick Douglass’ name tucked among the lines; my interest piqued.
“Can I keep this and read it after school?” I asked Ellen. She nodded and sauntered off to eighth hour.
After school, I picked up the poem and read it again. This time, I was able to concentrate.
As I read, I began to realize Ellen had written about her own kind of slavery… to depression.
I felt bad for assuming she hadn’t been listening when, truth be told, she had indeed found connection with Douglass’ experience and words. Yes, she understood and appreciated the horrific dehumanization of American slavery that Douglass experienced, but she went further. She correlated Douglass’ oppression under slavery and injustice to her own oppression under anxiety and depression.
In no way, I’m sure, did she intend to downplay or distract from Douglass’ experience when she compared her own struggle with mental health to his struggle with state-sanctioned slavery. After all, students cannot help but be shocked at the inhumane treatment Africans suffered under the peculiar institution. When Ellen applied Douglass’ experience to her own, I believe it was an honest attempt to deal with her crisis.
And what’s more, she creatively built on that attempt and created her “Master Mind” poem to sustain and even heal herself.
In short, Ellen was doing exactly what educators want their students to do: apply classic literature to contemporary life.
Here are two excerpts from Ellen’s poem:
I am a slave to my own mind.
I’m tied up, naked, and afraid,
While my uninvited thoughts hold the whip,
All day, I try to please my master,
Only to be starved of my happiness.
My fear shatters all remnants of hope,
By striking me for laughter…
For I want to be the next Frederick Douglass.
I will escape the darkness in my head,
And I plan on writing about my struggle and the struggle of others…
I am simply bringing a different kind of modern slavery to light.
And to think I assumed Ellen was just filling a chair in my classroom. Yes, she was staring into space, but she was still engaged, making meaning, finding sustenance and encouragement from her identification with Douglass.
This was the ultimate text-to-self connection, wasn’t it?
Let’s not always assume that students aren’t “getting it.” They may be understanding and gaining more from a text than we ever expect.
This experience with Ellen has shown me the value of being watchful of how students are connecting with our classroom texts. From now on, I won’t be so quick to assume that students who stare off into space are not engaged.
Thanks for reading! This has been a busy summer, and I’ve skipped a couple of weeks’ worth of posts. Between a month-long trip to Greece, (click here for one of about 25 posts), moving to a new city, a new teaching position, AND delivering my daughter to NYC last weekend for graduate school, writing on my teaching blog has been put on the back burner. However, I intend to start posting weekly starting today.
Stay tuned for my next post where I write about my new high school classes, memoirs, and map-making.
Have you heard of George Ella Lyon? She’s an American writer and teacher from Kentucky who wrote a poem several years ago called “Where I’m From.” Here’s Lyons’ poem:
Where I’m From
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.
Lyons’ website is extensive and explains the inspiration for her writing the poem. Here’s an excerpt from her website:
“Where I’m From” grew out of my response to a poem from Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet (Orchard Books, 1989; Theater Communications Group, 1991) by my friend, Tennessee writer Jo Carson. All of the People Pieces, as Jo calls them, are based on things folks actually said, and number 22 begins, “I want to know when you get to be from a place. ” Jo’s speaker, one of those people “that doesn’t have roots like trees, ” tells us “I am from Interstate 40” and “I am from the work my father did. ”
In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I’m-from lists, which I did, in a black and white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.
Each spring, my sixth-grade students write their own “Where I’m From” poems. These poems never fail to produce highly personal, touching, and honest poems.
I always display the students’ work in the hallway or on a bulletin board so everyone can read them. Students are drawn to these simple little poems that can’t help but be packed with imagery and sensory language. In fact, just last week, one of my eighth-grade students mentioned that it was one of her favorite things she had written in my class.
To get started, I read aloud Lyons’ “Where I’m From” poem as a mentor text and then I follow that up with reading three or four poems from former students. Then I pass out a template to guide students through the poem’s organization and ideas. There are several versions of the poem template out there on the Internet and on Lyons’ website; this one works especially well: iamfrompoem
Students should use this template as a guide when brainstorming and writing their poems. I don’t require that every blank be filled out as printed on the template; students can modify it to fit their life story. It’s simply a guideline, a starting point.
These poems speak for themselves. Since that’s the case, I have simply posted below some of the more poignant ones from my current sixth-grade classes.
I schedule our “Where I’m From” poems so they can be considered for publication in Creative Communication’s Spring Poetry Anthology. (By the way, check out this link for more on this publisher and its contests.) Each year, more than half of my sixth-graders see their “Where I’m From” poems published in a real hard-cover book. It’s very inspiring and is an awesome way to end the year!
Have you ever taught “Where I’m From” poems? Leave a comment with your thoughts and experiences. Thanks for reading! See you next week.
The Essential Questions: How can history inform public policy? How do people prevent past tragedies from reoccurring?
Based on those essential questions (developed with help from our school’s art teacher, Joan Edgmon, by the way), I’m sure that some may think I’ve forgotten that I teach Language Arts. They may even wonder if I’m actually a history teacher in disguise. But to that, I would answer: Actually, I just see value in using historical events for writing topics because they…
1) teach kids about the world and broadens their background knowledge.
2) provide relevancy to writing and connect school with the outside world.
3) reveal to kids that remembering past tragedies can help prevent their reoccurrence.
Connecting the Triangle Waist Co. fire, the most tragic industrial workplace fire in U.S. history until the World Trade Center (WTC) fires on Sept. 11, is one study we delved into again this fall like we do every year in my 8th-grade classes. However, this year, I designed this poetry project to help students creatively explore the connections between these two events. In the past, I’ve assigned a written essay to explore these connections, but this year, with the DAR American History Essay Contest right around the corner, I wanted to give the kids more variety with a non-essay genre: free verse poetry.
Read this post to get some background on my Triangle Fire & World Trade Center unit. In short, skyscraper building codes that had been developed in response to the 1911 Triangle Fire were relaxed during the early design of the World Trade Center towers in the 1960s. These building code changes (including a reduction in the required numbers of emergency stairwells, permission to cluster elevators in central areas, and the absence of brick masonry requirements, plus others) likely contributed to the death toll on Sept. 11, 2001.
The rest of today’s post focuses on this culminating free verse poetry project I tried for the first time with students this year. The results were not perfect; I already know a few things I need to change for next year. However, I was pleased with the thinking my students engaged in, and I was also pleased with the creativity they showed in producing the visual elements of this assignment.
Here were the requirements for the poetry project:
Triangle Fire and World Trade Center Fires
Write a free verse (non-rhyming) poem about the Triangle Fire.
Write a free verse (non-rhyming) poem about the WTC fires.
Juxtapose the two poems on construction paper or some other paper.
Include a “gallery label.” See below for details.
Requirements for the project:
Each poem should be at least ten lines long.
Each poem should give this information: date, number of deaths, causes of death, lessons learned (Triangle reforms & WTC recommendations)
Each poem’s shape or appearance should remind us of the specific building the fire occurred in. Ideas: line for each floor? Arrange the lines to represent flames?
Each poem should also mention a lesson learned from the fire. What positive element can you add? The reforms made as a result of the fires?
The poems should “allude” to each other. There are a few ways one could do this…
Have your Triangle poem mention somehow the World Trade Center or vice versa.
Make both poems share a line, i.e. the same line appears in both poems.
Make both poems share a line, i.e. the same line literally connects the two poems.
Write a gallery label that will appear alongside your juxtaposed poems.
The gallery card needs to explain the two fires, relate how your poems address the two fires. You may want to also explain: how the two fires are connected historically, what we can learn from the tragedies to ensure that history does not repeat itself in this way again.
Get creative! Need art supplies? Let me know what I need to bring.
I passed out a handout that listed all the requirements at the beginning of the project. Then we decided that when we finished it would be fun to post all the completed projects in my room in “gallery walk style” so students could vote on the top six, which would then be posted in the hallway. The gallery walk took nearly a full class period because they were so interested in doing a good job. I changed the selection of poems to post in the hallway by removing one that, while being in the students’ top six, didn’t express any lessons learned from the tragedies. Plus, I included a couple more projects that showed strong effort.
Here are some of the most effective projects. Even though the poems were the most important part of this assignment, the visual elements also had a job to do, which was to convey meaning to the poetry. Some of the photos have been cropped so the poetry can be more easily read.
One thing I know I’ll change for next year is to require that no airplanes appear in the projects. While I’m glad that students understand what ultimately caused the disaster that took so many lives, the unit was intended to focus on how builders and developers literally forgot many of the fire-prevention lessons learned from Triangle Fire.
Finally, it’s always good to focus on the Essential Questions: How can history inform public policy? How do people prevent past tragedies from reoccurring?
Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment if I’ve left out some key point— or if you spot a typo! I wrote this up fairly quickly over the weekend, and feel like there’s got to be a grammar issue or two somewhere in here. I’ll update this post as I think of other ideas or tips to include. Have a great week!
For the first week of school, my seventh- and eighth-graders created poetry made up of words and phrases found in newspapers and magazines. I found the idea on NCTE’s website, which offers lesson plan ideas. I also accessed this site where I found this beautiful quote that captures, for me anyway, the nature of headline poetry.
Finding words and then limiting yourself to using those words in your poetry creates spontaneous word choices, unexpected metaphors, and other surprising experimentation with language. My students fully enjoyed this project. I actually had a few students rushing into class, wanting to dive right back into the project, picking up where they left off the previous day.
One thing I especially liked about the project is that it capitalizes on the first few days of school. Kids naturally want to talk and visit with each other after summer break. During the first two class periods of the project, they were allowed to do just that as they searched for and cut out 75-100 words and phrases.
Then, after most of them had their words cut out, it was time to settle down a bit and start to concentrate on their poems, arranging and rearranging the pieces of paper on their desks or tables. It was truly “playtime with words,” which is a nice way to ease back into the school routine. I am definitely going to do this activity again next year.
Here’s the basic plan I used from a handout I made for students:
A headline poem uses words or phrases from newspaper and magazine headlines to craft a poem. There are several steps:
Make an envelope with construction paper and tape. Put your name on it. Keep your clippings in it.
Select some newspapers and magazines, leaf through them, and cut out interesting words and phrases from headlines. Avoid small print words because they’re too hard to keep track of and glue down later. Collect between 75 and 100 words and phrases from different sections of newspapers and magazines to gather a range of vocabulary, as well as selections of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
Don’t forget to cut out basic words such as the, a, an, and, and prepositions such as into, over, beyond, and through.
Use a variety of publication subject matter; don’t just use fashion magazines. For example, use fashion magazines, hunting magazines, the local paper, and a recipe magazine.
Scatter the words and phrases on a desk, table or the floor, and look for themes, synonyms and rhyming words. Play with the words and how they sound.
After you have your 75 words, avoid the temptation to go back to the magazines to search for specific words; use your clippings. Let the “found” words direct your poem; the spontaneity of headline poetry is what we’re after.
Arrange and rearrange the words and phrases on a page and read them aloud to check for fluency and impression. Because there is a visual quality to headline poetry, the placement of text can contribute to the presentation of ideas and meaning.
You may see a theme or a topic emerge as you play with words. Go with it!
When the desired order and placement of text is achieved, glue the words onto a blank sheet of 11″ x 17″ construction paper with a glue stick.
Work neatly and slow down when you’re gluing. Don’t let the project “fall apart” because you rushed.
Don’t forget a title. Your first line may work well as the title.
When you are totally finished with your poem, write your name on the back and turn it in. When we display these in the hall, I will give you a nameplate to fill out that will be placed on the front.
Some of the poems are incredible with interesting word combinations and definitely higher order thinking.
When students were limited to using the words and phrases they “found,” it required that they take risks with their word choice. It required that they experiment with words.
For example, in the example at the top of this article… who would have ever described a sunset as pure iced tea?
That’s the excitement and fun of headline poetry. I definitely recommend it. Try it sometime!
Follow my blog to get an email when I post pictures of my students’ headline poems displayed in the hallway. You’ll see the variety of how kids adapted to this project. Obviously, some were comfortable experimenting with words and some weren’t. In any case, I think most, if not all, enjoyed the hands-on nature of the project. Thanks for reading!
Joel R., a former eighth-grader who graduated from KMS in May, placed first with his poem “The Lucky Snag”; Allyson W., also a former eighth-grader who graduated from KMS in May, placed second with her poem “Breathe.” Zach B., who will be an eighth-grader this fall, placed third with his poem “A Deer’s Morning Graze.”
The students each received cash prizes of $200, $100, and $50, respectively. Cash awards were sponsored by Majesty Outdoors, a nonprofit “focused on bringing awareness to the fatherless epidemic in our society,” according to the foundation’s website.
Winning entries will be printed in the December/January issue of Outdoors Unlimited, OWAA’s magazine.
This is the second year KMS students have participated in the contest. In 2017, Elijah D. placed second in the junior prose division.
“I am so proud of KMS students. With this contest in particular, every student is able to find an outdoor-related topic to write about and then they stick with their poems or essays and work so hard on them, revising them until they are sent to Montana,” said Marilyn Yung, language arts teacher at KMS.
I’ll post the winning poems in a post later this week. Follow me to get those.
If you ever decide to have your students enter this contest, use these winning entries as mentor texts. That’s exactly what I did to prepare my kids for writing their entries.
In addition to sending out the news release, I also made a big deal out of the news on my private class Instagram account.
I posted an Anchorman meme that there would be a “big announcement” coming soon. I also posted a video announcing the award. (I should have embedded the video into this post, but I failed. Sorry about that!)
On another note… Don’t forget to let others know about your activities in the classroom. Get to know your local newspapers and other media so you can notify them when good things happen.
The editor to whom I sent the above release usually runs what I email to him in one of the two newspapers he publishes locally. Do a little research, find the names and email addresses of the local editor at your local media offices, and start communicating with them.
Get some publicity for your school and the part you play in your profession.
Thanks for reading! Click like if you found this valuable. Follow my blog for more writing contest news, and other posts about teaching middle school ELA.