In this post: Treasured Object Poems mentor texts and lesson tips
Need a fun poetry activity to use with your students? One that will also hone their sensory language and revision skills?
Show them how to write a short free-verse poem about an object they value. Paying tribute to a precious personal item encourages them to think positively about their lives and builds their creative writing skills.
After you first explain the poem, if your students are like mine, one of the very first responses you’ll hear is, “But I don’t have anything that I treasure.”
When that happens, I elaborate. I ask them,
“Okay, if the fire alarm in your house went off, and you had to get out NOW, what two or three things would you grab?”
One of these things might be the perfect thing for a Treasured Object Poem.
To get started, hold a conversation to get students talking about their favorite things. Students of mine have written about a necklace from Grandma, their turquoise Converse, a pocket watch, a fishing rod, a book, a special hoodie, and more.
To help them get ideas, I also provide mentor texts former students have written.
This year, I wrote my own Treasured Object poem and shared it with my classes. I donned my awesome ’90s vintage bomber jacket, and read the following example:
My ’90s Bomber Jacket
Thick and heavy, warm and supple
Chocolate brown leather, a world map lining
Four pockets to hold:
Gloves, change, Kleenexes, icy fingers.
It clothes me in comfort
It encloses me in memories from
Years of travel from
Minnesota to Maine,
Vermont to Florida.
Oregon to Kansas.
My trendy friend found years ago
In a Phoenix boutique
Is now classic outerwear and
Here’s a student-written example of a Treasured Object Poem:
My Old Turquoise Converse by Hailey B.
My old turquoise Converse,
tarnished with dust and dirt.
My old turquoise Converse,
laced with well-worn shoestrings.
Oh, how my old turquoise Converse
are embedded with memories.
The memories they hold include
meeting a special friend and
having rotten days.
My old turquoise Converse,
walked in only by me.
The Piano by Elijah D.
The piano’s mahogany stained legs stand
Arching over the flat worn pew.
Graceful as the tree it was separated from.
The shimmering finish of the basswood keys glistens.
A mild hiatus, waiting to be played by skilled hands
Keys sheltered until then.
Though, piano is my forte.
Hammers drawn crisply.
Strings unfrayed for their age.
The contrivance gives a beautiful melody, however untuned.
Dust mustn’t settle on the antiqued surface.
The high, console style backing draped in cloth.
Complemented by family photos in elegant frames.
Thoughts of my grandmother come to mind,
As it was her’s at one time.
But now, it is mine to own.
And even though I encourage students to write a free verse poem, occasionally, a student will use rhyme. And that’s fine with me as long as it’s not forced. Here’s one of those:
The Rocking Horse by Devyn R.
Rocking horse, rocking horse, take me away
To faraway places and spaces to play
Farther and farther I knew we went
Across the kitchen and through the vent
Over the hills, galloping we go
When we’ll stop, I’ll never know
Back and back, my head’s in a spin
Nobody else knows the spin that I am in
Taking me places I’ve never been
As high as a bird, as fast as a fish
In the clouds, through the ocean, anywhere I wish
Three ways to beef up this activity
1. Try this revision strategy:
Adding more sensory language will help these poems come to life. After first drafts have been written, have students take their poems and add:
- one fragrance or smell
- one sound
- one texture
- one taste or flavor
2. Guide your students away from these treasured object ideas:
- Game systems, phones, and other screens… Honestly, students give enough attention to their screens. I tell students that they’ll have more success with an object that’s tangible. In other words, it’s important to be able to touch or physically experience their object. However, sometimes I give in and let them attempt a poem about their PS4, for example, so they can learn on their own that video games and virtual realities are difficult to describe with physical terms. When they invariably struggle to add sensory language to their poem, they usually change their mind on their own to something that invariably has more poetry potential.
- Food…There’s always one student who will want to write about a food, as in “But I treasure pizza, Mrs. Yung!” But unfortunately, such a temporal item will make their Treasured Object Poem feel insignificant. Encourage them to focus on something permanent and precious. Food disappears too quickly to deserve a poem.
3. Enter these poems in a contest.
In fact, on the handout in the photo above (it was used with my middle school students in my previous teaching position), you can see that my students limited their poems to twenty lines. This limit was placed so the students could enter their poems in Creative Communication’s Poetry Contests. Read my blog post about this publisher here.
I hope you enjoy sharing this poetry idea with your kids. It’s always been a favorite with my own students. In addition, it’s a poem they can return to again and again as they think of other objects they treasure. Most of my students, even my high school students, surprise themselves with how much they like their final product.
Thanks for reading again this week! If you try this in your classes, feel free to let me know in the comments how it goes or drop me an email in the “Contact” menu.
Take word choice, for example
Last December, when I read a student’s second draft of their Treasured Object poem and saw that it contained the word “get” four times, I thought Really? Get? Four times?
It surprised me because I thought I had taught not only sentence variety, but word variety as well. It’s good to vary our words. Yes, a writer can repeat certain words in order to:
- emphasize a point,
- make the writing flow better,
- or to help his or her sentences “hold hands” with transition ideas.
However, many times using the same word repeatedly —- especially a vague one like “get” — is simply a sign of lazy writing.
Here’s the second draft that a student turned in during our fall writer’s workshop:
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!
Plus: past winning poems to use as mentor texts
Do you have any students who live on farms or ranches, own livestock, or love rodeos? If so, bookmark this post about a new poetry contest designed to celebrate the spirit of ranching life and the American West: the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center’s Cowboy Youth Poetry Contest.
The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, Okla. is sponsoring this contest this fall for the second year. Click here for more information about the contest, but take note:
…the postmark deadline is approaching: Nov. 1, 2019.
The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center’s mission is “To celebrate and perpetuate the history, art and culture of the Chisholm Trail, the American Cowboy and the American West.” According to ChisholmTrail150.org, in 2017, the Chisholm Trail celebrated 150 years since the first cattle were herded to Abilene, Ks. from south Texas. The trail was originally needed to bring cattle from the south through the Indian territories of Oklahoma to Abilene.
Last week, I contacted Toni Hopper, communications and exhibits director of the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center, to request the winning entries found at the end of this post.
In an email, Hopper told me that this year there are several more categories for students to enter. In 2018, the top five poems entered from all ages were awarded prizes. However, this year, there are five prizes per grade level. The levels are Pre-K to 2nd grade; 3rd-5th grades; 6th-8th grades; and 9th-12th grades. First place in each grade category wins $100; second place, $75; third place, $50; fourth place, $25; and fifth place, $10.
The following bulleted guidelines for the 2019 contest are found at this website. Please consult this site directly for more information. Also double-check for changes that may occur after the publishing of this post.
Students must write and submit a cowboy poem – it must be their own original work. Contest is open to all grade levels – Pre-K through 12th grade, and home-school students.
- Poems must be about the cowboy way of life – ranch life, cowboys, cowgirls, livestock, rodeo, anything that is directly related. For example, a student may want to write about pets – the barn cat, the dog who herds the cattle, or the environment – riding a horse in the hot summer.
- Poems must be a minimum of eight lines, and a maximum of two pages.
- Poems can be handwritten or typed and must be the original work of the student.
- Only one entry per student.
- Poems written in a language other than English must have a translation attached.
- Poems are judged on creativity, originality, language, appropriateness of content (theme).
According to the website, all entrants will receive a certificate of achievement from the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center. Winning entries, along with the student’s name and school, will be published on the Heritage Center’s website. A panel of experienced judges will determine the winners.
I have one student with a poem that is Old West-themed, which he is preparing to enter. Who knows how it will fare? However, the contest provides a little extra motivation to continue revising the poem.
Here are three past winning entries from the inaugural 2018 contest:
Although the poems above are rather traditional in their presentation, know that younger students have accompanied their poems with drawings and creative handwriting. Consult this site for those guidelines.
The group also has a Facebook page at this link. You can stay more up-to-date by referring to it as the contest approaches.
Here’s a photo of the official entry form and rules:
Make sure your students know that they have quite a bit of choice when they sit down to write their poems. As long as their poems address “Ranch life, cowboys, cowgirls, livestock, rodeo, anything that is directly related,” according to the contest guidelines, they’re good to saddle up and enter this contest!
Thanks for reading again this week! It’s been a while since I’ve posted a new contest. Contests can build more motivation for students in your classroom and can get their work out into the real world before a real audience. They are often hard to find… especially ones like this that are open to all grade levels. Let me know if you have any questions or need more info on this contest by leaving a comment. And, by all means, feel free to contact the organization directly for changes, updates, or clarifications that might be made without my knowledge.
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.
Artifacts connect the 9/11 attacks to the loss of innocent human life
I believe in teaching students about the September 11th terrorist attacks. It seems that up until a few years ago, students had an intrinsic desire to understand it better. Still, it seems that their desire to learn about 9/11 is waning, especially among high school students.
My current juniors and seniors were born in 2001 and 2002, and they tell me they have “been taught” about Sept. 11 every year for as long as they can remember. As a result, they feel they know all they need to know about this world-changing event.
But they don’t.
Yes, they’ve watched movies and documentaries galore that show (yet again) the airplanes crashing into the towers. They’ve seen photographs of Ground Zero. They know about Afghanistan.
But they may not know about…
- a pair of shoes found in the rubble
- a charred jewelry box found buildings away in a bank vault
- a crumpled wallet
Simply put, students haven’t heard the stories the artifacts tell.
In 2018, I discovered a few sources for photographs of artifacts from Ground Zero. One of these websites was the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Click here to go to the museum’s Memo Blog where you can search for artifacts.
By the way, here’s an idea that sparked as I searched online to write this post. Another effective way to connect the tragedy to the loss of life might be to focus on the missing persons signs that family members and friends posted around the city in the days immediately following the attack. Here’s a source for missing persons posters from New York magazine.
Other sources included commemorative articles about the attacks in New York magazine and The New York Times. Last year, when I discovered these artifacts, I planned on using them in a new activity; however, that never transpired. I kept the artifacts photos, however, since I knew I could use them in the future whenever I figured out what I wanted to do with them in a learning unit. Besides that, color printing is so costly that I didn’t want to waste them.
This year, I finally was able to incorporate the photos into a four-day unit on 9/11 that I hoped would teach students about the tragedy beyond dates, place names, and facts. I hoped to show students a more personal side of the tragedy. That is, after all, what makes the attacks so devastating. Beyond the ferocity and horror of the crashing towers —and the Pentagon and Flight 93— was the shocking comprehension of the violent loss of nearly 3,000 innocent lives.
I feel that young people fail to grasp the human factor in the attacks… through no fault of their own.
So with that in mind, I created this lesson plan and activity that’s intended to help students see 9/11 in a new light.
Here’s a rundown of my new 9/11 Artifact Project.
First, before I ever even said the word “artifact,” I assigned a 9/11-themed Article of the Week assignment. AOWs are weekly assignments that my students receive every Tuesday; they’re due the following Tuesday. These assignments are considered homework and are fashioned after AOW assignments created by Kelly Gallagher.
This 9/11 AOW featured a 2016 USA Today article entitled “Fifteen Years Later: The Questions that Remain in Our Minds…15 Years After 9/11.” Even though this article is three years old, it’s the best one I’ve found for containing a wealth of information in a concise length. In the assignment, students read the article and then annotate it with their own thoughts and observations. Students then respond to the writing prompt that asks them to reflect on and explain what they learned from reading the article.
Based on our discussions after reading aloud the article, it seemed that most, if not all, students learned from this AOW. Most students had no previous knowledge about the 1993 truck bombing attempt. Some were unaware of Flight 93, which was eventually crashed by the passengers into a field in Shanksville, Pa. None had heard of the bombings and attacks that preceded the World Trade Center attacks, such as the USS Cole attack in 2000, and the 1998 attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
This AOW assignment was turned in the day we started the 9/11 Artifact Project, so students would have the article’s information in the back of their minds as they began to delve deeper into the project.
After turning in their AOW assignment, I asked students to pick up a photo of an artifact from a table where I had scattered 25 photos. The artifacts included keys, shoes, firefighter helmets, jewelry, mangled pieces of metal from one of the airplanes, and other objects. I didn’t tell students where the images were from, but they quickly deduced that since it was September 10, that the images must have something to do with the terror attacks that would be commemorated the next day.
After picking up their image, I asked students to simply write a paragraph to describe the object. They could describe the artifact, discuss who might have owned it, and what it might have symbolized to its owner. Here’s one of those paragraphs:
This book contains the stories of 367 people who survived the destruction of the towers. It contains eye-witness accounts of exactly what unfolded during the 102 minutes that transpired between the strike and the collapse of the north tower.
After reading the Author’s Note, I asked students to get into groups of four. In their groups, they read either the first half or the second half of the Prologue. They could read their pages however they wished: one student could read the entire excerpt, students could take turns… it was their choice how they could complete it. They each had their own copy of the text so they could annotate it as they read. I also passed out sticky notes and asked them to write down three to four new words from the reading (students are now using one of the words in a literary analysis assignment that began the next week).
What came next? A one-word summary of the excerpt. I asked students to choose one word to summarize their excerpt and then write a paragraph defending their choice of that word. The only requirement was that the summary include evidence from the text followed by a sentence or two of interpretation. Students wrote these summaries by hand on notebook paper in the classroom; they typed them on computers later in the week in the computer lab.
After students had finished their one-word summaries, we took a break from reading and writing and instead did a quick speaking and listening activity. I passed out to students slips of paper that contained descriptions of their respective artifacts. Some of the descriptions were lengthy; some were just a sentence or so.
One by one, we went around the room and each student walked to the document camera, projected their artifact onto the screen, and then read their description to the class. Everything from office keys, to crumpled police car hoods, to shoes were shown.
Here are some of those artifacts along with descriptions:
With this project, I thought it would be interesting to experiment with linking different genres, so I asked students to bear with me and try something new. Here’s what I asked them to do: take the word that they chose to summarize the 102 Minutes Prologue and use that word to create an acrostic poem about their 9/11 artifact. The poem would also include the quote or a phrase from the quote they used as evidence in their summary.
Using a word from the text to dictate the direction of the poem would, I hoped, provide a clear link between the disaster and a specific person involved in the attacks in some way, whether they were a World Trade Center worker or an emergency responder.
Since my goal was to link the atrocity to a single human life, I thought connecting the 102 Minutes text to a personal artifact would be a valuable task.
It seemed somewhat strange to students at first to make their word from the text be the centerpiece of their poem, but once they had the idea firmly in their minds, they seemed to see the connection to being made.
I also provided them my own example of a poem and a summary for them to reference, which I showed via the document camera. Here’s the instruction sheet I made and then my example poem and summary on the back side:
In reflection, I think my first “go” at this activity was successful. When we finished, I assembled all the materials and put them into a three-ring binder for safe-keeping for next year. I placed each artifact photo and its description into its own plastic page protector so they wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle, as well as samples from students to use as mentor texts for next year.
Here are a few samples from students:
As for receiving feedback from students regarding this project… I did give each student a three question half-sheet for them to fill out at the conclusion of the project. I gained a few ideas for how to improve the project for next time, such as…
- Allow more time for the project.
- Do either the poem only or the one-word summary only. It became confusing for some.
- Slow the speed of the lesson down. (And I’ll admit, on new activities, it seems I never allot enough time.)
- Possibly add a video to the project. In my previous position, my eighth-graders watched the New York: The Documentary at the conclusion of a unit on the attacks. Because my students at my new school had told me they were studying 9/11 in their history and/or government classes, I opted not to watch one this year. Perhaps next.
In addition, most students responded that they now know more about 9/11 than they did previously. And sure, a few don’t think that they gained any new knowledge about the attacks. Here are a few responses I received back from my half-sheet lesson evaluation.
By the way, my students really put a lot of thought into these little evaluation half-sheets. I was so surprised that they didn’t just rush through them or put “idk” in the blanks. They really took their time and I’m thankful for that.
To sum it up, I will definitely do this project again with my students next year. I think my first attempt at it was successful based on the connections my students made between the text, which resulted in a product that combined non-fiction summary writing with poetry.
Sure, there are some modifications to be made, but that’s a given with any lesson plan… new or tried-and-true.
Perhaps most importantly, I believe putting the human element into the story of 9/11 captures students’ attention. Viewing a crumpled and nearly destroyed employee i.d. card adds a visceral element to the sterile facts, dates, and statistics that can all too often dominate a textbook study of a historical event.
If, in the end, that’s all this lesson plan accomplished, I’m fine with that.
This four-day unit instructed in the following Missouri Learning Standards:
Reading Informational Text 1D: Explain two or more central/main ideas in a text, analyze their development throughout the text, and relate the central ideas to human nature and the world; provide an objective and concise summary of the text;
Reading Informational Text 3D: Synthesize information from two or more texts about similar ideas/topics to articulate the complexity of the issue.
Writing 2A: Follow a writing process to produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, style, and voice are appropriate to the task, purpose, and audience; self-select and blend (when appropriate) previously learned narrative, expository, and argumentative writing techniques.
Writing 3A: c. Conventions of standard English and usage: Demonstrate a command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage, including spelling and punctuation; d. Use a variety of appropriate transitions to clarify relationships, connect ideas and claims, and signal time shifts; e. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.
Speaking and Listening 2A: Speak audibly and to the point, using conventions of language as appropriate to task, purpose, and audience when presenting including
fluent and clear articulation, strategically varying volume, pitch, and pace to consistently engage listeners.
Thanks for reading again this week! Since this is the first time I’ve done this activity with students, I know there are so many ways to improve on this lesson plan for next year. Between my notes in this post, my three-ring binder full of materials, and your feedback and ideas, I can no doubt improve upon it for next time. Feel free to leave and comment, and then follow my blog to keep in touch.
Don’t assume they aren’t listening
Last spring in my middle school language arts classes, I taught the Narrative 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.