Something there is that doesn’t love a Coronavirus pandemic

Photo by Evgeny Dzhumaev on Unsplash

The coronavirus and Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”

Holed up at home at my dining room table, I’m continuing with my lesson planning as scheduled during our two-week school closing. After our recent Ernest Hemingway unit concluded last week, my plan was to introduce my juniors to Robert Frost.

Lucky them.

Frost’s poetry is poignant, honest, and direct and comments beautifully on personal wonderings, human relationships, and living in general. I always find Frost’s work to be rejuvenating and clarifying.

My plans call for students to first read Frost’s “Mending Wall,” and then “Birches,” and finally, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Once we return to school, we’ll tackle “The Road Not Taken.”

On my distance learning plan for today, I scheduled my juniors to read some short biographical background articles on Frost in our textbook.

Robert Frost in 1910 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Then, they were to freewrite in response to a prompt designed to prepare them for reading “Mending Wall.”

“Mending Wall” is one of Frost’s most well-known poems. It’s about the barriers that people use (and often work darn hard to maintain, by the way) to keep others at a distance. Here’s the freewriting prompt my students have for today:

“Think about the people who live near you. Do you see them often? Are you good friends, or do you barely speak? What activities, if any, bring you together? What things keep you apart?”

When I first read this prompt, I thought of the coronavirus.

What brings us together? Coronavirus. What keeps us apart? Coronavirus.

Yes, the coronavirus is literally keeping us apart. Social distancing is the new buzzword and best practice.

However, we can also say that the coronavirus pandemic and school closings are bringing us together. For example, I’m emailing regularly with one of our neighbors, an elderly woman who lives across the street. Before the social distancing began, even though she lives just across the way, our busy schedules prevented us from seeing her outside of our weekly meet-up at church (which is now cancelled indefinitely, of course). However, now, due to the coronavirus, we’ve had more contact with her this week than we usually do.

Bottom line: the walls that keep us from more regular contact with our neighbor — busy schedules — don’t have to exist. And that’s what Frost is getting at with “Mending Wall,” his little poem that questions why humans erect and then maintain barriers that distance themselves from those nearby.

And that brings me back (yet again) to another reason why I love Robert Frost. His work, and “Mending Wall” in particular, is as relevant today — possibly more so — than it was when it was written in 1914.

And that’s a good reason to stick to my regularly scheduled lesson plans during this two-week school closure.

My daughter took this picture of me visiting Robert Frost’s grave in Bennington, Vermont in 2002.

Thanks for reading! I’m writing daily about my Life in the Time of Corona along with my students. We are journaling and keeping artifacts from this time of school closings and social distancing to document this history. Since I think a great deal about school and lesson planning, my daily journaling about the pandemic and this blog naturally coincide.

Feel free to leave a comment about the lessons you have planned for the school closing.

Photo Friday Eve: Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

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This is educator and innovator Austin Kleon’s book, Steal Like An Artist.

Happy Friday Eve!

This is a quick pic of Austin Kleon’s book,Steal Like An Artist. In this book, Kleon, the inventor of black-out poetry, discusses creativity, the values of unplugging from technology to create, and tips for producing more.

He offers up some solid ideas that I found particularly helpful. Here are two:

  1. Don’t throw any of yourself away. If you have two or three real passions, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don’t discard. Keep all your passions in your life. 

I love this idea! I often feel like I have no focus with my writing. For example, on my personal blog, I write about travel destinations and parenting. I also have some personal narratives and short stories along with some more serious education-related essays that I’ve reposted from this blog. But that’s not all! I’ve also posted three random reviews of Ed Sheeran concerts I’ve seen. I’ve often thought Wow, I need to focus. Reading Kleon’s advice to keep cultivating all these parts of my writing was reassuring. I need to trust that all these topics have a reason for being explored. This next tip is closely related:

2.  Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece. What unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it.

Ahhh! That’s so good to hear! To know that there are benefits to writing about myriad topics. Again, I love how Kleon believes branching out and cultivating a variety of works is perfectly okay. That’s a good thing that someone with diverse interests like me needs to hear.


Thanks for stopping by! Kleon’s book is worth a look-see, not only for your own use, but for use in the classroom to cultivate and encourage creativity. Follow my blog for more posts about teaching ELA in a high school classroom. Here’s a recent post: Treasured Object Poems: A favorite poetry activity for all grades

Friday Eve Photo: A Beowulf Hero’s Journey

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After completing their Beowulf unit, seniors charted the epic poem onto a Hero’s Journey poster. Following these posters, students chose a story (novel, short story, movie) to chart in a similar way, but this time using Google Slide Presentations.  With college and careers on the horizon, this project was quite likely the last time they would break out the markers and glue sticks to show their learning. That’s kinda sad, honestly.

Treasured Object Poems: A favorite poetry activity for all grades

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Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

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.

 

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This is the handout for the Treasured Object Poem project. This handout is kept in a manila folder in the rack of writing projects that students complete during our Writer’s Workshop.

 

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.

Oversized,

It clothes me in comfort

Distressed,

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

Perfect for…

Ever.

 

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I couldn’t resist showing you my jacket. It’s exactly thirty years old this year!

 

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.

*****

Here’s another:

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes poetry can teach better than I can

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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:

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:

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“Get” is a weak, vague verb as it is. And then to have four in the same short poem! Arghghgh!

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:

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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!

 

 

 

New poetry contest: Chisholm Trail Heritage Center Cowboy Youth Poetry Contest

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Photo by Roland Kay-Smith on Unsplash

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.

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Photo: ChisholmTrail150.org

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:

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Above is a winning entry from the 2018 contest. Here’s another one below:

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And finally, there’s one more below:

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For this post, I included poems that–as far as I could tell–were written by older students. 

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:

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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. 

Headline poetry for high school students

Abi B., junior

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)

Seth C., junior

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.

Headline poetry means kids are moving around, cutting, gluing, talking, and sometimes pausing to read an article or two here and there.

Ella  D., junior

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.

Angelina C., junior

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.

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Here are some signs I post around the room when we work on headline poetry.

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:

  1. Get an envelope and put your name on it. Keep your cuttings in it.
  2. 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.
  3. Scatter the words and phrases on a table and look for themes, synonyms, rhyming words, etc.
  4. 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.
  5. Create a poem that consists of at least ten lines.
  6. Yes, you may create one word with individual letters, but remember: this is a form of found poetry.
  7. When the desired order and placement of text is achieved, glue the words onto a blank sheet of construction paper.
  8. 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?

I asked students to choose their favorite poem in each class by putting  a check mark on a sticky note attached to the poems. The three poems with the most votes were posted in the hallway.

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.

Sam F., junior

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.