By Mark Jackett
Poetry can save us. We are better people if we read and write poetry regularly; the world would be a better place if everyone did. When we write poetry, we force ourselves to become more observant of the world around us: our own thoughts and feelings, the natural world, how humans interact with one another. Poetry is a way to make sense of it all in beautiful, concise language.
But, again, as we know, if we want to write in a particular genre, we need to read a lot in that genre as well. Here are my recommendations for some of the best poetry sites out there.
Academy of American Poets https://www.poets.org/
Poetry Foundation http://www.poetryfoundation.org/
Poetry Out Loud http://www.poetryoutloud.org/
Poetry 180 http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/
Each of these sites has a massive collection of great poems, as well as lesson plans and other resources for teachers and students. The idea behind Poetry 180 is to read an accessible poem aloud each day, not “study” it, just read it; maybe you’d like to try this in your school or classroom. And, if you are a high school teacher, I strongly recommend getting your school involved in Poetry Out Loud. It’s too late for this year, but I’ve been working with students on this program for about eight years, and it really gets kids excited about poetry, as well as helps them understand it better. Even if you don’t participate in the program, there are still some excellent lesson plans on the site.
Writing Poetry: Groundwork
Once you and your students have begun immersing yourselves in reading poetry, it’s time to start writing some. You might have your kids maintain a notebook, or a section of their notebooks, in which they record different poetic techniques that they like and have seen in other writers’ work. The important thing is that they maintain a notebook of their own ideas; the necessity of this cannot be stressed enough. Many of us already have our students maintain writer’s notebooks. As Vicki reminded us a couple of months ago, we need to have our students doing a lot more writing than we can ever possibly respond to. In addition to any other requirements you might have for your students’ notebooks, encourage them to jot down brief thoughts and observations throughout their days. Occasionally, and over time, these observations will take the shape of poetic lines. Some of the best poems I’ve written have happened at the end of the day by simply working on little ideas I’d written down between breakfast and bedtime. By recording their thoughts and observations in a notebook, your students will become more reflective and observant, which will give them more material to write about, and so on. It’s a beautiful feedback loop.
I have my students submit twenty lines of poetry, either one poem or multiple, at the end of each quarter. This is very simple to “grade,” and not too challenging for the students, but still enough that they have to put on their poetry hats a bit. A wonderful effect of this assignment is that there are always a few students who tend to struggle with writing essays but who really shine when it comes to writing poetry. This allows those students to feel success, and maybe they look at ELA/English in a different light. I usually try to set aside at least one day each quarter as a poetry writing day, during which we do some of the below exercises, but I collect the assignment even if I don’t get to the writing day.
Writing Poetry: Exercises
There a number of different exercises I have used with students over the years, some of which can be found in the magnificent book Poetry Everywhere, by Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe. I also like to provide the students with some basic “criteria” for poetry, reminding them to include in their poems a) concrete images, b) figurative language, c) sound devices (beyond just end rhyme!), and d) to make conscious choices about line and stanza breaks. I know that not all poems, for example, contain concrete images, but in my experience, students produce better work when provided with these basic guidelines.
One simple but powerful exercise is to simply have students write shadow poems. This can be done with any poem, though I generally demonstrate it with William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Where Williams writes that “so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow,” the students choose their own important object, and structure their poems after Williams’. Here is an example that appeared in English Journal a few years ago, written by a girl named Leslie from the village of Shishmaref, Alaska:
So much depends
beside the wrecked
While Leslie did not mimic Williams’ form exactly, the idea is still there, and we can see how Leslie was able to capture the significance of something from her own world.
Next I’ll describe a couple of other fun exercises that do not necessarily result in a completed poem, but do help students generate ideas, and also get into a more imaginative, playful mindset, out of the usual logical mindset we find ourselves in most of the time. I learned these two exercises many years ago at the Suffolk County Community College Creative Writing Festival from former Suffolk County Poet Laureate George Wallace.
The first exercise involves simply writing the alphabet down the side of a page. Alternatively, students may choose to write two columns, splitting the alphabet in the middle or alternating between each column (so that one column is “A, C, E, G,” etc., and the other is “B, D, F, H,” etc.). In the first option, each letter is the first letter of an adjective. Next to it, write a noun that has absolutely no logical business being with that adjective. The same applies with the two-column option, except that now the nouns start with each letter in the second column. So, for example, one might create the phrase “angry bananas” or “obvious potatoes,” concepts that make no rational sense and that one would not likely create by simply sitting down and saying, “I’m going to write a poem now.” After creating a complete list, a student may only have two or three phrases that she really likes, but she can take those phrases and then write one poem or several with the “alphabet phrases” as a starting point. The phrases may be used at the beginning, middle or end of the poem(s).
A final exercise also involves brainstorming silliness. Here, ask students to write the first simile that comes to mind. It can be basic and simple, and will likely be cliché, such as “The boy can run like a deer.” The next step is to write another simile, only this one starts with “The deer…” or some form thereof (“A deer..,” “Deer…,” etc.). The next simile may use “like” or “as,” and may include a verb that is being compared as in the original simile, or just a comparison of the deer as a whole. The students continue brainstorming similes, each beginning with the ending of the one previous, until they have a list of half a dozen or more. I find that sometimes I slip into straight metaphor rather than simile, and that’s OK, too. As in the alphabet exercise, several of the similes will be throwaways, but if one or two stands out, we now have the beginnings of a unique, imaginative poem.
The key with all of the above exercises is for students to breathe, to write freely and loosely, not trying to “think” too much or get it “right.” Poetry is language compressed, and that takes times and effort, but in initial drafting, students should just let it flow.
Don’t forget to give your students opportunities to share and publish their work, in class, in school, in the local community, and beyond. Here is an amazing website with a plethora of contests and publications seeking the work of high school writers: http://www.newpages.com/writers-resources/young-authors-guide
For writers of all ages, I strongly recommend the annual contest at our fabulous local poetry landmark, the Walt Whitman Birthplace: http://waltwhitman.org/young-poets-contest (Note that this is an old link; this year’s should be on the site in early 2016.)
A couple of final thoughts: as I mentioned above, students should have some type of independent writer’s notebook/journal in which they can write freely about whatever they choose. This is essential for growth as a writer. Writer’s notebooks are not the focus of this post, but without them, all other writing instruction is less effective.
Finally, let me respond to the possibility that you don’t think you have time to teach your students how to write poetry. My argument is that writing in any genre helps us become better writers in all genres, and that writing in a variety of genres keeps kids more engaged and interested. Also, when students work on a smaller piece of writing, like a poem, and really take the time to choose, for example, the most precise verb for what they want to say, they are better able to see the benefit of revision in producing more powerful writing of all kinds. Finally, we’ve all encountered students who seem to think the goal of academic essays is to sound as boring as possible. If you explicitly remind your students that many of the techniques they use in poetry (alliteration, metaphor, simile, repetition, etc.) can also be used in prose writing, their essays will gain life, will sound like they were actually written by a human being instead of a robot.
To quote Whitman, “I myself but write one or two indicative words…Expecting the main things from you.”
By Barbara Suter (originally posted on her blog "Teaching for Life" https://barbarasut.wordpress.com/)
Emotions and thoughts have been swirling through my mind since I heard about the acts of terrorism in Paris this past weekend. Paris is a city I love dearly, having lived there for over a year in my mid-twenties and returning many times to visit. In the early 70’s Paris seemed like such a cosmopolitan place to me; there were many Africans living there from the former French colony of Algeria; French friends took me to Middle Eastern restaurants which were very trendy at the time and unheard of in the U.S. People from all over Europe streamed in and out of the city. It seemed to me that so many of the people I met there were immigrants seeking a better life.
I first began reading about the banlieues (outskirts or suburbs) of Paris about a decade ago with some degree of angst. This was not the Paris I first experienced where everyone intermingled. It had become a city of haves and have nots, with clear boundaries between the native insiders living within the city and the outsiders/immigrants relegated to substandard lives on the outskirts of the city. There were serious outbursts of dissatisfaction from these outsiders who burned cars and trashed their neighborhoods as a way of expressing their frustration and anger. But things returned to the status quo and their frustration was forgotten. I wondered when it would resurface.
This past year the news of the violence that took place at Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper whose cartoons mocked the Muslim extremists, reminded us of that anger. The lives of several French cartoonists and journalists were taken in another outburst of hatred toward French culture. The world responded with sympathy (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) and a renewed vow to celebrate “free speech” across the free world.
But this past weekend’s events remind us again that this hatred is not dead, that more extreme and widespread violence may have just begun, and that we have been deeply wounded and are wondering what to do next to contain or combat extremists throughout the world.
This is where teaching comes into the discussion. I am so proud of my profession; more so than ever. Teachers have been on the frontline of cultural differences for decades as they are the ones teaching the children of immigrants and interacting with their families and extended families. We have been the ambassadors of plurality, seeking to find ways to assimilate and educate our newcomers as they arrive at our borders and in our airports.
This is not to say that all teachers welcome undocumented immigrants and their families; prejudice and scorn often rear their heads in faculty lunchrooms. But even those who do not appreciate our tolerance for such immigrants understand that our nation was built on their efforts and continues to flourish in many ways because of them. They also understand that although building a wall might be possible, it is not the best way to solve the immigrant dilemma. Teachers know that the children of immigrants, especially those born here, need to be welcomed and made to feel part of our multicultural nation at the earliest possible opportunity. Supporting the assimilation of these children and their families into our culture is how our nation will, in future decades, continue to sustain its principles of freedom and equality.
Teaching is a very difficult job. I have questioned my own beliefs and my own profession as a teacher of English to immigrant students many times over the past several decades. But, in the end, I have always come to the conclusion that becoming more understanding of people from other cultures, while helping their children to become better educated so they can better participate in our culture, is the only way to continue to build a foundation of trust and strength.
Today, I am particularly proud of English as a Second Language teachers. For several decades I believe we have had the most difficult job of anyone in our school system. We are on the front line of welcoming immigrant students and their families. We are often not held in high regard in our own schools or communities because of the work we do. But we can hold our heads up proudly because as teaching professionals we know that humans, for the most part, share the same needs and desires for themselves and their families. We are the best advocates in our educational system for making sure that all children within our borders have equal access to a good education. Right now, following the recent tragedy in Paris, our values are being sorely tested, but all teachers must continue to do what we do best. Education is terrorism’s worst enemy and the best weapon we have for preserving our values.
By Barbara Suter
I remember it well. I was attending a LIWP workshop approximately 15 years ago on the subject of strategies for teaching English Language Learners. The workshop leader had assigned the participants a writing task. The task was to write about a close friend and the qualities that made that person a close friend in A FOREIGN LANGUAGE! No matter what level of second language proficiency we had (in some cases none), we were to write a paragraph. Objective: To experience what it is like to attempt a writing assignment in a language in which you have very limited proficiency in order to better understand the challenges English Language Learners face every day in school.
The results were hilarious. As a group we shared the strategies we resorted to in order to fulfill the assignment. Some participants wrote a blended english/second language response to the assignment. Others, like myself, who are more fluent in a second language (in my case French), strategized what to say depending on how much vocabulary and grammar we knew in the second language. Had I attempted to write in Spanish, a language I know only conversationally, I would have given up. I don't recall anyone writing a perfect paragraph in their second language and these were all teachers!
The message of the activity was clear. We all knew we were incompetent or limited in our second language abilities; nonetheless, we attempted to fulfill the assignment. We were all semi-embarrassed about our results, realizing that our fulfillment of the assignment did not reflect our true abilities. We were able to giggle and squirm afterward because we knew the results did not have any real consequences. After all, we weren't being graded or judged, but the experience did force us to think about the student in our classroom who is.
Writing even in one's native language can be a daunting experience. Writing is considered a higher-order language task; it is the culmination of the sequence of the acquisition of language which begins with listening, followed by speaking, followed by reading and, finally, writing. With excellent writing instruction throughout grade school and middle school, a native English-speaking high-school student ought to be able to complete an organized and meaningful essay on a given topic. The Common Core has placed the bar even higher by requiring students to address even more complex tasks in writing, such as comparing two works of literature primarily using text-based references This level of writing proficiency assumes complete familiarity with the language, reading proficiency at grade level, and facility and experience with writing skills in our culture.
This is a tall, if not impossible order for many English Language Learners. The challenges for a student just beginning to learn English are overwhelming. The good news is that there are things that a teacher can do for an English Language Learner to help ease the transition to speaking and writing in English.
The bad news is that with the introduction of the new CR Part 154 regulations from the NYS Education Department this past year, the ESL teacher and English Language Learners are being given even less time than ever before to work on these academic challenges. Half of their former dedicated ESL time must now be provided in an integrated setting, with both an ESL teacher and a content-area or grade-school certified teacher working together to meet everyone's needs in that mainstream classroom.
It gets even more complicated. Co-teaching, which is what is optimal in an integrated setting, is a learned skill and can take several years of practice before achieving optimal results. To really make it work, school administrators must invest in the state mandate of integrated teaching by giving collaborating teachers shared time in which to plan and reflect upon their practice. During my final years of teaching, I co-taught with a colleague for three years in a third-grade classroom. Although we both loved working with our shared students, planning and reflecting time took place during our lunch hours and any moments we could steal during the day which eventually made us give up on the idea.
Believing in the power of writing for all students, for many years I tried various approaches to scaffolding my ESL students' writing efforts...often with great success. But as a "pull-out" teacher, I always had the luxury of meeting with beginners and intermediate students in my classroom to impart the knowledge they needed to slowly learn to write fluently in their new language. This is hard work...the hardest I've ever done. But it is rewarding work for both the teacher and the students. All of my students loved writing about their families, their lives and their dreams. And they loved nothing more than creating their own books to tell their stories. They needed the gift of time devoted to them to accomplish this.
In future columns I will offer strategies for helping English Language Learners learn to write and/or improve their writing. In time these strategies can become part of your classroom toolbox and you won't have to think twice about using them. I will provide examples of successful writing projects to encourage you to attempt what may now seem impossible. You may be thinking, "But there's not enough time...I haven't been properly trained...he/she doesn't speak a word of English." These are all legitimate complaints, but the beast has been unleashed in our classrooms and we must learn to cope with the new mandates as best we can. Help is on the way!
By Victoria Alessi (@alessi_more)
So here’s a confession: in the past few years, my students haven’t been writing as much as I know they should. Someone once told me that students should write five times more than what I can grade, and that used to be a truth in my classroom. But I’ve spent the past couple of years navigating the changes brought on by the Common Core State Standards, and, unfortunately, the volume and the variety of writing has decreased. Please don’t misunderstand me; my kids write. They write a lot, but not as much as they should, not in as many different genres as they used to, and not with the excitement and joy that they used to have. That’s going to change this year. This is the year that I bring the joy of writing back into my classroom. I want my young writers to be as excited about writing as I am and to have a sense of ownership and authentic purpose in their writing.
Time. Every teacher’s favorite four-letter word. I wish I had more time to . . . I am sure that we can all complete that statement in at least one hundred different ways. I plan to carve out more time, a lot more time, for my students to write in class. Because I believe that giving students time to write during the class period is one of the best gifts that I can give and one of the best ways to keep them excited about writing, I spent much of last year experimenting with flipped instruction as a way to increase in-class writing time, and I spent much of this past August restructuring my lessons in such a way that all of the writing required for class occurs in class. Through independent student reflection, class discussion and anonymous surveys, I learned that my kids got extremely stressed out and overwhelmed when they were required to write at home, and I would often receive work that was not what I, or the student, would consider his or her best work. When there is no stress or pressure of having to write for homework, I’ve found that the quality of writing is much better and that the enthusiasm for writing is much higher. The act of writing becomes exciting and engaging. I’ve also found that my students are more willing to take risks with their writing when they’re given time to write during the class period.I am there to support the students when they need support, to challenge them to try something new or to experiment with a specific craft or structure, to read over their shoulders, and to share bits and pieces of the writing that is taking shape.
Many years ago, I had the privilege of attending a Teaching of Writing class with Lucy Calkins, and one of the things I learned from her was the power of table compliments.Now, I don’t have tables, I have only 40 minutes class periods, and many of my classes have between 28- 30 students, so when I borrowed her idea, I had to make it work for a middle school classroom. I made it my policy to read snippets aloud from different students as they were hard at work writing in class. The kids love to hear what someone else in the class is doing well, and it always amazes me that other kids will try to mimic what I’ve shared, which is a compliment to the young writer. Because I do this so often, I’ve noticed that when we do peer editing or reading aloud of writing, the students are quick to say things like, “I’d like to share this sentence my partner wrote. She did a great job hooking the reader into the piece.” Over the course of any given writing assignment, I try to share as many genuine compliments as I can. Sometimes simple phrases such as, “I really like how you. . . “ or “Listen to how this sentence/ this word/ this idea. . . “ can go a long way in making a young writer excited about his or her craft.
Unfortunately, for many young writers, crafting an essay does not get them excited. Argumentative essays, analytical essays, comparison and contrast essays all have an important place in our classrooms and in the way our students learn to write and to express themselves, but I often wonder about all of the other genres: isn’t a poem as valuable as a thematic essay? I miss reading my students’ poetry, personal reflections and narratives. I miss challenging my students to experiment with hybrid genres and to create zines. I miss watching my students grow as they learn about themselves through their thoughtful and introspective journal entries. I miss the National Writing Project staple, the shared reading, and how my students responded to the reading with their unique points of view. The old adage about variety being the spice of life holds true for writing, too. Young writers should be able to try their hand at crafting a variety of genres, to experiment with words and phrases, and to get excited about the act of writing. Of course, I will continue to teach my students to be the best essay writers they can be (I am an English teacher; it’s what we do), but I plan to breathe new life into my writing curriculum by bringing back some of these old favorites.
Last spring, I squeezed a poetry writing workshop into the curriculum. We read, wrote, and memorized poems. It was wonderful to see the students so excited about reading and writing poetry, and when I heard an enthusiastic voice exclaim, “Oh, yay! We’re writing today!”, I promised myself and my students that I would given them as many opportunities as possible to write because “Oh, yay! We’re writing today!” is music to my ears.
Last year, many of us chose I Wish You More, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld as a final read aloud, sending our students off with beautiful wishes for their lives. This summer, I was a participant in the Summer Literacy Institute in Merrick, NY. On our last day, the teachers in the group all composed wishes for our students and we created a poem for our hopes for the new year.
Tomorrow is my first day of school and the students start on Wednesday. As I think about the year ahead and the challenges we teachers will face, I thought it would be nice to start the year with my own adapted version of I Wish You More. This one is for the teachers....
I Wish Us More
I wish us more "get up and go" than can't get out of bed.
I wish us more high fives than hurdles.
I wish us more empowerment than compliance.
I wish us more line-free times at the copy machine than long waits.
I wish us more balance than burnout.
I wish us more taking risks than playing it safe.
I wish us more hope than heartache.
I wish us more celebrations than consequences.
I wish us more lifting each other up than cutting each other down.
I wish us more open doors than brick walls.
I wish us more gratitude than gripes.
Thinking of one of my favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz, I wish us more...
Smarts to know what is best for our students,
Heart to put people and relationships first,
Courage to try new things and speak bravely for what is right
A professional home to make us feel welcomed and accepted.
This year, I wish all of us more. Cheers to the clean slate and the possibilities of a new year!
LIWP Guest Bloggers
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Long Island Writing Project