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2019 Post #30 -- The Poetry of Prose

by Travis Crowder

One of the beautiful things about poetry is that is touches all other genres. Poetry dwells within prose, both fiction and nonfiction, sometimes subtle and other times striking, but always trying to nudge us past the ostensible. Authors use poetic language to move their writing and to help us see the world through their eyes. Words, the molecules of ideas, envelope us, nudging us to think deeply about their function. Sometimes they seem to rest in the palm of an open hand, inviting us to use and to lean on them, to pull them into our own way of writing and speaking. This part of author’s craft is majestic, and I love introducing students to how authors use words to convey meaning.

Just a few days ago, conversations about author’s craft centered around the use of short sentences in prose. I mentioned to students how powerful short sentences could be, but like many things in reading and writing, showing works better than telling. During independent reading, I asked them to collect short sentences (usually 1-4 words) form their books on sticky notes. I came to class with my own collection of short sentences from my book, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, pictured here:

Under the document camera, I began arranging the sentences into the form of a poem, paying attention to the meanings of lines, of how fractured sentences could be fused into new ones, of how meaning changes when lines are extracted from context and blended with something else. As I arranged the sentences, I thought aloud, telling students that adding or removing words from the original sentences was acceptable.

After a few minutes of crafting in front of them, I invited them to do the same. Students worked for about ten minutes with the sentences from their independent reading. During this time, I asked them to mold them into the shape and feel of a poem, read it aloud to themselves, then revise their original poem by swapping lines, interspersing their own lines of original thought, isolating words on a single line to draw attention to them, and so on.

After collecting short sentences from Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow, Levi wrote:

I am alone.
In the house.
I let them pull me in.
Deep down.
Black as night.
Nothing in my mind.
I turn it off.
I stare at the computer.
Years goes by.
But I am not.
....... died.
In my mind.
I feel free.
But in my heart.
I am gone

The arrangement of sentences—filled with haunting lyricism—mesmerized me and his other readers.

Brittany, while reading Flawed by Cecilia Ahern, found this poem of sentences:

A light goes on for me.
I have people.
My hearing is this afternoon.
She makes a face.
I smile at her in thanks.
And then we are inside.
He tips his hat.
¨Do you agree?¨
I silently fume, then think hard.
The room erupts.
I jump up.
I pass out.

The blend of dialogue gives her poem a different edge. Characters’ names were in the original version, but I encouraged her to remove them so the reader could create the voices and names. 

Finally, students shared their poems with a classmate and posted it on a class Padlet. I also shared mine.

Grief was different.
an ocean of dark
I could not read.
I had resisted,
but soon said yes,
and felt the rush
of numbing waves.
Grief has no distance
until the morning,
when streams of light
streak the sky.

Stretching Their Thinking
Creativity exploded with this activity. I wanted students to deepen their awareness of the utility of short sentences while also appreciating author’s craft. After students posted their poems on the Padlet, I gave them time to read their classmates’ poems, identifying the one they were drawn to the most. Inside their notebooks, they copied the poem and wrote their why: What caused them to choose this poem? What word or line stands out the most to them? How does this poem make you feel? Time was provided to share poems that resonated and to celebrate their craft.
I asked students to tell me how their thinking had changed about short sentences. They answered, “We had no idea short sentences could be so powerful.”

And now, they have beautiful poems and a method of reflection that they can return to again and again.

Further Reading:

Travis Crowder is a 7th grade ELA teacher in Hiddenite, NC, teaching ten years in both middle and high school settings. His main goal is to inspire a passion for reading and writing in students. You can follow his work on Twitter (@teachermantrav) and his blog: www.teachermantrav.com/blog.

Post #29 -- The Smell of a Book

by Brett Vogelsinger

I was fortunate to receive an ARC of Laurie Halse Anderson's new book Shout back in November, and I knew from page one that I had something special to read.  Now that it has hit the shelves of bookstores everywhere, you can get your own copy!

All of the chapters, written in verse, are powerful as standalone poetry, and the first poem in the book, "PRELUDE: mic test" is an example of one that can send us quickly to our notebooks to write.  

Unlike so many books that begin with images we can see, this book begins with images we can smell.  

Ask your students: Based on this first page, what might you find in the book Shout?  (I dare you to keep this book on your classroom library shelf after reading this chapter aloud!)

Now invite your students:  Try writing a prelude to your life story so far. What would the book that holds your life story smell like? 

Further Reading:


Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, PA.  He has been starting class with a poem each day for the past six years and is the creator of the Go Poems blog to share poetry reading and writing ideas with teachers around the world. Find him on Twitter @theVogelman.

2019 Post #28 -- A Concrete Clock Poem

by Brett Vogelsinger

When it comes to concrete poetry, students are often impressed with its combination of simplicity and cleverness.  And that's the thing about concrete poems: like masterful acrobats or skateboarders or dancers, they make artful maneuvers look easy.  As some people work on movement to play with gravity, the concrete poet plays with negative space, the blank page, and the shape of words in original and sometimes humorous ways. 

One of my favorite concrete poets is Bob Raczka and his book Wet Cement contains a poem that will ring true to students and teachers everywhere.  It is called "Clock" and the picture below comes from the Kindle preview on Amazon:  

Why not challenge your students to create a smiple clock poem that sets the hour and minute hands at a different time: wake-up time,  lunch, bedtime, game time.  Or you might challenge them to change the form and still write about time: a sundial, an hourglass, a digital clock, an iPhone.  This quick introduction to a sub-genre of poetry in a shape that students of all ages and artistic abilities can handle may do more than just inspire them to create a concrete poem.  Poetry is about moments, and this exercise moves them to think of a poemworthy moment.  Maybe the following day in class, that same moment can be crafted into a poem with line breaks and stanzas.  

The writer's notebook awaits!

Further Reading:

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, PA. He has been starting class with a poem each day for the past six years and is the creator of the Go Poems blog to share poetry reading and writing ideas with teachers around the world. Find him on Twitter @theVogelman.

2019 Post #27 -- Still Life

by Allison Marchetti

One of the greatest lessons we can give our young writers is to pay attention. Nature walks, writer’s notebooks, guided imagery--all of these are wonderful tools for sharpening the writer’s focus. Another tool is the still life in words.

Jim Daniel’s poem “Work Boots: Still Life” describes a pair of work boots drying in the sun. Like an artist painting the tiny details of a thing, each line reveals the hidden layers and larger-than-lifeness of an ordinary pair of boots. The poem builds to reveal much about its wearer, to whom the boots offer the “promise of safety | the promise of steel.”

Daniels’ poems make holy ordinary moments. They are snapshots of everyday life--brushing your teeth at the sink with your sister, a pair of workboots left to dry in the sun, reading in bed with your littles close--written in beautiful, simple language, and they reveal a hidden beauty that is there simply if you pay attention.

Lead your students in an exercise that will help them pay attention to something ordinary and paint a still life in words:

Choose an inanimate object in your bedroom or home that has some significance behind it: that pair of shoes you always reach for, the old hoodie, the stuffed animal you can’t bear to pack away.

Make a two column chart in your notebook. In the left-hand column, describe what you see in plain language. Like a painter, look closely, making your way around the entire object, seeing it from multiple angles. What’s there that you’ve haven’t noticed before, even though you’ve likely looked at it thousands of times? A tiny rip at the seem, some dried chocolate smeared by little hands?

In the right column, make a list of “deeper meanings”: think about what this object means to you, where you’ve used it, or worn it, memories associated with it, etc.

Use Jim Daniels’ poem to think about how you might pair each description with a deeper meaning. Play around with interesting and unexpected similes and metaphors that breathe life and story into this inanimate object.

Consider borrowing Daniels’ syntax in the last three lines: A ____________ reveals a ________, a __________, the ______________ to tie it all together.

Offer the option of bringing in a picture of the object and pairing it with the typed poem for a beautiful still life gallery walk in your classroom.

Further Reading

Allison Marchetti is co-author with Rebekah O’Dell of WRITING WITH MENTORS and BEYOND LITERARY ANALYSIS (Heineman). She is the co-founder of Moving Writers, a blog for secondary writing teachers. She lives with her family in Richmond, Virginia.

2019 Post #26 -- Reading a Poem on Multiple Levels

by John Waite

I enjoy sharing the poem "white dove—found outside Don Teriyaki’s" by Juan Felipe Herrara with my students. It is the fifth of five of Herrera's poems published here by The Boston Review.

While this poem is very readable in terms of language and the basic story line, it offers several challenges for readers that make it an ideal text for students. It can be taken literally, about a man keeping a bird in a cage, or it could be read as symbolic of a parent-child relationship, which could be of interest to students. The form is also interesting. With its lack of punctuation and irregular line breaks it offers a chance to talk about the specific poetic techniques of form.

As a class, we look at this poem with an eye on analysis, theme, and writing craft.

Analytical Questions

1. How does the lack of punctuation affect the way you read the poem? Why might the author choose to do this?

2. Why do you think the author chooses to specify the gender of the birds?

3. Why do you think the author chooses such irregular line breaks? Is there any sort of pattern to them that you can detect?

Thematic Questions

1. How would you characterize the author’s relationship with the white dove?

2. Is the white dove better off with the speaker or in the wild?

3. How might this relationship mirror that of a parent and child?

Writing Prompts

1. Is it better to be safe or free? Why?

2. Pretend you are the white dove. What would you say to the speaker of the poem?

Further Reading:

John Waite is a teacher at Downers Grove North High School in Downers Grove, Il. He is a licensed Reading Specialist and National Board Certified Teacher. He also creates Trojan Poetry, a web series in which he and a colleague (Mike Melie) attempt to discuss poems on a weekly basis. Find it on YouTube and Twitter. Reach John at jwaite@csd99.org.

2019 Post #25 -- Make Your Peace

by Brett Vogelsinger

Anna Grossnickle Hines is a poet who brings a beautiful blend of poetry and quilting expertise to her books for children.  Since I am a poetry enthusiast, and my wife is a professional embroidery artist, we were thrilled to discover her picture books this year!

Her 2011 picture book, Peaceful Pieces, contains a poem that will speak to younger and older writers alike.  It is called "Peace: A Recipe," and the picture under the poem shows how the quilting complements the words.

Peace: A Recipe

Open minds -- at least two.
Willing hearts -- the same.
Rinse well with compassion.
Stir in a fair amount of trust.
Season with forgiveness.
Simmer in a sauce of respect.
A dash of humor brightens the flavor.

Best served with hope.

Click to enlarge!

After reading the poem twice aloud in my classroom -- first a teacher reading, then a student read aloud -- I ask my students to think of someone that they need to make greater peace with in their own lives.  I invite them to ponder: which of the "ingredients" in this poem could help lead to greater peace.  In their Writer's Notebooks, write for a few minutes about what action they could take using this "ingredient" to create greater peace in their relationship.

This activity welcomes students to see poetry not just as literature or a collection of images or a weaving of words.  Of course, it is all these things.  But it can also be a motivator, a catalyst for change, an invitation to an epiphany.

As teachers, we cannot manufacture epiphanies.  But we can give students the chance to take a message from a poem and look for ways to apply it in their lives.  This deceptively simple poem may give them just such a chance.

Further Reading:

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, PA.  He has been starting class with a poem each day for the past six years and is the creator of the Go Poems blog to share poetry reading and writing ideas with teachers around the world. Find him on Twitter @theVogelman.

2019 Post #24 -- Reading and Writing Outdoors

by Sarah Mulhern Gross

Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day” is one of my favorite poems to share with students. It’s one of Oliver’s best-known and most-quoted poems and has been included in a few of her anthologies. It strikes a chord with many high school students as they are beginning to think about their lives beyond high school. It’s also a great way to get students to slow down and observe nature for a few minutes.

Begin by giving students a copy of the poem and let them read along as they listen to Mary Oliver read it. I like to take my students outside for this activity, so I use my cell phone to share the audio. Ask your students to mark the phrases or lines that strike them in any way while they read the poem. After students have read the poem and listened to Oliver read it, have a brief discussion. I always point out to students that “The Summer Day” sounds like a prayer to me, and this makes sense because Oliver frequently talked about how the forest was her church. Ask students what their “church” might be. Where do they feel spiritual? Where do they feel safe and at peace?

After a brief discussion, give students a few minutes to write. Ask them to let the sights and sounds of the outdoors guide their writing as they try to answer the question “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I don’t give my students too many guidelines here as I just want them to write. Their response can be in prose or poetry form, and if they really get stuck I encourage them to sketch.

You could easily extend this activity into a full lesson by having students choose something outside (a tree, a blade of grass, a bird, a bug, etc) and center their response around it like Oliver centers her poem around the grasshopper. They could spend 10-15 minutes making observations about what they see, hear, smell, feel and (maybe?) taste while observing their species of choice. Oliver’s poem can serve as a mentor for their response to the question in her final line.

For more on Mary Oliver, check out this excellent New Yorker piece: Mary Oliver Helped Us Stay Amazed

For a brief Go Poems idea for Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese" click here.

Further reading:

Sarah Gross is one of the co-organizers of NerdCampNJ. She teaches in central New Jersey and loves spending time outdoors.

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