Arriving at Poetry

A book I have read recently is entitled “Why Poetry Matters” by Ralph Fletcher.  In simple terms, the book details how to get students to write better poetry.  The book does a great job of not insisting that their are “correct” poems out there, and how certain styles of poetry are better than others.  This book is just a simple guide to thinking about certain roads to improve your poetry.  Fletcher would say a poem usually has three things when it is a successful: imagery, music, and emotion.  When teaching students how to pick up and tinker with the art of writing, I think it is good to have short lists like this in order to provide actual ways to think about poetry.  I think an argument could be made that poems have more than those three things, but in order to provide students with some actual context, those three words are a good place to start building your poem.

When I started to think about those three terms in my poetry, I felt it helped me along.  Any time you are going to stress something to your students, it is probably a good thing to try it on yourself to see if it works.  Applying Fletcher’s methods to my own poetry has made me more aware of how to write rough poems that include those three elements (imagery, music, emotion).  I am a believer that by doing two of those three things well, the third aspect will actually be created on its own in the subtext.  But I believe you can’t only do two of them okay in order to create the third.

The book also had great examples of student poems, and how to make poems better by avoiding the language we feel has to be associated with poems.  Fletcher insists on student brainstorming before they sit down to write, but also encourages letting your students just spill some words.  The biggest suggestion with regard to brainstorming was to ask students to construct around what they think about.  After all, most poems being shorter and trying to arrive at a type of insight or comfort, writing poems around what we think about is going to place us in a familiar place with regard to our writing.


A Blog To Follow

I’ve spent the last couple hours looking and reading various blog posts from Moving Writers.  This a blog for educators, students, readers, writers, and anyone with a genuine interest in literature and the writing process.  Created by two educators, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, the site has been publishing education information about language arts for going on five years now.  There are seven or eight contributing writers to the blog site as well.  The educational methods prescribed are anything but traditional and center heavily on student autonomy and the implementation of mentor texts.  Besides those two main themes, there are a number of other presentation topics put forth by the site.

The advice on mentor texts was the biggest attraction for me.  Just recently one of the contributing writers, Tricia Ebarvia, wrote a blog centered on how to get students to build a file of mentor texts.  Keeping the mentor texts extremely short (page or less) and giving plenty of margin space to write in, students compile works of literature and categorize them to genre, style, form, inspirational, etc.  I thought it was great, the files the students are creating are like a catch all creative corner.  It’s helping to form who they are as readers and writers, and they are essentially compiling a quick reference or creative kick starter for their writing lives.  I could see these personalized mentor text files being great references for students to not only pull writing topics from, but to help them stay current with who they are as a writer right now.  It seems to help students not get totally lost in the writing process.  It’s the safest of places for a writer to create and refer back to (fun and interesting too).

There are other mentor text blogs that are equally as good, such as a recent post from O’Dell about having students create a Christmas memory through the study of a Truman Capote story.  It’s all step by step, but with implied play room in the language of the posts.  It’s quite versatile, because you can take a look at one of their blog posts about a mentor text, and then use your own mentor text around the format they have prescribed.  Occasionally, there will be posts detailing what a book is about, but typically the posts are teacher craft oriented and show steps and tips on how to teach students to write from mentor texts, not what the mentor text is about.

There are just a ton of good posts on the site including this one about how to avoid those trite book reports students have always been made to do.  A fun blog about six alternative options to do a book report which gets the student thinking about literature at a more complex level.

The blog “Moving Writers” is really all about getting students to think about writing and reading in fresh ways.  But it goes beyond the typical blog saying why it is important for students to become skilled writers, it shows educators how to do it.  Some posts are more step by step instruction which is great for structure, but other posts encourage teachers to play inside an idea or practice.  Either way, what they have created as an educational resource is to be highly valued by anyone looking to add life to their classroom.

Marchetti and O’Dell have recently co-authored a book entitled “writing with mentors.”

Another Week: Poetry and Prose

Books I’ve tackled this week are “So Long, See You Tomorrow” by William Maxwell and “Killing the Murnion Dogs” by Joe Wilkins.  The Maxwell work is a short fiction piece, and the Wilkins book is a collection of poems.

I had heard about “So Long, See You Tomorrow” after watching a couple of my favorite authors recommend the book on YouTube.  This book had quite the impact on me, and at 135 pages long, it does it precisely.  It is a semi-autobiographical work from Maxwell but at its heart it is definitely fiction.  In a rural area in Illinois, Lloyd Wilson is shot and killed by a neighboring farmer, Clarence Smith.  From there Maxwell deconstructs his memories as a child with the murderer’s son, Cletus Smith, and the proposed memories of the Wilson and Smith families.  That really is all there is to the book, but the form utilized is special.  Running for awhile on his memories after the murder, and then memories leading up to the murder later on, Maxwell creates a rounded story having to do with childhood guilt, uncontrollable love, friendship, rage, and loyalty.  The book is both memoir and a work of fiction and that is what makes the voice pop.  It is more than a work of mere nostalgia as Maxwell provides riveting characters and authorial insights on children who have to deal with divorce.  Maxwell is trying to corner the past and fails, and is completely self aware of the failure.  It creates something larger than reading.  This book will be a mainstay in the top drawer of the desk for awhile.

The other book, “Killing the Murnion Dogs,” from Joe Wilkins is on par with the other stuff I have read from him; super good.  Few of the poems are musing experiments with language (which they are) focused on the interior, but rather poignant deliveries that come from specific experiences (I’m assuming most of this is non-fiction, but I don’t know), which then expose the interior.  It’s all free verse (except for two or three patchwork sonnets and one prose poem), and every poem literally looks different in form from the prior one, which I always admire in poetry.  It’s heavy in Americana language, and Wilkins bleeds out a dozen or so poems set in the American South too.  If you want to learn how to make those experiences that move you sound profound and mournful, don’t hesitate to read this book.  Really loved the poems “Letter to Paul from Sunflower” and “Killing the Murnion Dogs” (title poem).

Both of these books would be great mentor texts on a teaching unit about compressed language and story form.  If every book I read were like these two, I wouldn’t leave my house to go try and do anything better than what I found here.

Memoir and Memoir Poetry

Last week I read Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life” and Marilyn Nelson’s “How I Discovered Poetry.”  They were two of my favorite books I’ve read in awhile.  The language was highly accessible for a secondary classroom, and could easily be used as mentor texts on units about creative nonfiction and poetry.

In Nelson’s work she describes growing up as the child of a military father through a series of poems.  The “On the Road” poems were especially good, and they depict life on the road for the family as they are transferred from base to base.  In the book, Nelson grows as a writer as she experience the loss of friendship and racial tension in the 1950’s.  Told in fourteen line free verse style sonnets, Nelson captures the spirit of a family on the move in the 1950’s.  The book would be great for either a unit on poetry, memoir, or social justice.  It is that versatile.

I had read some short stories by Tobias Wolff in the past, but I always wanted to read his memoir which I had heard so much about it.  This book knocks it out of the park as far as craft in the area of nonfiction goes.  Wolff takes all things ordinary and makes them extraordinary.  This book deals heavily with the guilt you can feel as a child.  The odd kind of guilt that can be self-inflicted or brought on by always feeling inadequate or lost.  Wolff has to overcome his evil stepfather, and hold fast to a relationship with his mother as they try to escape their troubled home life together.  Wolff eventually makes it out but not before failing in nearly every aspect of his life including school, friendship, home, boy scouts, and love.  The book is a great study on how to move the vertical in nonfiction writing while being able to move the horizontal forward, fluidly.  One of the better memoirs I’ve ever read.  The book seems hauntingly simple on the surface but the subtext is heavy with sadness, soul searching, and how memories shape who we are without us really being aware of it.


Professional Development Book: Time For Meaning

Randy Bomer does a stellar job in this educational text on showing teachers how to make their students better readers and writers.  Bomer moves from student writing journals, to exercises in reading, and even further to organizing units around genre.

As we have discussed multiple times in class, Bomer is no exception in moving past how literature has traditionally been taught in the Language Arts classroom.  He outlines when education changed and why it did.  Most of his connections relate to the explosion of math and science that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century, and how education has changed to the concrete, observable task.  Bomer argues against these tasks in a literate sense because he clearly shows how the tasks have moved into “observable group tasks.”  And yes, now you can see a part of the reason why classrooms have read the group text centered around classic novels, and how proper teacher generated questions will result in proper responses from students.

None of this new though, we were in those classrooms and experienced the banal worksheets centered around Of Mice and Men.

I won’t go into chapters three and four of the text in this blog because we did that in class in August and September.  Remember when we wrote in our writing journals heavily and then went back and searched for common ideas?  The stuff that was nagging at us?  Well, chapters three and four of this text are just a reiteration of what Dr. Ellington has already shown us how to do.  She has shown us how to write in our journals by taking small lines from stories as inspiration, by drawing our literate community, conversations with ourselves, and writing to questions we may have.  Bomer goes over all of this same stuff in chapters three and four.

Remember: One of the most important things about getting students to write in their journals is to give them free reign.  Also starting out class by reading a poem or a picture book can help immensely.  If anybody picks this book up check out the diagram on page 73 that deals with helping students find a writing topic; it is all about asking the student thought provoking questions.  (they can help you out with your own creative writing process too, seriously).

The best chapters of the book, in my opinion, were chapters five and six.  These chapter broke down how to use reading as tool for becoming better readers and becoming better writers.  One quote that demonstrates this from chapter five is this: “saying not just that this happened, but that this happened and here’s what it meant to me.”  This is a quote that demonstrates how a student can move past mere story summary and into a reflective response on responding to literature.  Chapter five also talks about reading in groups and reading arrangements.  If you are looking for actual scenarios you can try out, read chapter five in depth.  One example is to set up a classroom almost like a publishing industry.  Meaning there is one station for silent reading, one for book talk, one for revising, and one for workshop.  Students move through the stations and become familiar with every corner of analyzing reading, not just summarizing a stories events.

Look at chapters five and six through this quote from the book: “you are studying literature to create literature.”  These chapters are great for units on reading.

The remaining chapters of the book deal with what we are doing in class right now: Unit Planning.  Bomer lays out how to plan units around genre, and the genres he chooses are poetry, fiction, memoir, nonfiction, and craft.  A key here is to allow the students a hand in picking out the texts they are going to read.  Give them options that will matter to them.  Try not to give them all classic texts to choose from.

The chapter on how to teach fiction was maybe the better of the genre studies because he details why students will typically write pretty bad fiction.  Number one, they are writing fiction that models four hundred page novels.  So in a unit on fiction, do your students a favor and expose them to a heavy amount of short stories, get them to write character traits in their writing notebooks, and help them start slowing scene time down to the rate of molasses running down a tree in winter.

Bomer closes out his book by reiterating that the craft of teaching is as important as knowing the craft of writing.  He talks about teaching as a high form of self awareness and his writing points range from “eyeing your own processes” to “thoughtfulness” to “tact” and “transparency.”


Writing Workshops

Writing workshops are a time to share your writing and to learn from other forms of writing, be it student or professional.  Writing workshop requires some intellectual risk and the courage to show your work to others.  It familiarizes you with some of the first steps of the revision and editing process.  Writing workshops are no replacement for working out first drafts, studying technique, or revising but they do serve a large part in creating writing communities.

There are many ways to hold writing workshops as a teacher, and there are many methods to have a student analyze their writing.  In class this week we had “fishbowl” writing conferences.  This is a practice style of conference where the teacher and student will meet in the middle of the room to go over the student writing; meanwhile, all the other educational students in training watch the conference to see what the teacher does to get the best out of the student.

In a fishbowl conference the teacher wants to ask the student questions.  These questions are directed towards getting the student to talk in an open ended manner about their writing.  The teacher will obviously give suggestions, but the suggestions are never conducive to what the teacher wants to see.  The questions are about getting the student to actively engage and to read their piece closely in order to highlight where their writing is strong and weak.  Questions that facilitate discussion with the student can be numerous.

  1.  What do you think is working in your piece?
  2.  Have you ever written anything like this before?  When?
  3.  Is there anything in particular that you want me to help you through?
  4. Where did you have trouble in your piece, why?
  5.  What audience are you writing this to?
  6.  Is this a piece that you feel attached to, why?
  7.  This is a great section of your story, what did you do here to create this?
  8.  Do you like this character?
  9.  What do you think a good story does?  Where does your piece try to do that?
  10.  How can you develop this further?  Where?
  11.  This is a wonderful scene, what did you do with language here?
  12.  How did your journal help you for this writing assignment?
  13.  How did you organize your journal to create this piece?


There are many questions you can ask your students, but it is best to try to keep them open ended.  Meaning, try not to pose questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no.”  Another thing a teacher needs to do in front of the student is engage with the text.  Read bits of the student’s work back to them and encourage them.  This encouragement and and discussion should come before critiques and suggestions are given.  A student will better receive some light criticism if you can truly tell them where there piece is working first.


I read some books this week too.  I read “Walden on Wheels” by Ken Ilgunas and “The Pride of Baghdad” by Brian K. Vaughn (with art by Niko Henrichon).  The books were vastly dissimilar, as “The Pride of Baghdad” (graphic novel) is a social commentary on the crisis in the Middle East and “Walden on Wheels” is about escaping student debt and living a life of solitude and the search for enlightenment.  Ken Ilgunas was actually one of our featured authors at the StoryCatcher Writing Workshop this past summer at Fort Robinson.  I hadn’t read his books before the workshop but now wish I had so I could’ve asked him some pertinent questions.  If you ever are scheduled for a writing workshop with published authors, try to read some of their works in advance.  It is just another context you can give yourself to become a better writer.  The book by Ilgunas is quite moving, as it takes you on a journey from New York to Alaska to Ontario to New York to Mississippi to Alaska to New York to Duke.  All these places serve as stops in the journey of Ken’s life to find something like peace and understanding.  “The Pride of Baghdad” may have tried to pack too many social issues into one book, but it gives a valiant try.  In this short graphic novel there is commentary on tribalism, domestic living, Islam extremism, Western Imperialism, gender equality, gang violence, climate change, and the overall crisis in Iraq.  If you want a book that tries to cover every angle this book is for you.




Letting Go

“Control by the numbers, and number them for control,” says the automated message played on a loop in some testing center.  In my mind I’m laughing at the bar graphs.

Language Arts is an experience that requires the individual to let go.  The delicate understanding that you are never going to read everything you want to, and will never communicate everything you feel you can.  It is the thought of hopelessness, in such an expansive field, which drives the individual to gather the hope they can.  Writing and reading is a personalized navigation process, and there are so many roads, so many side trails.  Each and every time a sentence grips you, or when you spin a sentence into an auditory pleasing, you are winning in this field.  More importantly, each time you see another student smile at themselves for what they have delivered on paper, compliment them, and understand you are combining your hopes together.  This is all intrinsic stuff, and the student is off on their own pondering their surroundings and their memory.  How can all students arrive at self-satisfaction and self learning?

I watched two TED Talks this week: “Child Driven Education” presented by Sugata Mitra, “The Puzzle of Motivation” presented by Dan Pink.  They both deal exclusively with putting the individual in control of their own education.  Mitra has performed a wide variety of experiments across the globe, and has come to the conclusion that students “will learn what they want to learn.”  His approach is isolated from the student learning taking place, but this isolation is aware students will embrace a “learning space” if they are first taught how to do so.  He highlights the current educational system as being a closed space and advocates against it.  Language arts is anything but a closed sphere and assigning students nothing but grammar sheets and worksheets on plot summary makes it a closed system.  It places the importance within Language Arts as something to be tracked, something to be copied.

I realize I’m merely summarizing these TED Talks at this turn, but I need to in order to get where I’m going.  The other presentation “The Puzzle of Motivation” was all about intrinsic motivation.  The labyrinth of becoming the self by giving yourself the ability to embrace the mind and body you’ve been given.  In other words, giving yourself the privilege of autonomy.  Which Dan Pink summarizes as “the urge to direct our own lives.”

Teachers have to give their students the power to self govern in order for students to achieve personal enlightenment, in order to understand their capabilities and self worth.

In my future classroom, everything starts at “play.”  When I play at whatever I am doing, be it writing or fly fishing, I am rewarding the art of self communication.  I am giving my mind the ability to operate with my organs, and that communication is the reward.  Any concrete value that comes as a result of self or group communication, such as money or catching a fish on the stream, is only the label assigned to the important, preceding events.   It starts with having students understand they are not the defendants of the courtroom, waiting to be judged, but the very creators of the courtroom itself.  Play with the structure of your own truths, without having to look over your shoulder for numbers that will be assigned to it.

Once you recognize intrapersonal and interpersonal communication in your own life, you can recognize it in another.  This goes back to Dr. Ellington’s premise of placing yourself as the most important person in the educational process.

Inside a literate life comes the knack for recognizing it in another.  Just as the carpenter knows the product of their apprentice, the teacher can see the work of their students.  They know where help is needed, because they know and understand the literate life.  There will of course be the unknown to the teacher, but that is where human adaptability arrives, and we have the capability of learning new things every day.

The techniques of getting students to play, starts with the teacher letting go and placing the students in control of their reading and writing lives.  Show the students small pieces of writing to instigate writing prompts.  Have students write about something bugging them, and then help them to form a story thread of the itch they are feeling.  As a teacher, vary your own reading, and suggest books to the individuals.  If you engage in close reading you should never have to worry about finding books suited to individuals.  Have students mine their own dreams to create pieces of poetry.  Don’t solely prepare students for the next grade level, give them structured space in the present so they can find out who they are.  These intrinsic motivation techniques become addictive, and students end up doing more work.  The research is their to support intrinsic motivation as noted by Dan Pink.

I’ll leave you with the two TED Talk videos I’ve talked about, and a motivational video I like that deals with “dreaming the self.”

Featured Image on Blog: Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash