Modeling Good Writing

In an NPR video series on Billy Collins, the poet laureate was asked how young poets could get started writing poetry. Billy Collins responded, “it’s such dull advice, there’s really no key to it, you just have to read, read poetry for 10,000 hours.”

Immersing young writers in models of fine writing was an idea echoed during a 2017 NCTE conference session on literary magazines. This session was a wonderful brain trust for individuals new to sponsoring a school’s literary magazine. In addition to bringing back copies of other schools’ literary magazines, I brought back the advice repeatedly heard: provide student writers with models of good writing and read, read, read.

In an earlier AISL blog, “Inspire Writing with Memorials,” I mentioned that our library and student LitMag editors are sponsoring a writing contest. Our LitMag editors were challenged to make promotional posters that not only advertised the contest, but also featured a poem example reflecting the contest theme of memorials or collections. As our LitMag editors searched for models of well-crafted poems, the library poetry book shelves became a cornucopia of inspirational ideas.

Below are two examples of poetry books that sparked imaginations, along with students’ poem reflections and poster design decisions.

Bravo! by Margarita Engle.
Margarita Engle, named in 2017 as the Young People’s Poet Laureate, celebrates the lives of Hispanic people from all walks of life in this collection of poems.

Poem Reflection:
LitMag editor, Sebastian, chose the poem “Life on Horseback”and explained, “this poem is a memorial to a Mexican-American cowboy named Arnold Rojas (1898-1988). Due to lack of job opportunities for immigrants, he worked as a farmworker. He leaves that job for a more exciting life as a cowboy. This poem emphasizes that you must take pride in your work and if you don’t, you should search for a more meaningful job.”

Design principle for poster: Symmetry.
Silhouetted horse heads face each other on the poster and displayed below are flags of Mexico and the United States of America, indicating the duel heritage of cowboy Arnold Rojas.

Maya Angelou (Poetry for Young People).
This collection of poems by Maya Angelou display her emotional connection with struggles
and triumphs of African Americans, including the struggle from oppression to attaining
lives of dignity.

Poem Reflection:
LitMag Editor, Alex, chose the poem “One More Round” and observed, “this poem shows a man who loves to work and believes his work is much more than slavery:  ‘I was born to work but I ain’t no mule.’”

Design Principle for poster: Repetition.
An intricate assembly line shows miniature factory workers heaving, hoisting, and loading large flour bags onto automated belts. These bags of flour are being processed so another man, drawn above the assembly line, can enjoy a bowl of cereal. Alex reflected that his drawing shows “a man that’s just eating a bowl of cereal and is treating it like any other. Look further down on the poster and you can see the work that goes into making this bowl of cereal is worth a whole lot more than it looks.”

This process of selecting poems to model well-crafted writing was a creative stretch for our LitMag editors: an opportunity both for design thinking and personal reflection on how poems communicate to an audience. The finished posters are now displayed throughout the school, inspiring our young writers through reading poems by established poets.

For further exploration of how writers rely on models of good writing, see these books that celebrate famous poets:

Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets
by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Margery Wentworth
Kwame and co-authors pay tribute to famous poets by imitating the poetic style or enkindling the emotional connection of these poets.

Boshblobberbosh: Runcible Poems for Edward Lear
by J. Patrick Lewis
Lewis, the 2011 Children’s Poet Laureate, writes poems in the style of Edward Lear to honor Lear’s whimsical language and playful use of the sounds of words.

To read more on how NCTE supports school literary magazines, see REALM Awards (Recognizing Excellence in Art and Literary Magazines).

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