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).

Reanimating Frankenstein (through Art): An Ekphrastic Writing Workshop

To write a poem is to explore the unknown capacities of the mind and the heart; it is emotive, empathetic exercise and, like being struck by lightning, it will probably leave you stunned, singed, but also a bit brighter. (Young 1)

The Ancient of Days 19th C. William Blake (1757-1827/British) British Museum, London

The Ancient of Days 19th C. William  Blake (1757-1827/British) British Museum, London         (Britannica Image Quest)

Dean Young’s quote from The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction suggests a poet has the ability to bring vitality to life experiences by startling the mind and senses into a deeper reflection. How appropriate then to take the classic tale of animating life, Frankenstein, and try to reanimate it, breathe new life into it, through a poetry-writing workshop.  And, with a flourish that Romantic poets would appreciate, spark this poetic process by viewing artwork and describing sensory and emotional reactions to the art, thereby enhancing comprehension of themes and the emotive and psychological drama of Frankenstein.

Combining art viewing with writing, an ekphrastic process, is a “vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning” (Poetry Foundation).  An example of Romantic ekphrastic poetry would be “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” in which describing the figures on the urn becomes a jumping off point for John Keats to ruminate that the scene of pipes and timbrels, maidens and gods, is a “cold Pastoral” that will outlast man (Keats).   This joining of reading, viewing artwork, and writing becomes a triple strength: 

  1. Slowing down to look closely at both text and artworks
  2. Identifying imagery that has special meaning
  3. Describing that meaning through figurative language

Incorporating writing as a pre-reading strategy to deepen analysis is supported by research of Tierney and Shanahan, who conclude that  “writing, together with reading, prompted more thoughtful consideration of ideas than writing alone,” and the combination of writing and reading is “more likely to induce learners to be more engaged” (cited in Smith 24-25).

Taking up the challenge to ignite high school students’ poetic muse with encounters of art, I collaborated with two high school English teachers, Patrick Connolly and Jennifer Smith, and a poet and creative writing teacher, Kyle Martindale, to create an Ekphrasis Writing Workshop.  The process included the following:

  1. Gathering art images (sources included Web Gallery of Art, Britannica Image Quest, Artstor, and National Institute of Health—view Bibliography of Images)
  2. Preparing students with a Mary Shelly webquest
  3. Modeling the ekphrastic approach during the writing workshop led by Kyle Martindale 

These samples of student poems, paired with artworks that inspired them, illustrate how students gave a voice to Frankenstein, the “mad creator,”  and the Monster, his tortured creation.

Andreas Vesalius

(Hamman, Edouard. Andreas Vesalius. 1848. National Library of Medicine. Bethseda. Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature. NIH. 9 July 2015. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.)

Poem by Jeffrey

In one hand, I felt the warmness
Of the yellow skin.
But in the other, I felt the coldness
Of the skull.
My left hand was filled with hope,
And my right hand was filled with death.
I am great and full of Knowledge.
It is shown in my book of Creation.
I stare upon the Crucifix and laugh.
He was said to be so great
And the Son of God.
But I hold his brother in my left arm.
I created him.
Therefore, I am God.

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 6.09.51 AM

(Beatrizet, Nicholas. Progressive Dissection of a Standing Man. 1560. Anitomia del Corpo Humano. National Library of Medicine. Bethseda. Historical Anatomies on the Web. NIH. 5 June 2012. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.)

Poem by Julie

Enclosed by another’s misery,
I dangle loosely by a thread,
Left to wonder how much
I would give to be dead,
Escaping my own despair.
My disfigurement only makes my pain
Grow stronger.
Stronger am I because of how I was structured?
Leaving me nothing but a brain to wonder.
Is my imagination even my own
Or the man before me
Perhaps the man who laid the foundation
Of my being?
My thoughts aren’t my thoughts,
My words aren’t my words,
My everything is another man’s nothing.
I am bound by a wild desire to cure
My illness inflicted by another.
It is as though I am captive to
His own predetermined mutations,
That is why I am disfigured and dangling—
Enclosed by another’s misery.

As a librarian who has a passion for words and a background in Fine Arts, I encountered powerful connections between words and images in assembling artwork for the workshop: artists’ deliberate choices of design elements (color, shape, texture, space, etc.) have parallels in writing.  One student in the workshop described poetry as “compressed language,” and artworks have similar multiple layers to communicate meaning.  One way to expand the ekphrastic writing experience would be a class trip to an art gallery to view the artworks and create poetic reflections.  Also, exhibiting student writing alongside the artworks that inspired them would be a thought-provoking way to show the interaction of word and image.  In February, at our library-sponsored Writers Café, students will read a selection of these poems accompanied by slides of the artworks.

This workshop was an opportunity for students to enliven their senses and stir up thoughts as they connected to an artwork and dramatized the experience, while also deepening insights into the emotive and psychological dimensions of Frankenstein. Through a deliberate choice of words and imagery, both the original artwork and the newly created poem became supercharged in the experience as students created an expanded dialogue of images and ideas.  Poet and scientist Jacob Bronowski said, “There is no picture and no poem unless you yourself enter it and fill it out” (cited in Moorman 46).  Students took the challenge to enter into the dialogue with art, and they filled the conversation with memorable ekphrastic poetry.  

Works Cited

Keats, John. “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” 1820. The Poetry Foundation. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.

Moorman, Honor. “Backing into Ekphrasis: Reading and Writing Poetry about Visual Art.” English Journal 96.1 (2006): 46-53. PDF file.

Smith, Jennifer. Creative Writing for Empowered Reading. Nashville: Aquinas College, 2015. Print.

Young, Dean. The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction. Minneapolis: Grey Wolf, 2010. Print.

 

The Road Not Taken: thoughts on poetry

In support of National Poetry Month, I’m arguing that the best thing we can do to support poetry in our schools in abandoning the dreaded “poetry unit.” This is more geared towards teachers, poets, and poetry lovers, but look to what librarians can do to foster poetry appreciation in their school cultures. (As the librarian here, I also used to teach a Humanities course that heavily relied to poetry to teach cultural literacy components. And I sponsor the poetry slam group. I’m guessing that others have similar experiences of “reach” beyond the library walls.) Teach poetry throughout the year, use it to support class texts, and teach contemporary poets along with the classics. Poetry’s marginalization is not new. 19th century British author Thomas Hardy went so far as to say, “If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have left him alone.” Hardy himself turned to poetry when public scrutiny of his novels proved too stressful. Complexity, foreign styles, and allusions are perceived as barriers instead of points of access or integral elements of the text.  Many individuals who otherwise are well-educated in the arts don’t read poetry.  Poetry is one of the vital keys to deeper literacy, an opportunity to experience words as substance, rather than words whose purpose is to lead somewhere.

Children instinctively respond to the rhythm of poetry.  Infants react to rhythms: intuitively in heartbeats, auditorily in lullabies, and physically in rocking. The pattern or rhythm is familiar and comforting, and it is a predictive learning tool.  Even new rhythms and rhymes seem familiar because one knows what to expect.  When one thinks of children’s rhymes, sound is imperative.  Meaning is secondary.  They are an auditory, and often a social, phenomenon.  Poems often involve physical activity, like freefall, finger-counting, or touching various body parts.  Adults still remember Humpty Dumpty and “eenie meenie, minee, mo.”  Elementary age children enjoy poems with rhythm and meaning, such as Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein.  Great children’s poets are masters at surprising children with the innovative ways they use words within the structure of patterned language, creating a sense of “unknowable mystery,” a mix of clarity, directness, and mystery.  Poetry is an enjoyable experience that children actively seek.  Somewhere between childhood and adolescence, however, appreciation of literature in general and poetry in particular drops.

Schools have been utilizing “the poetry unit” for far too long.  The poetry unit is characterized by intensive study of poetry for several weeks of the school year, often incorporating poetry writing prompts (or exercises), to teach literary devices and speech patterns.  It is as though there is a poetry box; teachers take poetry out, puzzle the pieces together, and put the finished product away until next year’s unit.  Poetry is a complex and varied genre.  The poetry unit simplifies poetry by presenting a few “representative” examples during a short time period and using them to teach other literary skills.  The poetry unit is often used in conjunction with the DAM approach-dissecting, analyzing, and memorizing poetry.  Students read the poems, break them into their primary components, and analyze.  In order to measure memorization and speech skills and to provide intimate knowledge of the mechanics of one poem, teachers will assign poems for students to memorize and recite to the class.  Librarian and poet Baron Wormser believes that requiring students to memorize specific poems, not of their choosing, is particularly harmful to teenagers.  Students memorize the poem and drag it through adulthood as an “unhappy totem” reminding them that they don’t need more poetry because they already carry poetry with them.  Memorization combines with a focus on a poem’s structure, its sound, meter, and grammar, to produce a superficial lop-sided understanding of poetry.

Schools that successfully demonstrate excellence in poetry instruction share similar characteristics.  These are enumerated in appendix one-Engaging teenagers with poetry: Ten practical teaching approaches.  Most importantly, poetry is integrated into the curriculum, throughout the year, in most classes.  While Spanish classes might use poetry to teach language skills and history teachers might use poetry to provide a particular perspective on a historical event, poems must also be allowed to stand on their own merits.  They require characterization as art, not just as teaching tools.  Students can approach them and appreciate them on their own merits, not as representations of the Spanish hyperbole or the Vietnam War.  Poems should be presented out loud and in print.  A range of poems should be presented, classic and modern, humorous and serious, long and short, narrative and descriptive, local and international.  It is important that teachers are comfortable with the genre of poetry before broaching the subject with their students and that they find poems they personally enjoy.   Teachers need to recognize that not all poems will resonate with all students, but teenagers should be able to state, using form or content from the text, what worked or did not work for them in a specific poem.  Class discussion should analyze poems, teaching the skills of critical thinking, but stopping before scrutinizing a poem to death.  Since reading professional poetry and writing one’s own poetry hone distinct proficiencies, both should be taught.  Writing prompts are good beginnings, conducting students past initial trepidations as they stare at blank sheets of paper.  Student writing needs to extend beyond self expression, using revision to carefully shape each poem.  Evaluation should be thoughtful and honest, clarifying strengths and weaknesses about the student’s success using poetic forms.  Poetry should be evaluated, but whether by grade or by extensive commentary is less important that that the student knows his work is going to be carefully considered.  The goals of a good high school poetry program are that teenagers will leave the school with a solid introduction to the types of poetry that have been produced, will have developed a taste for certain types of poetry, will be able to think critically about poetry, will be able to speak intelligently about poetry with others, and will anticipate choosing to read poetry for pleasure during their adult lives.

I love the diatribe that children’s poet Karla Kuskin wrote in poem form against overanalyzing and dissecting poetry.

If I were to introduce you to someone I care for
I might say
“This is my friend Sue
I like her very much and therefore
I hope you will like her too.”
However
after your meeting with Sue
I would not ask you to explain
her psychological and chemical makeup
or the genetic reason her eyes are 1/3 grey
and 2/3rds blue,
nor would I demand an interminable essay
on Sue’s ethnicity
education
blood pressure
taste in furniture
or home.
And
that’s the way I feel about poetry.
If I want to introduce a poem to you,
I will simply open up a book and say
“I would like you to meet a friend of mine.
My friend happens to be a poem.”
(And you leave your dissecting tools at home.)

Clearly this is an area of personal passion to me, and I have many (too many) more recommended readings, prompts, poetry books, etc. If you have a particularly interesting way that poetry is integrated into your curriculum, I’d love to hear it!

 Selected References:
 Cobb, Barbara Mather. (2006). Playing with poetry’s rhythm: Taking the intimidation out of scansion. English Journal 96(1), 56-61.
 Griswald, Andrea. (2006). Assessment lists: One solution for evaluating student poetry. English Journal 96(1), 70-75.
 Hopkins, Lee Bennett. (1998). Pass the poetry, please. New York: Harper Collins.
 Lies, Betty Bonham. (1993). The poet’s pen: Writing poetry with middle and high school students. Englewood, CO: Teacher’s Ideas Press.
 Longenbach, James. (2004). The resistance to poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Ornstein, Allan C., Lasley II, Thomas J., & Mindes, Gayle. (2005). Secondary and middle school methods. New York: Pearson.
 Philip, Neil, ed. (1996). New Oxford book of children’s verse. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Thompson, Linda, ed. (1996). Teaching of poetry: European perspectives. United Kingdom: Redwood Books.
 Wolf, Dennie Palmer. (1988). Reading reconsidered: Literature and literacy in high school. New York: The College Board.
 Wormser, Baron & Capella, David. (2004). A surge of language. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.