Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bringing Words to Life

If you write or teach poetry than you are most likely a logophile, a lover of words. I love to read. I love to write, and therefore I love words. In poetry, like any type of writing, words are important. They seem to hold special weight in poetry since words are sparser than in prose, and ideally more thoughtfully chosen.
When I started teaching poetry to my students, I wanted to spend a couple of days celebrating words, and thinking about word choice. How do we choose our words? What are our favorite words? What words have stronger impact than others? I read a few lesson ideas about students composing favorite word lists to get them thinking in-depth about their word choices, and decided I needed to give it a shot in my class.
I excitedly set about trying to write my favorite word list. I thought I’d try ten words. For me this was a difficult task. It turned out, I loved lots of words, and for lots of different reasons. Some words are fun to say like: flibbertigibbet, splat, gooey, pitter-patter. These words have a sound to them that rolls off the tongue, and just sound amazing. Students are naturally drawn to onomatopoeia words, sound words like: boom, kerploosh, buzz, for the same reason.
Other words have special meaning. If you love reading, as I do, then words like: books, library, story, and poem evoke a fond  association with the word. For many of my students the love of an activity creates a love of certain words like: soccer, ballet, video games, or football.
This student spent a lot of time working on his parents ranch and participating in rodeo events.
There are words that we love because they are beautiful in sound and image: intricate, gossamer, melancholy, murmur, oceanic and firefly are some of my favorite. There are also words that are delightful because of their ugliness: fester, gnarled, pus, booger, maggot.
Food words bring to mind so many of our senses, taste, smell, sight, texture (feeling),even sounds are activated. When I think of the word bacon, the word sizzle also automatically comes to mind.  Food words also incorporate many amazing foreign words into our vocabulary: fettucine, sushi, enchiladas, cous cous, tahini, and more. Plus, students love trying to make everyone else in the room hungry, especially before lunch.
Fun food words.
Place words often show up on favorite word lists. A vacation to Hawaii or Florida brings up wonderful memories. The student who has recently moved may want to honor their birth state, or the friends and family whom they are missing. Places that are on my bucket list also frequent my word lists: Tahiti, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Trondheim, Alaska.

Before I taught this word activity with my students, I shared the idea with my husband. He had his doubts about the whole thing, big doubts. He was certain that middle school kids, I taught 6th grade at the time, wouldn’t be very enthused about a favorite word list and probably wouldn’t even come up with ten words. They would be too cool, and didn’t I know that not everyone was a big word nerd like I was?
I was determined to prove him wrong, so when I introduced the lesson of the favorite word list to my class I immediately made the challenge for the students not to have to come up with ten favorite words, but to be able to narrow down all of their favorite words to a list of only ten. How, I asked, would they be able to write down only ten favorite words, when they all had at least twenty or fifty favorite words? They could only write a list of ten favorite words, not fifteen, and not even eleven. Although some students gave me a strange look when I told them this, instead of complaining that they didn’t have even ten favorite words, I heard a few groans about only getting to write down ten.  Some students have tried to bargain with me for eleven or twelve words, but nobody in my classes, in all the years I’ve taught this lesson has ever complained that they couldn’t think of at least ten!
Top Ten Favorite Word List (Click here for a simple favorite word list to use with students.)
Students in middle school, or maybe any grade for that matter, do need a few thoughts before starting their lists. I always tell them to keep the words appropriate so that everyone can enjoy the lists in the hallway. I make sure to tell them that I always put all of the lists up in the hallway. Then I also encourage them to stick to words that they know the meaning. I once had a sixth grade boy put the word tampon on his list because he heard his sisters and mom talking about them at home. I asked him politely, and in private, if he knew what the word meant. He said of course, and asked if I knew what it meant? I assured him that I did. The next day during lunch, he came in head down, and bright red to apologize. Turns out, he didn’t know what the word meant, and when his mom explained it to him, he was mortified. Luckily, he had not shared the word with the class, and it was easy to change his list before it was up for the public to view.  The story always makes me smile because it does show the power of words. His older sisters had used the word in such secretive manner, that it became full of intrigue and mystery to him. This intrigue was only amplified when they, of course, wouldn’t tell their little brother what it meant. Sharing a story similar to this will preempt inappropriate words, both unintentional and intentional, from showing up on students’ lists.
Once the students write their lists, I share mine, and I encourage them to share theirs with the class. Students are very enthusiastic about sharing their lists so I always save a good 15 to 20 minutes for this, and when time is short have to limit the share to their top two favorite words. Sharing usually causes other students to want to change or add words to their own lists, and inspires those with incomplete lists to fill theirs in. Then the students pick one word on their list that they will illustrate and color and bring to life on paper. What the students come up with always blows me away. Every year, I’m surprised with their creativity and artistic talents.
If you teach poetry, and want students to try out a fun lesson that focuses on word choice, give this lesson a shot. It is one of my favorite lessons to teach each year, and it always launches interesting and exciting discussions about words. You might be surprised to find you have a classroom full of logophiles too.
Student example of favorite word brought to life.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Power of Poetry in the Classroom

When I was younger I didn't like poetry. I take that back, when I was younger, I didn't think I could write poetry. I did enjoy reading poetry. In elementary school my copies of Shel Silverstein's books were worn thin. I read them over and over and over again. In junior high when we had to recite a poem, or a song in front of the class, I chose "Lucy Gray" by William Wordsworth. I was fascinated by the poem of a child lost in a snowstorm who disappeared forever. I stood before my 7th grade classroom reciting Wordsworth's eloquent words while the majority of my class recited the lyrics to popular songs like "Sweet Child of Mine" by Guns and Roses. "Sweet Child of Mine" does have some nice similes in its lyrics, and believe it or not, was received a slightly more receptive audience in jurnior high than Wordsworth.

Throughout my schooling whenever the topic of poetry was introduced to the class by a teacher it was with an eye roll, or with the assurance that we wouldn't focus on the topic very long. My teacher would give an annoyed sigh to let us know that she didn't enjoy poetry either but that poetry was required by the state. We would read a poem. The teacher would ask us what we thought it meant. Most of the time we didn't know, and it seemed like the teacher didn't know either. Then we would write a poem that was required to rhyme, and it would be over. It almost seemed that it was just common knowledge that everyone believed poetry was tedious and just plain difficult to understand. It was never taught with any passion or excitement. There was no wonder when we read.

In graduate school, I applied for a job at the Writing Collaborative in Missoula, MT. I already had my teaching degree and was working on an M.F.A. in fiction writing. The job brought writers into the local school to teach a writing lesson and share the student's work. My only pause was that I was supposed to teach the students poetry, and I wasn't a poet. At my interview I expressed that I did enjoy poetry, and had read lots of Shel Silverstein as a child. The interviewer stopped me right then and there. No, they didn't teach children's poetry they used real adult poems like Wallace Stevens, Keats, Frost, and Wordsworth in their classes. This puzzled me a bit, but I was intrigued with the idea. The point the Writing Collaborative was trying to make was that poetry didn't need to be dumbed down for children to understand it and write it. Shel Silverstein and other "children's" poets weren't any less poems, but they did give the impression that poetry had to be silly and it had to rhyme.

The director, Sheryl Noethe, then explained to me that poetry had saved her life. She had grown up in a home full of chaos and abuse. She was floundering in school, and didn't care about much of anything until  a poet came into her classroom and saved her.  Poetry saved her. I liked this idea most of all, that writing and expression could save someone, even if it was just one student in all of the classes that I taught.

The Writing Collaborative taught me how to teach poetry. The format was pretty simple.  I came into classes for an hour once a week. The first 20 minutes I introduced a topic. We wrote a sample poem as a class, and I shared my example and student examples. I always wrote whatever poem the students were going to write. The next 20 minutes the students wrote, and I went around and conferenced with all of the students to give feedback during the writing process. Then the last 20 minutes students shared their poetry with the class.

Teaching poetry as a Poet in the Schools was one of my best teaching experiences. The students were hesitant to write at first, but when they saw that there was no pressure of a grade, nothing but positive comments written on their poems, and that their work was celebrated in the classroom, or on the entry bulletin board at their school they became eager for the "poet" to visit every week. I told them not to worry about spelling, or rhyming, or even how they decided to set their words up on the paper. Poetry has this amazing freedom that not all genres of writing contain. At the end of class, the students could either choose to share their poems out loud, or put them in an anonymous pile that I would read without revealing their names. The results were pure magic.

I will always remember a little girl named Courtney in my first, 3rd grade poetry class. Courtney sat in the corner of the room with her desk surrounded by a circle of bright, red adhesive tape. I was told not to expect much writing from her. Courtney was below grade level, and had social/emotional, boundary issues. This was the reason for the tape. I was not to go inside the tape, and she was not to go outside the tape without permission. She ended up being one of the best poets in the entire class. Once the restrictions of spelling, grades, grammar rules were lifted from her, the ideas flooded out. I remember she had an amazing knack for synesthesia in her poetry. Synesthesia is the combining more than one sense for instance, The green laughter wafted through the breeze. When we were writing Should/Should Not poems, these are poems about things you should do in life and things you shouldn't do in life, Courtney wrote that everyone, "Should see the icy stars chattering their teeth in the night sky above the mountains." I love the idea of stars chattering their teeth. Courtney ended up sharing the most poems at our end of the year poetry reading. She was a fantastic writer.

Now that I teach in my own classroom, I always start the year teaching poetry. It is a wonderful way to get to know your students, establish trust in your classroom, and make students feel empowered by writing. I still teach with the same basic format that I did when I taught as a poet in the schools. Everyone tosses rules about spelling and grammar aside, we do our best, but if we make a mistake it is fine. The students receive nothing, but positive comments on their poetry, and students get to decide what they will share with the whole classroom. I write all of the poems that my students write, and I share my writing and my process with the class. I've learned that not only do I love reading poetry, but I also love writing, and teaching poetry to my students.

Valentine Hyperbole Poems

Love amplifies everything in our lives. It slows down time. It makes our hearts pound in our chests. It takes our breath away. That is w...