Monday, July 24, 2017

Imitate to Create: Exploring Voice and Style

Charles Caleb Colton once said that "Imitation is the finest form of flattery." Yet, imitation is so much more than flattery in education. For human beings imitation is often how we learn. In writing, imitation can help a writer understand an author's voice, cadence, the texture of her words, and the structure of the her sentences or lines. Writing in another writer's style also helps a writer learn about his/her own style, and how it differs.

I love to try and imitate William Carlos Williams clean and precise voice. He never wastes a word, and creates amazingly bright and vivid imagery using literal images.  My own writing, in comparison, leans towards the figurative. I like to use metaphors and similes, and I am much, much more wordy. It is a difficult and fun challenge to try and write like William Carlos Williams. There are many poetry lessons that work with imitating William Carlos Williams. I originally found my inspiration for this lesson from Sheryl Noethe's poetry book, Poetry Everywhere, however there are lots of examples of these type of imitations on the Internet if you do a little searching. In my experience, his best poems for students to imitate are "The Red Wheelbarrow" and "This Is Just To Say". 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Fib: Poetry, Science, and Magnificent Math Patterns

Sometimes we limit ourselves by defining our own identities. I hear it all the time from friends and family, students and teachers. Math isn't my subject, or I'm not a reader, or I wish I could write poetry, but I teach math or science. We create boxes around ourselves and our subjects, and therefore invent limitations that don't really exist.

I'll admit that I have definitely been guilty of this way of thinking. I taught 6th grade Language Arts for 10 years. When I taught English and reading, I might have been the go-to-person for proof reading a story, or thinking of a creative topic for a persuasive writing essay, but nobody was banging down my door to ask me how to solve an equation, or plot a coordinates on a graph. However, in the real world, math, science, social studies, writing and reading aren't solitary subjects. For those of us who dare to venture out of our subject areas, Fibonacci Poems are a great and easy way to incorporate writing into a math class, or pull science into English. Fibonacci Poems are simple to learn, and a fun form for students to play.

1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21...The Fibonacci Sequence appears in math, science, nature, and in 2006 a social media blog spiraled the sequence into the poetry world as a 6 line, 20 syllable poem called the Fib. Gregory K. Pincus had no idea what he was starting when he posted a short poem on April 20, 2006. Pincus was playing around with haiku poems, and syllables, when he thought of using the Fibonacci Sequence as the syllable count in his poem. He posted his poem on his blog, and six days later had 32,000 visitors to his blog site and people around the world were creating, posting, and playing with this "new" and fun form of poetry.

What is the Fibonacci Sequence?

The Fibonacci Sequence is a series of numbers 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34...the next number is found by adding the two previous numbers together. 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8 and so on. Leonardo Pisano Bollono, an Italian mathematician, nicknamed Fibonacci, is credited with spreading the idea of the sequence, although it was known about in India for hundreds of years.

When squares are made in the width of the Fibonacci Sequence it creates a nice spiral that we see in nautilus shells, pine cones, flowers, animals, and even galaxies.

Here are the links of a couple You Tube videos that my students have enjoyed about the Fibonacci Sequence. The first one explains different places the sequence is found in nature. The Fibonacci Sequence in Nature. The second is called Doodling in Math, Fibonacci, and Being a Plant. It evolves from doodling spirals in math class, to a look at the Fibonacci Sequence and how it intertwines with math and nature. It is fast-paced and interesting, and usually produces weeks of spiral doodles from my students.

What is a Fibonacci Poem?

A Fibonacci Poem is a poem that uses the Fibonacci Sequence to determine the number of words or syllables contained in each line of poetry. When I taught 8th grade I used syllable count, but I found that word count is easier for 3rd-6th grade. There are several versions of the Fibonacci Poem, but I only teach my students three forms.  The first type of fib is called the Simple Fib. It builds from 1 word up to 8 words. It can either be shaped like steps, or a pyramid.

Simple Fib                                                                                           Simple Fib
1    Leaves                                                                                               Moths
1    falling                                                                                                flying
2    down like                                                                                      gently through
3    floating, fall balloons                                                                  the meadow fields
5    so many colors to choose                                                      flying fast through the wind
8    but you may pick only one special leaf                    feeling free, gliding in the midnight breeze

        -Kayla 6th grade                                                                      -Alexis, 6th grade

The Diamond Fib uses the Fibonacci Sequence up to the number 5, and then reverses the numbers back down to one: 1,1,2,3,5,3,2,1,1. The result is a poem that is shaped like a diamond.

Diamond Fib, created in Google Drawing by Finley, 3rd grade

Finally, I teach the Butterfly Fib. This poem starts out the sequence with 5 words, and then narrows to 3, 2, 1. Then the pattern reverses the sequence back to 1,2,3, and ends with 5. The pattern, if looked at from the side, looks like a butterfly. 5, 3,2,1,1,2,3,5

Butterfly Fib:


Lightning is frightening like dragons
it travels fast
super fast
across the
black night sky
Lightning is frightening like dragons

-Josh, 3rd grade

For some students, the Fibonacci Sequence just clicks as their form of poetry. I normally ask the students to try out at least two forms of the Fib, but I often have a few students who come back the next day with pages and pages of Fib Poems. They love playing with the pattern and the number sequence. They create new patterns and shapes with their words. The Fib is a playful and simple way for all of us to incorporate math, science, and writing together.

Fibonacci Poem Explanation, Examples, and Activity Ideas


Saturday, July 8, 2017

Make Some Noise with Onomatopoeia!

Onomatopoeia Super Hero Comic created using Google Drawing.

Slurp, bang, thud, boom, pow, crunch, sizzle, splat, ka-boom!!! Onomatopoeia words are full of action, silliness, texture, and fun. Onomatopoeia is defined as a poetic structure of words used to convey sounds. However, when I teach the concept to my students I simply explain that onomatopoeia is a sound word.

Onomatopoeia words add flavor and excitement to our writing. They are a wonderful way to hook a reader into our writing, and to lift the words off of the page and into our imaginations. What would you rather read about, lightning flashing across the sky, or lightning crackling across the sky? Bacon frying, or bacon sizzling and popping in the pan? Books falling to the floor, or books falling to floor with a thud? I know which I would choose. I'm a sucker for onomatopoeia every time, and so are my students once I teach them about onomatopoeia.

Onomatopoeia words are all around us. They are sounds in nature like leaves rustling, a stream gurgling, or thunder booming. They are the sounds of eating and drinking like the slurp of a spaghetti noodle, the fizz of soda pop, and the crunch of a potato chip. They are the sounds that animals make like the moo of a cow, the chirp of a bird, or the roar of a lion. Did you know that different languages use different onomatopoeia sounds for animals? In Spanish a rooster says quiquiriquí instead of cock-a-doodle-doo, a bird says pío instead of tweet, and a frog says croá, croá instead of croak.

Onomatopoeia words always make me think of action. Perhaps this is why they are used so frequently in comic books. Fight scenes are peppered with pows, zaps, and boings. When I introduce onomatopoeia, I like to have the students brainstorm onomatopoeia words and include an action with them for the rest of the class to imitate. A kick becomes a ka-pow, a wrist and hand flick a slap, and holding one's noise and keeling forward an achoo! The activity gets us all moving, being silly, and having fun with onomatopoeia.

A hilarious book to read to students while noticing onomatopoeia words is the picture book The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch. The book, which combines mystery, onomatopoeia words, and bathroom humor is sure to make students and adults (me) giggle. The story is about a little mole who wakes up one morning, pops out of his hole only to have some animal do his business (poop) on his head. Since, the mole is near-sighted and can't see who the perpetrator is, the rest of the book involves him interviewing a variety of animals to figure out who is the culprit of his unfortunate incident. Each animal explains what his business looks like, and the author includes an interesting array of onomatopoeia sounds to describe it as well.  The rabbit's business flies out with a rat-a-tat-tat, the goat with a plippety plop, and the cow with a kerplosh. 

The Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch.

Yes, it's gross and a bit juvenile, but I guarantee it will capture your students' attention. I have students listen with a notebook in hand to write down their favorite onomatopoeia words from the book. They love repeating the various sounds, and getting all of us to cry out, "Ewwww, and disgusting," all over again. If you are uncomfortable reading this type of book aloud to your students, or can't get a hold of the book, there are several read aloud versions on YouTube. Here is the link to the read aloud version of the book. There are also many other books that illustrate onomatopoeia in perhaps a less potty humor form: Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? by Dr. Seuss, Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco, Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, and Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin.

There are lots of activities that students can do to practice, write, identify, and play with onomatopoeia.
Students can create their own Super Hero Comic in Google Drawing, Slides, or Seesaw. Then students can add speech bubbles, and call outs to highlight the onomatopoeia words being shown. They can take pictures of each other to make themselves the super heroes, find images, or even draw their own.

A challenging activity my students also enjoy tackling is to write a poem about an activity using only onomatopoeia words. Students should only mention their chosen activity in the title, and not read the title when they are sharing with the class. Afterward, the class can guess what activity the poem is about by listening to the onomatopoeia words. My students have had lots of fun trying to identify whether their classmates are writing about football, soccer, rodeo, skiing, or even cooking.

Early Morning, Making Fried Eggs
By: Casey, 6th grade

Stretch, stretch
Step, step, creak, creak
Sizzle, Sizzle
Click, click
Om, om, om

Free photo Fry Fried Yolk Breakfast Egg Frying Pan - Max Pixel

Onomatopoeia is a lively way to add pop, sizzle, and pow to our writing. Like the words itself, onomatopoeia allows our students to get moving, get active, and make some noise in their writing.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Taking Metaphors Literally

Students before lunch are horses waiting to gallop to the cafeteria. Emma, 6th grade

Metaphors are strange when you think about them. They are wonderful in writing. They add impact, imagery, and vividness to our words. When Paul Simon says, "I am a rock. I am an island." We see his isolation and loneliness immediately. We understand that he is desperate to cut off his emotions, and to ever open himself up again for anyone to hurt. Metaphors help us instantly understand how someone else feels. They allow us to picture an image with clarity. However, imagining a metaphor literally, as in Paul Simon's head on a rock, or an island, is a little silly. Yet, perhaps it is this oddness, this shock of image, that truly gives a metaphor its power.

There are a few mistakes I see beginning writers make when they are trying to create metaphors. The first is to write a simile instead of a metaphor.  "I am a bear in the morning" becomes "I am like a bear in the morning", or "I am as cranky as bear in the morning." Metaphors are comparisons that do not use the words like or as. This is an easy fix, simply remove the words like or as from the line of poetry, and you have a metaphor.

I am a bear in the morning. Sara, 6th grade.

The second mistake is to forget to make a comparison. "My dad is tall." In this line, dad is not being compared to anything, he is just being described. I always ask students who write a description instead of a comparison to transform the line into a metaphor. I'll ask what are things that are tall besides your dad? "My dad is a tall skyscraper" or "My dad is a tall, sequoia tree." The line becomes a metaphor and an image is instantly evoked.

The final mistake I will often see is that the subject of the metaphor isn't compared to something different, but is compared to itself. For example, "The baseball bat is a piece of wood" or "The sun is hot, fiery gas in the sky". Here the student needs to stretch the image into something it is not. "The baseball bat is a bolt of lightning" or "The sun is a hot, fiery dragon in the sky."

The tree branches are huge worms. Myla, 6th grade

Regardless of the mistake, students sometimes just need a little practice to perfect the art of the metaphor. I like to collaborate as a class to think up as many metaphors as we can for a paper clip.  One of my all time favorites was, "A paperclip is shiny, silver robot ear."

Created using Seesaw.
Then I have the students finish some lines of poetry by making them into metaphors. I have had several versions of this activity, but I will share the beginnings of lines that seem to inspire the best metaphors out of my students.

Finish the Metaphor Activity.

After the students write their metaphors, I have them pick one to illustrate literally. Students choose a metaphor they can really picture in their heads and think of what a metaphor would look like if it happened in real life. So if you wrote the line, "My heart is a tomato" you might illustrate a girl with a tomato drawn in her ribcage where her heart should be.

The river is a blue ribbon waiting to be used! Jade, 6th grade
If you want to incorporate technology into this activity, or your students feel artistically challenged, as I often do, then try creating a digital, literal metaphor. Google Drawing, Google Slides, PicCollage, Seesaw, Storyboard That, and Autodraw are just a few apps I can think of off the top of my head that make everyone an artist.

Created with Google Drawing.
The illustrations my students have done over the years are brilliant and imaginative. They do exactly what a metaphor is supposed to do, leave you with a lasting and unique image. Metaphors transform thoughts into poetry, and paint a picture in the mind.

The black bird is a dark world. Sarah, 6th grade

Sunday, July 2, 2017

First Day I Am Poems

A mind is space with lots of things to discover.

I have heard it said that we understand the world through metaphors. Therefore, if you understand metaphors, then you understand the world. I'm not sure if metaphors can make any of us world experts, but I do think metaphors are a wonderful way to break the ice, and understand my students.

In my classroom, we jump right into poetry and the power of the metaphor the first day of school. I teach a mini-lesson about poetry and metaphors, and then we all write an "I Am" Poem. The reason I start with the metaphor versus the simile, which for many is more natural and easier to write, is that the metaphor holds power. When Romeo says in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that "Juliet is the sun" it means that life without her would not be possible. The sun is the center of every one's existence. It sustains life on Earth, without Juliet, Romeo's entire existence ceases to exist.

If Romeo, were to use a simile instead to describe Juliet and say, "Juliet is like the sun" then it would simply mean she was dazzling, brilliant, beautiful to behold, but not life sustaining.Saying that Juliet is like the sun is not worthy of sacrificing one's family and life. That's why I like to start with the metaphor.

A metaphor simply put is a comparison between two different things. It does not use the words like or as. The first metaphor I always teach students is, "My dad is a bear." Then I ask them what it means if someone says that their dad is a bear. Most kids answer that it means that their dad is cranky, or ferocious, or angry. My favorite answer though was from a 3rd grade girl who said she knew exactly what the phrase my dad is a bear meant because she went swimming with her dad, and he had thick, black hair all over his back. He was definitely a bear.

Next we talk about our 5 senses. They are so important in writing. Adding a smell or a sound can wake a piece of writing up. Typically, humans are very focused on how something looks.  Our strongest sense is our vision, up to about 2/3 of our cerebral cortex is devoted in some way to our sight. Next comes auditory, touch, smell, and finally taste. So naturally, writers, especially young writers, use sight descriptions in their writing more than any other sense. It's a challenge for students to use the other senses in their writing and especially to describe themselves. I ask my students to write an "I Am" poem using all 5 of their senses.

Students can typically come up with a sight metaphor to describe themselves quite easily. I am the sight of an eagle soaring in the sky. I am the sight of a rosebud blooming. However, when asked to describe themselves as a taste or a sound, students pause. I like to joke and ask them if they should write what they literally taste like? I lick my arm. Students always laugh, and tell me no. What can we do then for a taste describing ourselves? Usually a student will suggest that we could use one of our favorite foods for our taste. This is a good idea that I try to guide students towards if they get stuck on creating a taste metaphor. Every once in a while a student will think about how there are also tastes in the air like dew in the morning, or the stale dustiness of an attic, or the sugary sweetness of cotton candy at a fair. These type of tastes create unique and startling images.

Before, we start writing metaphors, or poetry for that matter in my classroom, I like to remind my students, the reluctant writers, and the writers who believe that poetry is all about sunsets, rainbows, and love, that poetry doesn't have to be beautiful. No one has to be the sight of a butterfly fluttering under a rainbow if he/she doesn't feel that way. Poetry is about creating strong imagery, and touching on real emotions. If someone feels like he/she is the smell of fuzzy toe jam, or a rotten, black banana peel, then that is what he/she should write about. Poetry that is true is always going to effect the audience more than poetry that is falsely frilly and beautiful. One of my favorite metaphors ever came from a 4th grade boy who wrote, "Ear wax is a yellow, banana slug oozing from my ear." Ewwww, but also, yes! Can't we all picture that?

I Am
By: Colton, 6th grade

I am the smell of animal bones in a cave
I’m the sight of a wolf hunting down an elk
I am the feeling of thorns being pulled out of your leg
I am the taste of elk sausage
I'm the feeling of dry, cracked dirt
I am the taste of cold metal

I am the sound of lightning itself

I share my "I Am" poem with my class, and then I let the students create their own. It doesn't matter what sense they use first in their poem, or how many meataphors they write for each sense. Some students will fill up an entire page with an "I Am" poem, and others will stick to just one of each sense. When we are finished writing, I let the students who want to share, read their poems to the class. I am always surprised by how many students are willing to share their poetry on the first day of school, even middle schoolers. For each student who reads, I listen very carefully and pull out one line that struck me. I try to celebrate this line by saying that I loved the line where the reader said he was the smell of animal bones in a cave, or by asking the class if they couldn't picture exactly what the reader was saying when she said she was the clattering sound of rain hitting a car? When the students know you are hearing their poetry, everyone is more inclined to read aloud. I have even noticed that other students are more likely to share what they noticed about another student's poem if I model that I am listening and hearing the imagery.

Then I type each one and put it on a bulletin board for my students to see the next day. This was quite a task when I taught 6th grade because I might have to type up 75 "I Am" poems the first day of school.  Now that I teach 3rd grade, typing 20-25 poems is a bit more manageable. yet still challenging with all the activity a first day can bring. However, regardless the number of poems I have to type, getting that bulletin board up is always worth while. As soon as students notice the board on the second day, they hover around it. First, they look to see their poem, everyone wants to see his/herself recognized, then they start to read other student's poetry. I will hear students pointing out strong lines, or funny lines in everyone else's poems. I keep this bulletin board up all year. It is usually the first thing students will take their parents to see at Open House, or a parent/teacher conference.

Throughout the year, I can read the poems, and it always makes me smile at how fitting they often are for a particular student's personality. Colton is a hunter with a dark sense of humor. Ella is a gymnast, so it makes sense that she wrote she is flexible and bendable. In the spring, I take the poems off the board,and give them back to the student's on the last day of school. It's a ritual that make me feel a little sad, and also like a class has come full circle. While metaphors might not be the key to understanding my entire world, they do help me build relationships, and give me insight into who my students are each year.

My Example "I Am" Poem
"I Am" Instructions and Student Examples

I Am
By: Ella, 3rd grade

I am the taste of hot cocoa on a cold morning
I am the smell of sweet, sugary flowers
I am the sight of a beautiful rainbow after a cold rainy day
I am the sound of thunder rumbling, lightning striking,
and the clattering sound of rain hitting cars that are zooming past
I am the sugary taste of honey and chai tea on a cold rainy day
I am a smooth skipping stone
I am the sound of skipping rock
I am the touch of a kitten
I am the sound of an ocean breeze
I am the sound of a butterfly flapping
I am the sight of a puffer fish puffing
I am the sight of love
I am the birds chirping
I am bendable

I am flexible

By the way, I in no way came up with the "I Am" idea for a poem. Many teachers use "I Am" poems in some form or another when students write poetry. There are a ton of templates teachers can use for this poem out there, but I like to stick to using the 5 senses. John Clare is credited with writing a poem called I Am! in either 1844 or 1845. It was written when he was in a mental asylum, and felt forsaken by both friends and family. I have never shared this version of the poem with my students, but it is quite a beautiful and haunting poem.

*Five Senses

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