The Doors of Poetry: Guest Blog Post by Sarah Mulhern

Our first Guest Blog Post of the summer is written by Sarah Mulhern, who is a sixth grade teacher in New Jersey.  Sarah blogs at The Reading Zone.

When Stacey first asked me to write a guest blog for Two Writing Teachers I immediately accepted.   Then I realized I would have to think of something to write about!  June is always a hectic month at school and between assemblies, grading, schedule changes, field day, and all those other last-minute changes and writing sometimes falls by the wayside.  Normally, I am tying up loose ends and my students are completing writing reflections during our last few days together.  However, this year things are a little different.

Due to our schedule changes, my writing units have been bumped around.  Instead of completing our poetry unit during April, we didn’t begin until May and the final project isn’t due until June 9th.  I was hesitant to stretch poetry out into the final month but now I am so glad I did.  I don’t do the typical poetry project – you know, the one where students write a haiku, an acrostic, a diamante, and a color poem.  As I explain at the beginning of our unit, why should I repeat what they have done in the past?  Instead, we complete a project inspired by poet-extraordinaire Georgia Heard.  Inevitably, they ask if they can just hand in their project from last year, but I have outsmarted them.  Our entire unit focuses on free-verse poetry.  No step-by-step instructions here, other than “digging deep” when they write.

I begin the unit by immersing the students in poetry.  They complete poetry centers, also inspired by Georgia Heard and her amazing Awakening the Heart.  I also hand out a packet of poetry that they aren’t familiar with.  I update the packet each year but it includes poems by authors like Walter Dean Myers, Kate DiCamillo, Naomi Shihab Nye, Valerie Worth, J. Patrick Lewis, and Ralph Fletcher.  You can see the poetry centers attached to this post.  We spend about three days immersed in poetry and poems, only coming up for air during our read-aloud (prose right now).  The students are always amazed to discover that many of their favorite authors write poetry, too.

After the immersion days, we dive right into writing our own poetry.  At this stage it is vital that we write alongside our student-poets.  If we are not willing to write and reveal ourselves, why should they?  Again, I turn to the incomparable Georgia Heard here. When I saw her speak at a Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion she introduced me to the doors of poetry.  (You can also find this information in her book, Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School, pg. 50).    The doors of poetry are:

  • The Heart Door – things that you love, things that are important to you
  • The Memory Door – memories from your life: happy, sad, funny, etc
  • The Wonder Door – things that you are wondering about, questions you have
  • The Humor Door – funny, humorous poems (the boys love this door!)
  • The Observation Door – things that you observe in the world around you
  • The Concerns About the World Door – write about things that concern you, or things that you are thinking about for the world, issues in the world.

While every student does not love every door, they inevitably find at least one that opens the faucet and lets the poems flow from their pens.  I love this unit of study because my students open up so much and I get to know them so much better.  And now that we are writing together in the last few weeks of school I find that they are even more open.  We have been together for almost ten full months now and they trust their classmates and me.  By the time we complete the doors (over a period of five to seven days), they are begging to share their poems.

At this point, I introduce our culminating project.  The students will work on the project while we revise and edit the poems in school.  I never looked at it as a culmination of our year together, but now I see it as perfect for just that.  Again, inspired by Georgia Heard, we each complete a multi-genre self-portrait poetry anthology (see the second Scribd document below).  Yes, I complete on each year, too!  My students and I work side-by-side, resulting in gorgeous anthologies that represent each of us as individuals.  On the due date we share them in a museum, completing self-reflections and class reflections.

While I am used to completing our poetry project in April I think I may permanently move it the end of the year.  It’s a great way to wrap up everything we have done this year while continuing to build community in our classroom up until the last minute.