In honor of the holiday of love that just passed, I thought I’d post one of my favorite pieces of student work of all time. It is a poem, created under the instruction of the amazing Katie Hunt and Jody Quam, writing workshop teachers extraordinaire in New York City.
Oh, and by the way, this heart-warming poem, just seventeen words in length, carries within it a few really valuable writing lessons from which any writer, writing any kind of piece, could benefit.
Lesson #1: Try repetition.
Many writing tutorials caution to avoid repetition like the plague (and to avoid clichéd figures of speech). However, like the refrain in a song, repetition can be an important technique for underscoring a point and creating a sense of rhythm in writing. Even in dense prose, repeated phrases work.
“I write as ritual. I write because I am not employable. I write out of my inconsistencies. I write because then I do not have to speak. I write with the colors of memory. I write as a witness to what I have seen.”
–Terry Tempest Williams, “Red”
Lesson #2: Try your own definitions.
For sure, the word “love” has been defined an infinite number of ways by an infinite number of people. But that didn’t stop this writer from defining it his way. Love means freedom. Yes, dear first grade poet, I agree.
Lesson #3: Break form at the conclusion.
When children are learning to write well, often their conclusions, such as this one, veer into the realm of cliché. Somehow, however, clichés can work when part of a whole piece that feels fresh and risky, such as this one. The conclusion of a piece is also when a bit more of the writer’s personal feelings about the topic break through, as is the case here. If a student’s conclusion feels too cliché or perhaps too personal, celebrate that he or she has attempted to differentiate the ending of the piece from the rest, and teach a few other options for concluding in ways that feel more powerful.
Lesson #4: Don’t shy away from popular topics.
When I took a writing course with the amazing James Howe, I remember him telling us that there aren’t many topics or even scenarios in the world that haven’t already been written about. Having an original topic, then, is not what will make one’s writing stand out. What will make it stand out is writing about a well-worn topic in a way that no one else ever has.
This post is dedicated to all of the brave students who wrote about love, perhaps the most written-about topic of all time, in their own ways this past week, and to their teachers, who bravely created the space for this to happen, in the midst of a world of other demands.
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).