Have Charts, Will Travel. Mentor texts? Even better!

My last post was about some of the reflections that I want to remember when I teach any genre of writing, but I also wanted to share more of our poetry workshop and some of the amazing poems students wrote during our time by the lake. Teaching poetry in an outdoor education setting to fifth-grade students is always a highlight of my year.

I don’t have my own classroom, so whenever I teach writing, I am in someone else’s classroom with someone else’s supplies. I have come to realize that no matter where I am, I need charts, mentor texts, and special pens. I can teach a lot of writing lessons as long as I have chart paper, markers, and some books I love.

The day before I left for Colebrook, I created a series of three charts. While these charts were perfect for our scene by the lake, they would also support students in classrooms. The charts I created were from Poetry, a second-grade Unit of Study in the writing series published by Heinemann and written by Lucy Calkins, Stephanie Parsons, and Amy Ludwig Vanderwater.

Sometimes, necessity is truly the mother of invention. Normally, if I were working with a teacher during the unit of study within a classroom,  I would create a packet of poems for students. I would have included some of the poems that are on the chart, but I didn’t want to have that much paper flying around in an outdoor setting, and this was an isolated lesson. Instead, I included some of Amy’s poems on the charts, selecting poems from Forest Has a Song (Clarion, 2013) that illustrated some of the concepts on the chart. I can’t overstate how effective it was to have the poem side by side the ideas of practice. Students continually looked back and forth from the concept to the actual example of practice. 

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Chart Number 1

Initially, I did not keep students together long– I focused on the first chart, challenging students to find a big idea here or a small idea, either with big meaning, and then experiment with writing. I suggested taking on different perspectives, paying attention to sensory details, and seeing things in a way that could surprise people. I also had a pile of books that I displayed and encouraged students to read if they weren’t sure how to get started. Many students did choose to take a book from my “Bench of Books.”

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Bench of Books

We had an hour and a half, so I had a few mid-workshop interruptions, bringing students together around the second chart.

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Chart Number 2

Because the students had already done some writing, this chart made more sense to them, and many students played with line breaks, images, repetition, and figurative language once they read Home and Puff. They also loved hearing what each other were working on, and were inspired to try their own different take on some of the ideas that were shared. The close reading that went on was really intense because of the different lenses students were using to read. For example, they read Home first on the lookout for images, then with an eye for white space and line breaks, and then paying attention to patterns and repetition. 

Once they all had completed one or two poems (and yes, everyone wrote and revised at least two poems!) I shared the third chart I created ahead of time.

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Chart Number 3


(Please note: Normally, if this were a poetry unit, I would co-create these charts with students over the course of several lessons. However, we were working in a VERY compressed time frame! I would also highly recommend the guide, linked here, that Amy Ludwig Vanderwater has created to accompany Forest Has a Song. It is an incredible resource! Her website has other resources as well, which are linked here.)

Again, sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. As I was making this chart back in my office, the green pen ran out of ink, so I didn’t want to write all the questions with it. Therefore, I made all the questions a different color. The different colors were great as we talked about the questions because students referred to them as the “pink question” or the “blue question,” and we could all follow the idea much more quickly!

While these charts and the mentor texts were powerful teaching tools, and many students wrote poems modeled after Invitation and Home, by halfway through the workshop, students were inspiring each other with some of the ideas, processes, and products they created. One student used the idea of looking at something with poet’s eyes and seeing it in a new way. She wrote a poem from the perspective of a bench. Originally, she shared the handwritten version with classmates. I am sharing her typed poem in this post for the ease of reading:

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 Once classmates heard Jolie’s poem, several students were inspired to write from various perspectives–a rock, a tree, a twig, a bug, and a leaf were all personified!

While my hope is that these charts may inspire great poetry, I can also envision the concepts next to example on charts for other types of writing, as well. As I wrote at the beginning of the piece, charts and mentor texts are two of my favorite teaching tools. I know I’ve sometimes put mentor text on charts, but usually as a centerpiece of the chart, usually with annotations around it. I can’t wait to set up some strategy charts in other genres with mentors and sample writing right there next to the concept!