See Something Where There is Nothing: A Poetry Lesson

April is National Poetry Month. Even though I tend to find crevices of time throughout the year to teach poetry and weave it within units of study I still love April. I feel like April gives me license to be a little freer as a teacher (even amidst test prep and looming schedule changes due to testing in May). We have three weeks dedicated to poetry in April, not enough, but at least I feel like it gets a nod. What I find so interesting about teaching poetry is that every time I designate time to its craft I am reminded how much of an impact it has on my students. The use of conventions improves because they are forced to make intentional decisions for the voice and tone of their poem. When I flip on my poetry teacher lens I see more and my teaching is better. If I see more inadvertently my students do as well. Poetry opens itself up to big vulnerability with little risk. More students want to share. More hands shoot up. More excitement pours in the room, therefore, it spills on the page too and I get to watch it happen. I also get to experience it as a writer. I tend to have better writing models that are more authentic and raw when I teach poetry.

The other day I was reading a letter to my students from the book, Seeing the Blue Between, Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets by Paul B. Janeczko. If you are unfamiliar with the book, it is a wonderful resource to have on hand when you want some quick inspiration. Janeczko has compiled thirty-two letters from well-known poets who share words of wisdom for students on their poetry journey. The letter I chose to read was written by Joseph Bruchac. He shared how he began writing poetry in second grade and that many times he was told he would never be a poet. My favorite part of the letter was when Bruchac tells his reader, “Where some people see nothing, a poet sees something.” I likened this statement to a writing exercise we had recently done creating a word bank in relationship to a photo.

In the lesson, I showed the class an image from my morning commute. It was a blurry picture one of my own children had snapped upon my request. When I projected it for the class I asked them to tell me what they could see. I heard a lot of students say things like “the sunrise” or “some clouds.” I asked them if it looked like a lot was going on in the picture. They all agreed that not much was happening. I told them that secretly there was a lot hiding inside of the image.

On a piece of chart paper, I quickly created four sections and began asking students to give me words that met the criteria of each section. This was very quick and I explained that I didn’t want them to think too hard. The students were quite shocked at the number of words we were able to come up with and I called it our word bank.

I created the first draft of a poem using inspiration from the words we had charted and showed them my “on the fly” revisions as I worked. I modeled how to change my mind. I hadn’t planned on rhyming but then it seemed like it was going to and I went with it. I explained that I thought I was going to write about the grass but it went in a totally different direction. Once I got started things seemed to propel forward and the words took over so I let them. I used very little from my chart but it is what got me started. If you put the poem side-by-side with the image I used, they don’t necessarily match. I told them that matching, in this case, wasn’t the point. I was trying to see something and share something that developed in my “writing mind” because of the image. It was the trigger for the poem not the subject of the poem. Though it could have been. As a class, we talked about how I might be able to write many different poems from this word bank and image.

 

I then shared a Google Slideshow of images that seemed like everyday things we might just pass by to help inspire my students to try this on their own. Sharing the slides via Google Classroom, students were able to choose an image and create their own chart. We talked about how sometimes an image or passing moment can really be inspiring. It isn’t always what the poem or piece of writing ends up being about but it can be what draws out the words to get us started. It takes away the, “I don’t know what to write about,” and replaces it with, “What can inspire me today?”

        

Students viewed the slides, chose one, and began creating their charts. These word banks and charts are inspiring our end of the month poems for Chalkabration, our finale celebration of poetry for this special month. If you haven’t tried out a poetry lesson or feel like your students need something new, feel free to use the Google Slides I created for my students and try this lesson. I’d love to hear how it goes. You are also invited to join us for Chalkabration this week as we chalk up the sidewalks with our poems at school. Should be a colorful tribute to poetry.