Poetry: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

When I first sat down to write this post, I thought I would virtually chest-bump my English Language Arts peeps–the topic is poetry, after all, the domain of the English teacher, right? I shortly realized narrowing my audience would mean I would simultaneously be turning off other content area teachers. As I come back to revise, I’m thinking how poetry could add a dimension to literacy in Science and Social Studies while addressing CCSS Literacy Standards in the process: WHST.4, WHST.5, and WHST.10, to name a few. I’m not suggesting other content area experts start teaching poetry, but I am suggesting you might consider offering such a literacy opportunity in response to a scientific or social studies topic.

Today, April 30th, marks the end of National Poetry Month, but like many of the “month” celebrations, poetry could and should be showcased throughout the year–definitely as part of an English class and perhaps even outside of English. At Gresham High School, the opportunity to have Paulann Petersen, past Oregon Poet Laureate, lead a workshop for interested students happened to coincide not only with National Poetry Month but with prolific poet William Shakespeare’s birth/death-day, April 23rd. What you’re about to read is a chronicle of a poetry writing process. The process (minus the lesson on imagery) can remain the same, regardless of the content: Emancipation, Meiosis & Meitosis (I wrote a verse of a song about this once in high school Biology), The Holocaust, Bacteria, Imperialism, Atoms & Molecules….

Paulann Petersen, 2013

Paulann Petersen, 2013

When I joined the workshop, student writing was well underway. Petersen guided the process through Springboards. Some of us might call them brainstorms, focused freewrites, or fastwrites; her’s are a bit more involved. Ours began with brainstorming a list, but it also branched out to include reading an exemplar poem, “to know what’s possible.” With this group of high school writers, we were prompted with a common topic: food. We could list foods, describe rituals around food, categorize those we liked or disliked, etc.  Following the listing activity, Petersen introduced the poem, “Good Hotdogs,” by Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street). She stated she chose this poem because she wanted a “new to you” poem. Next she asked a simple question: “What do you notice?” Student volunteers responded: “line endings,” “specific details, like ‘the little burnt tips/of french fries.'”

Our lesson followed: Image/Imagery. We started with definitions. An image, Petersen defined, is something you can see/perceive visually, whereas imagery is a word/phrase that makes a sensory connection. She described that writers constantly battle the domination of sight imagery, and she encouraged us to do the same.

Often, Petersen relayed, students (of all ages) have a tough time getting started. Here are a few ideas:

  • Mimic the start strategy of the exemplar poem: in this case, the price of the hotdog.
  • Use first-person experience, “I take the first bite….”
  • Set up imagery: We take the first step through the doorway and smell….”
  • Start with a simile or metaphor: “It tasted like….” or “The steam was….”

Once we had a starting point, we were tasked to Fastwrite for 10 minutes straight. “Don’t stop; get down as much as you can. If you begin to hesitate or stall out, look back to your brainstorm list. Focus on imagery details.”

As time was called and pencils quieted, I noticed students stretching and massaging their hands, most of them smiling. Writing is hard but rewarding work! Our next job was to pause: take a moment to breathe, then determine a next step. That might mean setting the writing aside to let it percolate or re-reading and beginning to tinker. Petersen asked for volunteers to read works in progress; as they did, we celebrated their heroic bravery and their imagery.

She then moved us along to a new topic topic (Mammals that fascinate) and another writing Springboard. Before the workshop came to a close, time was set aside to simply share. Petersen bounced from table to table, asking if anyone wanted to read one of the pieces they’d written. In each and every example, there was at least a line, an image, something that provoked emotion…a smile, a gasp, a chuckle. And, that’s good poetry regardless of topic!

If you’re interested in a clear path to this process, see the steps below:

Step 1: Brainstorm a list.

Step 2: Read aloud an exemplar poem followed by “What do you notice?” discussion.

Step 3: Good place for a mini-lesson of choice.

Step 4: Jot down your starting point.

Step 5: Fast write for 10 minutes straight. Focus on imagery details.

Step 6: Pause.





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