Twenty Little Poetry Projects

Wonder how many poems you can stuff in a mailbox?

I am not a poet, but I love the room of opportunites that poem doors open up for writing teachers.  Leave it to a fabulous poem to start many, many conversations about language, choice, authorial intention, image, or persona. Or a hundred billion other things.

The Practice of Poetry is one of those books I’ve used exhaustively over the last ten years to get those discussions started.   The exercises are unique and delivered in such a way that even the most reluctuant student poets can produce something artful.

Because the writing exercises in The Practice of Poetry are written by poets who are also teachers, each exercise comes with an explanation of how the poet developed the exercise and the purpose for which she created it.  In class  Friday, we embarked on Jim Simmerman’s great exercise “Twenty Little Poetry Projects.”  Simmerman states, “This exercise is great for producing free-for-all wackiness, inventive word play, and the sheer oddities of language itself.”   Because I have a mixed bag of writers in my classroom, I felt like this exercise would be great for those who felt stymied by the pressure to sound “poetic” (whatever that means) or any kid out there dealing with writer’s block, or as Simmerman states in the explanation, any one “stuck in a single style.”

The key to doing this exercise is to write all the “projects,” then revise for unity and coherence, looking for the  opportunities for repetition and parallelism, capitalizing on the experimental nature of the activity to have fun and take risks with language and image.  The twenty projects are:

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use of example of synesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand.)
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he/she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that finally makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

The students had a lot of fun doing this activity.  Even though the exercise is a formula of sorts, my students made the poems personal through the use of voice, style,  or mood.   Here are a few selections for your enjoyment.

#1 David, Grade 10 

#2 Marin, Grade 10

#3 John, Grade 10

#4 Katrin, Grade 10

#5 Taleah, Grade 10

 

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Lesson Plan: Mirror, Mirror

In the essay “On Becoming a Poet,” Mark Strands says, “A poem may be the residue of an inner urgency, one through which the self wishes to register itself, write itself into being, and finally, to charm another self, the reader, into belief.”

Today in my Literary Arts 1.2 class, my learning target was to register ourselves, to write ourselves into being, and, of course, to use the kind of language and details that would charm a reader into belief.

First, I led the class in a poetry transcription of Charles Simic’s fabulous poem “Mirrors at 4 a.m.”  and afterward, we discussed images: “rooms webbed in shadows,” “the empty bed,” “the blank wall,” and of course, the surreptitious (authentic vocab moment) wiping of the “hanky” over the brow.   We talked about mortality, existence, time and eternity, but my objective was not analysis. The poem was just a spring board for self examination and self rendering.

I passed out small mirrors.  I’ve used these hand-held numbers before to assist students in writing about their hands, but this was the first time we have ventured to the face.  After everyone had a mirror, there was much giggling and groaning and bang fluffing and chin jutting. Then we got down to business.

Employing top to bottom description, we wrote for five minutes on each element of the face, starting with the 1) hair, 2) forehead, 3) eyes, 4) nose, 5) mouth, 6) chin and jaw, and finally, 7) the whole face.   The whole activity took about 40 minutes, and it produced about two pages of description of some element of the face. I urged them to reject the easy description, the cliched, the hackneyed, and take up residence in the unique pores, moles, freckles, and follicles of their face.

Using this fodder as a zero draft, students then created a poem (any length, any form) that addressed, defined, described, or gave voice to one of the abstract words on the board:  self, existence, mortality, personality, identity, purpose, destiny, character.   

Or they could write anything they want.  That’s always an option.   Here are a few of the results:

#1  Leila, Grade 10

#2 Ruby, Grade 10

#3 McKenna, Grade 9

#4 Autumn, Grade 9

#5 Sarah, Grade 9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.3.D

Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

Twenty Reasons Why I Love Teaching

February 14-22 is #LoveTeaching week, a social media campaign designed to change the narrative about teaching and focus on the overwhelming and abundant positives about this job.  For the last four years, I have been involved with an online professional learning community with three other teachers: Stephanie Smith, Austen Reilley, and Amy Gilliam.  Between us, we cover elementary, middle, and high school classes.  When I heard about the #LoveTeaching campaign, I immediately posed the question to my posse, and here are the twenty things we love most about teaching in no particular order.

  1. When I get my roster for the new school year. I love to pull up our school’s internal directory and check out the kids that will be coming to me in the new year.  Hey, I know that kid from Tardy Table. That kid looks adorable. That kid looks sad.  That kid needs a hug. I have brightness, I have diversity, I have challenges. I have a room full of potential.
  2. The energy of the first day of school. There’s nothing like it.  Everything is possible.  It’s a clean slate.  Teachers and students strive to make the best impression. Everyone is fresh and new, looking and feeling their best.  The pencils are sharp and abundant.  Spiral notebooks crisp and ready to be filled.
  3. My classroom. I love my room, and I want my kids to love it.  It’s warm, inviting, colorful, clean, organized, and there’s always a pot of coffee brewing. I love the three wide windows that let in the morning sun, and I love the energy when kids come in before first block to hang out, joke, gossip, or talk about sports, news, and movies.
  4. My colleagues. Teachers are some of the coolest people I know.  They are tough, sassy, and curious. They are wise to human nature yet eternal optimists.  Always hopeful, always enthusiastic, always learning.  They are my witty, wonderful tribe.
  5. The teachable moment. I have written before that there are few more transcendent moments in a teacher’s life than when she’s standing in front of a group of students, explaining something, and everyone in the room is sitting on the edge of the seats. It’s a beautiful moment of showmanship delivered by a professional, without a lesson plan, without a standard.  It’s the zenith of a teaching life. It’s as good as it gets.
  6. When the light goes on. This is similar to the teachable moment, but it’s more profound because it’s a singular moment of revelation when a kid finally puts it all together. The clouds part and the angels sing.  The ah-ha!  The eureka! When the creases fall out of the kid’s forehead and the eyebrows go up, and she says, “So that’s what you’ve been talking about all year!!” Bingo.
  7. When the lesson plan beat drops. Some days the lesson you’ve planned is interrupted by a fire drill or you run out of time for the lab or there’s a full moon.  But then there are days… Oh, those days when it all comes together.  When the copier, the stapler, the projector works, when your bell ringer is on fleek, when your mini-lesson slays, when they inhale the reading selection, when everyone kills it during the activity, and the socratic discussion nears sublimity, and you have just enough time for the perfect exit slip which they finish with relish and reflection, and then the bell rings.  Oh, and you have planning next.   #GOLD
  8. That kid. You know the one. He’s the shy kid in the back who never does well on tests, but he’s the only one in the room who knows the answer to some deep, existential question about the human condition.  She’s the quiet girl in the corner who shares her poetry with you one day, and its ferocity tears your face off.  He’s the kid who never remembers his homework, but you hear him play the cello at the coffee shop around the corner, and you are transported.
  9. That other kid. She’s so mad at the world.  He’s angry with everything and everybody.  She’s raising her eight brothers and sisters in a double-wide trailer. His parents are in jail. She has no quiet place to read or do homework. He’s moved eight times in the last school year. Help me, this kid is saying to you, but he’s not using those words.  The words she uses are “this is stupid,” “I hate this class,” “you’re the worst teacher in the world.” This kid will break your heart.
  10. Oh, and that other one too. He’s the class clown.  She’s wise to all the futile exercises of the adult world.  And you can barely keep a straight face when you say, “That was completely inappropriate,” because you know in any other circumstance what that kid just said would have been the funniest thing ever in the history of funny things.
  11. When you are more than a teacher.  Maybe it’s the unity of the team or the club, maybe it’s the competition, or maybe it’s the out of classroom experience that draws you closer, but your relationship changes and deepens when you share in their lives outside the realm of your classroom as a sponsor or a coach.
  12. When they seek out your counsel. There are few better moments than when a student seeks out your opinion on a non-school matter.  When they respect your opinion and value your judgement enough to ask your advice on their future, their relationships, or their jobs, that is one of the highest callings.
  13. When you call parents to tell them how proud you are of their child. There’s no better phone call to make then calling a parent, especially one who may never have had a positive phone call from the school before, to say their child stood up for someone less fortunate or their child made good choices that day or their child improved by a letter grade or their child turned in all her homework for the six weeks.  Those calls are the life blood of our work.
  14. When parents tell you how much their kid loves you and your class. My friend and colleague Elizabeth Beck calls this kind of comment “a teacher paycheck.” There is nothing more rewarding than knowing you have made a positive difference in the life of a child.
  15. When students come back and tell you how much they loved your class. Ditto from #14, but better. Especially when they cite specific lessons, short stories, poems, moments from your class that they remember.  There’s nothing better. Really.
  16. When I read an essay and hear a thinking mind behind it. Yes, that’s the goal, but sometimes a correct essay isn’t always one of original thought. So many kids, like so many adults, repeat the same worn-out adages of convenience, the bromides and platitudes of popular opinion, but woah, when there’s evidence of a whirligig mind—musing, reflecting, speculating—yeehaw, I love teaching.
  17. When your kids leave love notes on your white board.  There’s nothing better than a group of high school kids covering your white board with pictures of pigs and alligators and frogs with messages like “We love you, P-Dog.”
  18. Keeping up with your graduates on social media. I have the good fortunate to have nearly a hundred former students as friends on social media. I love watching them grow, travel, earn degrees and new jobs, new loves, get married, have babies, adopt.  When I see them happy and successful, I am happy and successful.
  19. The energy of the last day of school. Like the first day, there’s nothing like it.  A buoyance in every step, a lightness in the air.  Celebrations are soon to follow. The graduates look so pleased, the parents so proud, the teachers so ready for summer. The ocean calls out your name like a lover.
  20. Summer. I’ve never met a summer I didn’t like.  Time to take classes, read books for pleasure, rejuvenate, plan, escape, and come back for the next exhilarating year.