The Power of a Poem

by Tricia Ebner, M.Ed., NBCT

There are some points in the school year where a major focus or unit is wrapping up, but starting another major unit just isn’t a great idea. There may be a break approaching, or the schedule is going to be peppered with adjusted schedules. Sometimes it’s good to change the pace a bit and work on shorter “mini-units.”

I found myself in this position at one point last year. We had finished a unit, and the next few weeks would be filled assemblies and visits from the high school guidance counselor as my eighth graders prepared to schedule their classes for their first year of high school. Since we hadn’t done much work with poetry during the year, I decided that was the direction to move. I started with one of my favorite lesson resources: the ELA lessons available on www.achievethecore.org. There I found ideas for Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges.” The discussion questions were excellent, and the topic of the poem, a boy’s walk around his neighborhood with a girl he likes, was one I knew my students would be secretly interested in, even if they played it “cool” during class discussion. What I especially liked was one of the writing tasks at the end of the lesson: take the poem, and write it into narrative form.

We have a literature anthology that includes the poem, so we used that and a good stack of post-it notes as we read the poem. As we moved into discussion, I asked students to discuss the questions in small groups, so they could work together and have more opportunity to share their thoughts than a whole-class discussion would allow. As I introduced the narrative writing task, there was a bit of groaning, but then one hand shot up. The question: “Can I write the story from the girl’s point of view?”

The complaining stopped as everyone paused to consider the possibility. This twist appealed to me. It required close reading of the poem and drawing lots of inferences on the girl’s thoughts and feelings. I agreed that this was a terrific idea. A couple of other students asked about other points of view, such as the shopkeeper’s, or the dog’s. I asked if there was enough information on those characters to allow the writer to produce a reasonable narrative of the events in the poem. With a grin, the student responded, “Enough to write the length of story I want to write–a really, really short one.” We ultimately agreed that the narrative could be written from the boy’s perspective or the girl’s, and in first-person or third-person, as the student chose.

The results of the writing were impressive. I asked students to take the piece to a polished rough draft product, but the pieces were short enough, and the students invested enough that much of what they submitted could’ve been a final draft. What surprised me was how many of them–boys included–chose to write from the girl’s perspective. It was exciting to see the students digging for clues and using everything they could to convey their main character’s thoughts and feelings. Most took key phrases from Soto’s work and embedded them into their narratives. This also meant that they had to focus on their own word choices and use of figurative language, so that Soto’s words weren’t a stark contrast from their own. I didn’t have to encourage them to get feedback from one another; most were eager to share their drafts, asking, “Do you think this works?” or “Did I get across how she must be feeling?” Their enthusiasm was contagious.

I’m not sure who learned more from this lesson, the students or me. The students certainly grew in their understanding and appreciation of poetic devices, figurative language, and narrative points of view and perspective. I learned that the right text, at the right time, set up in the right way for the students, can foster creativity and generate impressive writing. It was a lesson and activity well worth pursuing.

 

Students Don’t Read at Home, So What Can I Do About It?

By: Lisa S. Bass, M.Ed, NBCT

Reading: What a wonderful way to open a world full of imagination, excitement, mystery, and fun! Reading is a favorite activity for me, but many students are not motivated to read at home. Many students decide that “reading is not for them” or that it is “not fun.” With so many distractions at home and outside school, motivating children to read outside the classroom is a huge task.

Research shows that the love of reading should be natural. This is not always the case for many students. They prefer listening to music, playing video games, texting, playing computer games, and interacting through social media.

I tried many solutions to help motivate my students to read at home. These young learners needed their intrinsic love for reading to be ignited! Hooking little readers into the creative world of reading was a challenge! I began my own research into why they weren’t as excited about reading as I was when I was their age.

First I realized they haven’t found the right book or type of book. I explain to my students that when I go to the library there are so many books that I am not interested in reading. They just aren’t my favorite genre or they are too long for my attention span. However, I explain that for every book I DON’T want to read, there may be a different book that I DO want to read. I am just pickier than some other readers. So, I encourage them to look at something new, different, exciting, and unique that they may not have considered reading. Suddenly there is a whole library full of books to be considered.

Next I examined students’ reading habits and thought about how I can “hook” students into realizing their own strengths in reading. I took pictures of them reading and guided them in examining their positive expressions on their faces. I Tweeted pictures of them reading various genres so their parents could see their reading success. I basically got them excited to see themselves reading and invited them to share this love of reading with their families.

Now finding the perfect place to read at home was the next challenge. I invited students to take pictures of comfy places at home: a quiet chair in the corner, a pillow and blanket curled up by the bed, grandma’s favorite rocking chair that is at home, the comfy couch by the lamp, the counter in the kitchen where dinner is being prepared, and any other creative location. Soon, students were sharing various locations and getting excited to read in the most creative, unique location in the house.

Students expressed a concern that they had “nobody to read with at home.” We solved this problem by lining up stuffed animals (We even asked for donations from others who had outgrown their stuffed animals.) and reading stories in the classroom to our new “reading buddy” animals. We practiced reading to the stuffed animals and taking them to our favorite reading spots in the classroom. The students’ love for reading aloud to the animals grew as they expanded their reading at home. They read to their stuffed animals before going to bed. They even recorded themselves reading to them and brought the recordings to school to play for the “class” stuffed animals. Suddenly those who had nobody to read to had a full audience!

Finally came the biggest challenge: “I don’t have time to read!” Creating a reading schedule with accountability (a reading calendar to be signed and returned for homework credit) helped solve this problem. This calendar was designed based on the student’s busy at-home life. Nights when soccer, dance, baseball, or other activities kept the students busy, reading in the car on the way to the events or on the bus after school was the solution for that day’s busy schedule. Other day, when time was more abundant, students made up the reading time they couldn’t get to on their busy nights. Somehow, with a more flexible schedule and unique accountability, more reading blossomed.

Be flexible, understanding, positive, and encouraging as motivating students to read at home. These solutions worked well for my students. Try some with yours, but remain understanding and creative when igniting the love for reading at home! Once the flame is lit, reading at home becomes a monumental moment that opens the doors for a lifetime of reading!

Debunking a Myth: The Writing Standards and Creativity

by Tricia Ebner

“The writing standards eliminate creativity.” This statement is something I’ve heard repeatedly throughout the last few years. This reveals a misconception about the writing standards, and that misconception falls along these lines: “A traditional essay is the only way to address the writing standards.”

That’s simply not true. There are a number of approaches that can be taken to writing which still address the writing standards, but do so in creative ways. Furthermore, as educators we have to remember that the standards are the foundation of our teaching, not the ceiling.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that the narrative writing we’ve used and loved for years is now gone; all narrative tasks we give must be an extension or change within an already-published text. However, the standards haven’t prohibited any other kinds of narrative writing tasks. For example, the classic “Tell me a story about yourself” or “Tell me about a problem you solved over your summer break” kinds of writing can still be part of what we do in our classrooms. Consider how a writing task like this can give us insight into our students’ words choices, sentence structures, and understanding of plot development, setting, character, and theme. I know some teachers who take this kind of idea and ask students to write a poem that reveals aspects of their lives, along with their selection of word choices and figurative language. Any of these allow for some creativity, show teachers what students know and can do in various aspects of writing, and also provides some insight into each student’s personality. It’s a good starting point for the year’s work. It is important balance the open-ended “Tell me a story about” kinds of prompts, which elicit personal stories from students’ lives, with the text-dependent kinds of narrative tasks students also need to practice.

We also restrict our view of narrative writing when we focus on text as printed words alone. As language arts teachers, that is where we tend to go with our definitions of text, but we limit ourselves and our students when we don’t remember that text takes other forms as well. For example, images can be used as text. Consider the power of art and photography. When we ask students to write the story of what is going on within a picture, we are encouraging them to tell a story and incorporate details from the image. For several years, I have utilized Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a springboard for writing, and the pieces my students craft always amaze me. My students study their selected pictures, noting tiny details and using those as clues to the story captured in the drawing. In fact, I’ve had to put a maximum page limit on the stories because more often than not, students will eagerly write 10, 15 and even 20 pages for their stories. Remembering that text includes visuals such as drawings, paintings, photography, and video can help us foster creativity while still addressing the narrative standards in writing.

Another misconception is that there is no place for writing poetry in the standards. This also isn’t true. For example, the final performance task within this seventh grade unit from EngageNY.org is the writing and speaking of a two-voice poem based on the characters in the novel A Long Walk to Water. This incorporates specific evidence from texts, including parenthetical citations. I love that this writing tasks incorporates text evidence along with the opportunity to use literary and language devices such as repetition, figurative language, and alliteration. The students enjoy working with classmates to polish their presentations of the two-voice poems.

Admittedly, it is challenging to craft the kinds of writing tasks that allow for creativity and still address the reading and writing standards. Looking at writing tasks such as the seventh grade two-voice poem can help me see how to structure these kinds of tasks. I’m also finding that as I continue to craft writing tasks aligned to the standards, I get to use some of my creativity as well. There is nothing anywhere that says creativity is not allowed.
It is important for us as teachers to look at the kinds of writing we are assigning our students and make changes where changes are needed. It’s not something we’re going to complete overnight or even over a single summer. However, If we revise one writing task each year, within a few years we’ll have a broad range of options that can continue fostering our students’ creativity and help develop enjoyment in writing.