Poetry & Personal Narrative: Two Texts to Get Students Writing

For this #writingworkshopwednesday, I’m sharing a poem and a NYT resource, both of which can be used to get students writing, thinking, and creating.

Background Noise & Narrative:

This gem showed up in my Twitter feed yesterday:

tweet

And it immediately made me think of personal narrative (or really any kind of narrative writing) writing – in the tradition of Penny Kittle’s “Music of my Heart” and the life-soundtracks many of us have had kids think about.

The article, “What are the Sounds That Make Up the Background Noise in Your Life” by Michael Gonchar uses a New York Times article by Michael Kimmelman, “Dear Architects: Sound Matters” as a jumping-off point to get students thinking about what kind of background noises are in their lives.

The “Dear Architects” article is a great starting text for all of us, and when you and your students go to read it (I recommend using excerpts from it, which would work better since the whole article isn’t relevant for our purposes and to get the idea across in a manageable time frame.), make sure you have the opportunity to hear it as well.  Included in the article are photographs of everyday places, such as the New York Public Library’s Reading Room, an office building, and the subway that, when you hover your mouse over them, reveal the background noise of each place.  As Kimmelman states, “The spaces we design and inhabit all have distinctive sounds . . . It may be sealed off from the outside, and you may think it is quiet. Is it?,” sound is part of the architecture designers create and it also part of the architecture of our lives.

What can our students’ writing gain by thinking about, discovering, or recording the background noise of their lives?  How can this study reveal more about their personal lives (or the personal lives of any character)?  How can background noise be articulated in font and how might it drive, enhance, or amplify an existing narrative?

As we answer these questions, I think we begin to arrive at a valuable resource and idea to both prepare students to write about themselves and to test out new narrative techniques in their writing.  The original article, “What are the Sounds . . . ” provides some reading-response questions that might be a good transition from reading to thinking to writing.

 

Current Events & Poetry:

The other gem that found me yesterday was my poets.org poem-a-day, “Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz” by Matthew Olzmann.  “Letter” is a haunting poem that could be effective not only for writing workshop, but also for Socratic Seminar or literature circle discussions. (Here’a a word document version with line numbers: Letter Beginning Olzmann)

It’s going to take up a lot of room here, but please (PLEASE) take the time to read it all (you won’t be able to stop once you start . . . )

Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz

Matthew Olzmann

You whom I could not save,
Listen to me. 

Can we agree Kevlar
backpacks shouldn’t be needed

for children walking to school?
Those same children

also shouldn’t require a suit
of armor when standing

on their front lawns, or snipers
to watch their backs

as they eat at McDonalds.
They shouldn’t have to stop

to consider the speed
of a bullet or how it might

reshape their bodies. But
one winter, back in Detroit,

I had one student
who opened a door and died.

It was the front
door to his house, but

it could have been any door,
and the bullet could have written

any name. The shooter
was thirteen years old

and was aiming
at someone else. But

a bullet doesn’t care
about “aim,” it doesn’t

distinguish between
the innocent and the innocent,

and how was the bullet
supposed to know this

child would open the door
at the exact wrong moment

because his friend
was outside and screaming

for help. Did I say
I had “one” student who

opened a door and died?
That’s wrong.

There were many.
The classroom of grief

had far more seats
than the classroom for math

though every student
in the classroom for math

could count the names
of the dead.

A kid opens a door. The bullet
couldn’t possibly know,

nor could the gun, because
“guns don’t kill people,” they don’t

have minds to decide
such things, they don’t choose

or have a conscience,
and when a man doesn’t

have a conscience, we call him
a psychopath. This is how

we know what type of assault rifle
a man can be,

and how we discover
the hell that thrums inside

each of them. Today,
there’s another

shooting with dead
kids everywhere. It was a school,

a movie theater, a parking lot.
The world

is full of doors.
And you, whom I cannot save,

you may open a door

and enter a meadow, or a eulogy.
And if the latter, you will be

mourned, then buried
in rhetoric.

There will be
monuments of legislation,

little flowers made
from red tape.

What should we do? we’ll ask
again. The earth will close

like a door above you.
What should we do?

And that click you hear?
That’s just our voices,

the deadbolt of discourse
sliding into place.

Wow, right?

So since this is #writingworkshopwednesday, I’m going to stay focused on using this with our Writers’ Notebooks, but feel free to let your mind wander into all of the incredible possibilities available here.

One way to use this poem as as mentor-text inspiration is to allow students to borrow the same lines from Czesław Miłosz that the author did:

You whom I could not save,
Listen to me. 

I think there are so many opportunities for students to write about themselves or characters in novels (from the perspective of the author, other characters, etc.) by beginning with these two lines.  I imagine Sethe writing to Beloved (Toni Morrison’s Beloved), Jay to Daisy (Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), Ida or Vivaldo or Eric to Rufus (Baldwin’s Another Country), or Walt Whitman writing to the Country (since he desperately wanted Leaves of Grass  to keep the nation from falling into civil war).  There are so many possibilities; it could easily work with independent reading selections as well.

We could also use this poem to talk about this writing-move of the response poem (of sorts) or the “life a line” (or two from another poem) to begin our own.  Students could take lines from poetry or songs and use it to frame or inspire a poem. (The could lift a line from this poem to start another as well. I would choose something related to the “the deadbolt of discourse,” I think.)

And of course, this could be a wonderful mentor text on how to write poetry that is also relevant and timely social commentary.  Maybe students research current events (we could collaborate with the history teachers on this too) and use this format to write a poetic letter that makes a comment about an issue in the community that they care about.

Lots of inspiration with these two texts! Happy workshopping! 🙂

As always, feel free to share any adaptations, additions, etc. you make and student samples or work produced from these ideas.

 

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One thought on “Poetry & Personal Narrative: Two Texts to Get Students Writing

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Maya Angelou! | BHP English Headquarters

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