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.

 

Our Writers’ Teas are Coming – Let’s Celebrate Student Writing!

Let’s celebrate student writing!

Our 2015 Writers’ Teas are as follows:

Timber Creek: Wednesday, May 27th!

Triton:Thursday, May 28th! (different than the date on the original school calendar)

Highland: Tuesday, June 2nd!

writersteaparty

Other than People’s Choice, the Writers’ Tea celebrations of writing are my favorite warm-and-fuzzy nights of the year!

As always, we are looking for students (and teachers) to share all kinds of original writing on these celebration evenings.  We will publish the work in a booklet (and perhaps online in some way if I can figure that out) and provide them with certificates of participation.  There will be food – and family & friends are encouraged to attend with them. We even have NJEA Pride money again this year to help us fund the event.

This year, thanks to a suggestion from the February in-service, we will have emcees who will enthusiastically tie the program together! Thank you to Joe Hart, Cathy Stelling, and Beth Marks for taking on this task and sharing your awesomesauce, humor, and general delightfulness with all.

We would also LOVE if you can encourage Project V.O.I.C.E. participants to try their hand at sharing an original composition.

In addition, I’m thinking we’ll advertise it as a “Open Mic Night.”  Submissions will still have to be in ahead of time (and reviewed by the teacher), but “Open Mic Night,” sounds a bit more rad than a “Writers’ Tea.”  I will put together advertisements for schools and classrooms within the next week, but please start talking to your students now if you haven’t already.  (I know many of you have! Thank you :))

I have a bit of money to spend on decor, so if you have ideas for that or for set-up, let me know.  I’d like to continue to make this a successful and enjoyable event. 🙂

Feel free to check out the writing workshop tag or writer’s tea tag for ideas on ways to get them writing creatively (teacher’s choice for 4th mp?) in preparation for the Tea!  I’ll also post some additional ideas on the blog in the coming days.

Have a great writing assignment that you’d like to share?  Shoot me an email and I’ll post it for all to enjoy!

#WCW: Steph’s Got a Crush on Mari Evans

Today’s #WCW guest blogger is Stephanie DeCosta. Here’s her post for her February writer-crush, Mari Evans.

I was introduced to Mari Evans in college; I read “Where Have You Gone” for the first time when I was a single, 19 year-old living at home. Instantly, I had two thoughts:

  1. I liked her simple, colloquial style and pictured her living in Chicago in some swanky apartment listening to jazz on an old record player.
  2. I had no sympathy for her—I wanted to tell her “Get over him! He’s a loser!”

My, how life experience does change one’s point of view.

Since that first reading so much “life” has happened: being completely blind-sided by someone I thought was my soul-mate, falling breathlessly in love with someone who finally treasured me, creating new life for whom I would battle bloody death to protect, hurting so badly over a loss I felt I’d have to keep my hands pressed to my chest for eternity for fear my heart would fall out.

And now I read that poem again. With new eyes…

Where Have You Gone

Where have you gone

with your confident
walk with
your crooked smile
why did you leave
me
when you took your
laughter
and departed
are you aware that
with you
went the sun
all light
and what few stars
there were?

where have you gone

with your confident
walk your
crooked smile the
rent money
in one pocket and
my heart
in another . . .

This time, I have two thoughts:

  1. Her style is not “simple”, but rather—sparse. She has nothing left to give. Not even her words. I picture her living in a small, rented house that she was promised would be “temporary.” Her jazz records still play, but now they skip due to the cracks that appeared over time.
  2. I ache for her. Leaving her was not just leaving her, but everything he had with her as well—children, memories, plans, responsibilities. One person can have a huge and lasting impact on another person’s life.

This is the power and beauty of poetry/literature: although the words never change, we constantly do, therefore it will always yield new reactions. This is why we need to read it.

 LEARN MORE ABOUT MARI EVANS 

Evans “To identify the enemy is to free the mind.”

– Mari Evans

CLASSROOM IDEAS:

  1. Have students write poetry responses to “Where Have You Gone” from various points of view. For example, how would a young daughter respond to this poem? What would an elderly white man say in response?
  2. Have students write an imitation poem: a poem on a topic of their choice but one that imitates the style and structure of “Where Have You Gone.”
  3. Have students find a song that connects to the poem and write a compare/contrast or expository pieces citing lines from the poem and song for support.
  4. Have students, in verbal or written format, respond to her above quote.
  5. Have students discuss the poem in Socratic Seminar
  6. Have students, in verbal or written format, respond to the painting below by Annie Lee entitled “Blue Monday” (LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTIST)
  7. Have students discuss the painting in Socratic Seminar
  8. Have students use the painting as the inspiration for an original poem

Blue Monday

“Heaven or Whatever” by Shane Koyczan, a Spoken Word Video

So, it’s Monday.

And I’ve found that the best break for assessment-writing on any Monday morning, is poetry (or a poet) that inspires you.

So when I saw that Shane Koyczan, author of “To This Day,” penned and compiled another spoken word mini-film, I couldn’t help myself.

There are a few ways this poem/video can connect to what you’re teaching.  It can begin or engage a discussion about respecting beliefs (before or with any text where there is a difference in beliefs), serve as a nice intro to The Five People You Meet in Heaven, be a mentor text for Writing Workshop for memoir, personal narrative, or just a creative piece about someone they’ve lost or something someone important taught them, an example of a creative-writing/film teacher’s choice assessment from their perspective or a character’s, as a cinepoem example if you have them create their own (a project I used to do with Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps, if you’re interested), and . . . plenty more.

So here’s the video.  It’s worth every second of your day that it’ll occupy while you’re watching it and all those seconds it’ll resonate with you afterwards:

here’s the accompanying blurb from youtube: As a kid I was a terrible Catholic… as an adult I’m an okay atheist. I’ve seen religion do good. I’ve known people who were able to turn their entire lives around because they found God. That just hasn’t been my experience. I think, in this life, we search for what gives us comfort. For some people it’s a concept like Heaven, for others it’s something different. I make no claims that what I believe is the truth… it’s simply what I believe. I’m grateful that I was able to find some small measure of harmony with my granddad despite our conflicting spiritual paths… I guess that’s how I’ve learned to define respect.