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:


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.


#TechTuesdays; Ted-Ed & Three Interpretations of Walt Whitman

Ted-Ed is an off-shoot of TED.com, which gathers (from its own conventions-of-sorts) talks from experts in their field that are often ground-breaking, inspiring, terrifying, eye-opening, etc.

Basically, Ted-Ed is a resource where teachers or students (or anyone) could check out short videos that are paired with multiple choice and open-ended questions, “dig deeper” resources to extend the discussion, and guided/open discussion forums about the lesson.  They can be lessons students navigate on their own (flipped-classroom-style), in computer labs with teacher facilitation or in pairs/small groups, or as a whole class in the classroom.  They could also inspire performance assessment ideas and options moving forward.

Some of these lessons are organized in series.  The one I’m sharing today are from the “Reading Between the Lines” series.

noiseless spider

  • “A Poetic Experiment: Walt Whitman, Interpreted by Three Animators” by Justin Moore
    • Analysis & Evaluation: This Ted-Ed lesson presents three different readings of “The Noiseless Patient Spider” paired with three different animations.   I like this Ted-Ed lesson for so many reasons.  It begs for a comparison/contrast and a discussion about perspective and impact of author’s choices. For discussions and/or assignments of this sort, students could hit RL.9-10.5 & RL.11-12.5 (analyze author’s choices and how they create effects) and/or RL.9-10.7 & RL.11-12.7 (analyze the representation of a subject or key scene in two different artistic mediums or multiple interpretations).  If you simply want to use these three interpretations and the repetition of it to help students understand the poem (the open-ended questions work to this end), then students could hit RL.9-10.2 (determine a theme/central idea and analyze its development). If you want them analyzing the spoken versions separately (or in addition to an animation-interpretation analysis), you could hit the beginning of SL.9-10.3 (evaluate a speaker’s point of view).
    • Performance Assessment Idea: I love (LOVE!) the potential this type of video has for our performance assessments that we can assign in class (so this one could become a model and practice).  Maybe students, in small groups, create a complete interpretation that represent both in voice (how will they read/perform the poem) and in original drawing/art (I would select how many drawings you would want for the assignment).  You could assign perspectives or just allow students to approach it from their own angle (this, I would think, would depend on the level of your students and how much practice/confidence they have in developing their own interpretations.).  While turning it into a video might be hard for some groups (MovieMaker or iMovie would work), completing a Prezi or Powerpoint with voice-over or with the reading/performance of the poem in class would also work.  If students have been analyzing and interpreting poetry and/or text all marking period long, this would make a nice cumulative assignment to assess their interpretation skills (RL.9-12.1 – textual evidence & RL.9-12.2 central ideas) and possibly even their presentation skills (SL.9-12.4-6).
      • What the audience/listeners do during the presentations could also be part of the overall assessment grade.  If we have them complete an analysis of author’s choices (structure) and evaluate those choices’ impacts, students would hit RL.9-12.5 (the “authors” they are evaluating and analyzing would be their other classmates’ projects).
      • To hit the writing requirement (W.9-12.4produce clear and coherent writing appropriate to task/purpose/audience) of the performance assessment rubric, groups could turn in a one-page explanation of their interpretation and how their animations/reading reveal that interpretation. I think your evaluation of how their interpretation is represented (task & purpose) could also factor into this element of the rubric.
      • W.9-12.8 (gather relevant information from multiple sources . . . ) is also at play in performance assessments since they should be researched-based.  This might be a stretch for an assignment of this sort, but quoting the original poem directly and citing the lines directly in the one-page explanation and specifically referencing /quoting other groups projects might help to meet it.  They could also look for some animation-interpretations of poetry as reference-points and compile these in an annotated bibliography they submit.
  • I’m sure there are many more options for this kind of assignment as a performance assessment as well as more options for using this TedEd lesson – but this is the magic of TedEd!

Please note that I’ve only briefly explained the standards listed.  Before developing an assignment that hits these standards, I would review them in more detail.  And remember that these standards are the end-goals and require some interpretation.  We can hit portions of these standards now in order to prepare them to meet them more fully in future assignments.

9-10 standards mentioned in this post:

Reading Literature

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.

Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).


Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1-3 above.)

Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

Speaking & Listening

Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.

Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.
Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.
Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (See grades 9-10 Language standards 1 and 3 here for specific expectations.)

11-12 standards mentioned in this post:

Reading Literature

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)


(4 is the same as the 9-10 standard)

Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.


Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.

(4-6 are the same as the 9-10 standards)

The Literary United States: Ideas for “Mapping” What Students are Reading

I stumbled across the article and visual at the end of last week, “The Literary United States: A Map of the Best Book for Every State.”

Illustration by Sarah Lutkenhaus

Illustration by Sarah Lutkenhaus

For some quotes from the picks, check the article linked above.

So, as a lit. nerd I love this, but it also makes me wonder, “How can we make literary maps in our classrooms?”

So here are some ideas I had for mapping literary experiences individually, in groups, or as a whole class (coolest English class-created bulletin board ever?):

  • Create one just like it.  If you’re teaching American literature, this might be a really fun way to “track” what you’re reading and/or what students are reading independently.  If there are more that two works for one state you could include both or have students face-off in persuasive book-talks to sell their title as number 1!  This could grow each marking period and by marking period 4, you could be challenging students to fill in the holes and read books that take place in states not yet covered!  There could also be a general rule that for a book to be on the map, it has to be book-talked.  So you’d book-talk the whole-class books, but they can book-talk their independent reading choices. It might be kind of rad to set a goal to “Read the States” in a school year.  (I’m thinking – big empty map on a bulletin board that slowly gets filled in and/or some easily-accessible one online [google doc maybe?] that they go in and fill in.)
  • Take it to the world.  If you’re teaching world literature, you and your students could “track” what you’re reading and what they’re reading independently throughout the world (or maybe a certain country you’re focusing on that marking period/unit).  The suggestions under the first bullet fit this as well.
  • Mix location and time in Brit Lit.  I didn’t forget about the Brit Lit folks.  It might be interesting if your students/classes mapped their readings on the British Isles but maybe added a twist of history or time period.  In other words, maybe a color or font or image denotes that this book was in this time period in case there are multiple readings from similar areas.  This emphasizes, perhaps, a changing landscape of British Literature over time.
  • Bring it beyond geography. Mapping is, at its most basic state, a way to orient things and demonstrate their size, location, proximity to others, etc . . . .  So couldn’t we challenge students to map their literary experiences in any way they deem appropriate.  Of course we’d have to guide this process and scaffold it (to avoid, perhaps, a mere timeline), but I like the idea of students finding connections/patterns in what they read and determining a way to “map” it.  Maybe one student maps the themes of his books because he realized that they are all variations on a similar theme (and his theme may determine what his map looks like visually).  Tolkien created a world and gave his readers a map, why can’t our students use what they read to create a map.   The higher-level thinking skills required for this and the demand for creativity is overwhelming (in a good way).
  • Map Genres: If genre is the focus of your study or of a unit, you could have small groups of students (or individual or whole class . . . :)) map the genres they’ve studied.  Each group/person would determine a visual way to represent how the genres are connected (but what, perhaps, determines their boundary lines).  I’m still imagining this looking like a map of sorts (students will have to get creative), but with genres instead of states or rivers or countries.

If you’d be interested in doing one of the more creative maps, let me know.  I’m sure we could find some examples of “outside-the-box” maps to share with students to get those synapses firing!

And remember, any of these that require independent reading titles could be worked into a meaningful teacher’s choice assessment.