When I Was Young . . .

In my previous post I wrote about Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s visit to my middle school earlier this month. In this post, I’m sharing another lesson I taught last week that was inspired by her.

During the writer’s workshop Bartoletti conducted with some of our students, she read the children’s book When I Was Young in the Mountains written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Diane Goode. On Friday I read the story to my students as an introduction to our poetry unit. The book is technically not a poem, but the style is poetic because of the imagery and the repetition of the phrase “When I was young.”

First, of course, I read the book on my own. I knew that I wanted my students to pay attention to author’s craft, particularly how she creates imagery, but I was not sure how I wanted to reach that aim. Someone once wrote (I wish I could remember where I read this.) that the 40 minute period is the death of creativity. I agree. I find that 40 minutes is just not enough time to teach anything in depth, but in the end, I achieved my goal (I think).

  1. First, I read the story aloud to the students. They all grabbed carpet squares and sat around me while I read to the elementary school style. I asked them just to listen and visualize the story as I read. The story is chocked full of imagery, even on the first page: “Grandfather came home in the evening covered with the black dust of a coal mine. Only his lips were clean, and he used them to kiss the top of my head.”
  2. Then I read the story to the students a second time. This time I asked them to record, in their writer’s notebooks, three words from each page that helped them create a mental image.
  3. After the second reading, the students worked with their seat partners to discuss their lists. I asked them to draw an x and a y axis on a page in their writer’s notebooks to create four quadrants. Each of the quadrants was labeled with a part of speech: adverbs, nouns, action verbs, and adjectives.
  4. The students then shared their lists with each other. Together they chose two or three words from each page that they thought were the most powerful. They then identified the part of speech of the word and placed it in the correct quadrant.
  5. After they had worked on this step for about ten minutes, we discussed our discoveries as a group. Of course, ten minutes is not enough time to analyze their entire lists, but they had compiled enough information to notice a pattern.
  6. All but a few groups realized after organizing Rylant’s words that the nouns and the action verbs were the words that were most effective in creating imagery, not the adjectives and adverbs, as they had suspected before doing this exercise. For nascent writers, this is a powerful realization, and it reinforces the idea that word choice is paramount in engaging your reader.
  7. I ended the lesson by asking the students to complete the following sentence: When I was young _____. As often happens, they surprised me with their answers. Some of the best ones included:
    • When I was young in America.
    • When I was young, I was free.
    • When I was young, I explored.
    • When I was young, I wore a uniform.

I love that their statements created a bit of mystery about their personal stories. On Monday, we will continue this exercise and see where it leads. I am excited to read their first poems of the year!

For those of you who were wondering: The feature image is a picture of my brother and me in our backyard in front of our swing set. I don’t remember how old I was, so take your best guess. 😊

Here is my version of “When I was young . . . ” that I will share with my students on Monday.

When I Was Young

When I was young

I longed to be older.

When I was young

The sky

envied my imagination,

its vastness

its colors,

and its unpredictability

When I was young

My mother could fix anything,

and my father was the best looking man I knew.

When I was young

My grandmother

baked lemon meringue pie on Saturdays,

and I thought it would be so forever.

When I was young

I knew grass

and pond

and swamp

and snow drifts

as tall as the trees.

When I was young

I had everything

but wanted everything else.

When I was young

I dreamt of you

but never believed you existed.

When I was young

I had a dog that I loved.

When I was young

I ran because it was fun.

When I was young

I soared high

and fell hard.

When I was young

I didn’t fail–

I explored.


Writers Need to Write

Every school year I make the resolution to write a blog post twice month. Every year I break it. I started this blog to reflect on my teaching practices and exercise my creativity, but I’ve dropped the proverbial ball. I reflect on my practice every day, mostly on the drives to and from work, but I know that putting my thoughts into writing leads to clarity and also discovery. I have always envied my artistic friends who can express themselves by making something like a painting, but my talent is using words, and for my own well-being, I need write more. I know this; and yet I falter.

So why do I bring up this topic today? Because Susan Campbell Bartoletti inspired me to reset myself when she visited Lower Macungie Middle School on March 3 and 4. She has written many books, but some of her most well-known are The Boy Who Dared, Down the Rabbit Hole, and Terrible Typhoid Mary. The morning of her second day she conducted a hour-long writer’s workshop with the students. During this workshop she gave the students (and teachers!) some writing techniques for sparking ideas. My favorite exercise is what she calls the “I Remember” poem, and I can’t wait to do this with my students. Here are the steps:

  1. Choose one of the five core emotions: joy, surprise, anger, sadness, or disgust. I habitually write about anger and sadness (as many writers do), but this time I decided to try something a bit different. I chose joy.
  2. List three experiences that evoke that emotion. In the few minutes allotted, I was unable to list three life events that evoked joy. I listed one, so when Mrs. Bartoletti moved on to the next step, I used this one event.
  3. Choose one of the three experiences. I had only one in my list, so I used it.
  4. Begin writing what you remember about the event or experience. Each line should begin with the phrase “I remember.”

Here is what I came up with during the few minutes she allowed us during the workshop:

I remember the sunshine, the heat.

I remember the carriage, the cheers and well-wishes.

I remember his hand in mine.

I remember his smile, his joy.

I remember the fountain, the red dress.

I remember remember crying and smiling.

I remember his ring and mine.

I like what I started, so I decided to continue it because the first draft ends with the turn–it felt incomplete. Here is the newer version, even though it’s still a work in progress. When I revised, I tried to use harder nouns and verbs instead of soft ones. I also tried to include at least three of the five senses. I believe I included three: sight, sound, and touch.

The Wedding

I remember the heat, like joy and jitters baked.

I remember the carriage, where we rode like regents for an hour.

I remember your sturdy hand in mine–two budding stems growing from the same root.

I remember your smile, your delight, your wonder, your charm.

I remember the fountain, its incantation, its whisper.

I remember her red dress, her red hat, and her prayer.

I remember the tears, my tears, my surprise.

I remember our rings.

I remember, I remember, I remember, you love me.

I think this framework will create a safe place for students to work and explore. The intimidating aspect of writing is often the generation of ideas, and this exercise eliminates some of the uncertainty and consternation that often comes with finding an idea worthy to write about.

Another exercise that Mrs. Bartoletti modeled for us was the litany or list poem. She read Goodnight Moon, noting that the story is, of course, a litany where each line begins with the same phrase “Goodnight moon.” It’s also set in a specific geographic space. So before writing we chose a specific space. We then wrote about that space, naming or describing the objects we visualized while going to that place in our minds. In my mind, I traveled to the backyard of my childhood home. For some reason, I pictured myself lying in the grass. Here is the start to my poem:

Hello mountains.

Hello sky.

Hello trees and birds soaring by.

Hello pond.

Hello grass.

Hello memories from the past.

I don’t know yet if this one will turn into anything. The rhyme came naturally as I was writing, and I honestly don’t know if I will be able to maintain it. I’ve never been very good at writing rhyme, which is why I have always admired writers like Lord Byron, Robert Frost, and Sara Teasdale, but I’ve connected more with writers like Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, and Joy Harjo because their forms, in some ways, defy convention.

Every year I look forward to exploring poetry with my students. They never fail to surprise me with their ideas. The 8th grade language arts teachers conclude the poetry unit with a poetry tea in the library. On this day, the library is turned into a coffee shop. We decorate the space with table cloths, flowers, and dim lighting, and the teachers and students bring snacks and drinks for the event. I am always astounded at the number of students who volunteer to read their original poems in front of their peers.

I will be posting more about poetry once I begin the unit later this week. Please feel free to share ideas in the comments. I am always looking to try new things!