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.

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5 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry (Part 2 of 3)

Last week I posted Part 1, which included two examples of poetry lessons that students love. This week, I am sharing two additional ideas that I hope you try in your classroom before the end of the year. Go for it! State testing is over, so now it’s time to play!

3. Love Letter Poems

I was honestly astonished at how much my students enjoyed this lesson. When a colleague of mine, JoAnn Welsko, first presented it to me. I thought, “OK. I’ll try this, but I think it’s kind of corny.” I can’t tell you how glad I am that I trusted JoAnn’s instincts. This type of poem is my all-time favorite out of all the different lessons and methods I’ve experimented with over the past 20 years. Believe me when I tell you that you, too, will be astounded–even the students who are reluctant writers had fun.

The first step is watching Sarah Kay’s performance of her poem, “The Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire.” I’m going to explain to you what she does, but trust me, you have to watch the video to understand the ingenuity of this idea.

Sarah Kay
Sarah Kay: “The Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire”

So Sarah chooses two completely unrelated inanimate objects. One, the toothbrush, becomes the narrator, and the tire, is the one to whom the narrator speaks. Her poem is clever, witty, and fun. What the students liked most about it is that the poem sounds like it could be from one human lover to another–it carries authenticity.

When I modeled Sarah’s poem, I chose two related objects because they were easier for me to conceptualize. I brainstormed a list of 14 pairs and ended up choosing the fourth idea on the list. The narrator: a raw egg. The object of the egg’s affection: the refrigerator.

 

 

Love Letter

My colleague, JoAnn Welsko, also wrote a love letter poem. I think hers is a better model because she chose to unrelated objects like Sarah did.

%22Love Letter%22

Even though my students loved this idea, some of them still had a difficult time getting started. Here is what we did together:

  1. For three minutes we brainstormed in our writer’s notebooks. We listed all the inanimate objects we could think of.
  2. We looked at our lists and chose the two objects we thought might work well together. Some students had difficulty choosing, so they asked their peers or me to help them with their choices. In this case, don’t be afraid to tell students what you think. They want assurance from you that they are on the right track. Some of them need your approval to feel comfortable about moving forward.
  3. We created T-charts in our writer’s notebooks, using the two inanimate objects as headings for each column.
  4. We made a list of adjectives to describe each item.
  5. We circled or highlighted the words that lovers would use and crossed out the ones that were not applicable. Here is an example:

Love Letter Poem T-Chart

With this little bit of prep, they were ready to go. I gave them 15-20 minutes to write a first draft, and then they each chose a classmate with whom they wanted to share. My students are currently in the middle of crafting their pieces, so I will share a student example next week. In a few days, I will also post Part 3 (the final installment) of “4 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry.”

Happy writing!

Quote of the day:

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

–Francis Bacon