A Writing Workshop Cure for the April Doldrums

Photo via Creative Commons
Melancholy by Edvard Munch Photo via Creative Commons

T.S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruellest month.” Sadly, this observation rings true for many students. I don’t know what it is about April, but it seems to bring on the stress, boredom, and lack of motivation that one would normally associate with months like December and February.  The guidance counselor at our school recently shared about the dramatic spike in the number of students who visit her office during March and April every year. We see a lot of rain in Virginia, too.

Sometimes one of the best ways to comfort students who are feeling low is to honor their feelings of stress, sadness, and melancholy rather than try to distract them or encourage them to stay positive. A study of the elegy — a poem that expresses sorrow or lamentation — can be a way to honor students’ emotions and help them reflect on their feelings in a healthy way while studying some absolutely brilliant poetry.

Below I share the mentor texts, lesson ideas, and other materials I use during a mini-study of the modern elegy.

Mentor Texts for Modern Elegy Study

“Elegy for Smoking” by Patrick Philips

Hear Patrick Philips read this poem here.

“Elegy for Blue” by J.T. Ledbetter

Warning: This is one of the saddest poems I know.

“Elegy for a Walnut Tree” by W.S. Merwin

“Moon Flowers” by Karma Larsen

“Elegy for an Old Boxer” by James McKean

To find out more about how I selected these mentor texts, see our post Questions to Help You Choose Mentor Texts.

Essential Questions for Modern Elegy Study

1. What topics are appropriate for elegies?

2. How do elegists craft poems to make them compelling for readers?

3. What prewriting work must elegists do?

4. What is the role of the elegist in today’s society?

Writing Lessons for Modern Elegy Study

I have taught this mini-study in 45 minutes (with a reading of each poem and a focus on just the first essential question above), and I have also taught it over a week or two weeks. Below is a list of some of the mini-lessons that framed the longer studies:

  • The History of the Elegy
  • Topics for Elegists
  • Elegy Structure: Lament, Praise, Consolation
  • Point of View: Direct Address or Distant Reflection?

The elegy study can be another “tool in the box” study, or it can be an in-depth exploration of a shaping form that will satisfy your students as people and young writers. Consider asking your students what they need this month. Would a study of the elegy help them cope? Or would a different study be more appropriate?

How have you incorporated formal poetry studies into your writer’s workshop? How are your workshop studies impacted by student behaviors, attitudes, and feelings? We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below. You can also find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.

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