Mentor Text: Various Poems
- Writing poetry
- Writing around a theme or topic
- Building a writing community
Though it’s no longer something that I do, I have taught Art. It’s pretty clear in my classroom, as I do a lot of work that incorporates visual elements. I love having students express their learning in different ways, and it’s been very engaging for many young people as they’ve come through my room. As an artist, I know that this kind of creation taps into things in our brains that bring out the best in us.
Out of habit, I still haunt a number of my favorite websites I surfed for inspiration as an Art teacher. I keep a file on every device to drop inspiring visuals and project ideas into. As second semester finished, I stumbled upon one of Johan Deckmann’s Imaginary Books. The title, “Smart Ways to use Poetry in a Street Fight” made me laugh, and I tucked it away, digitally, as well as mentally, knowing that I would most definitely be coming back to it.
As I began planning my second semester, I knew that my Grade 10 class would have a focus on poetry. I had stocked up on new anthologies, and read a couple of poetry teaching texts. Deckmann’s book cycled back into my TeacherBrain. At this point, I only planned to use it as a fun thing to do as the course began, to build community, and hopefully, to set the tone that we would do things, well, perhaps a bit differently. I went to our local library, and bought discarded hardcovers at a buck a bag. Sharpies and paint already live in my room, so we were set. Every student was given a book, and told to create the title and cover of a book of poetry that they would be interested in reading.
My intention was simply to expand the idea of what poetry can be about, and to inject a bit of silliness into my poetry introduction. I offhandedly said that we might, at some point in the course, spend some time putting poems in those books. As I said that, I had no concrete plans for this.
Inspired by A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day by David Cappella and Baron Wormser, I had begun dictating short poems to my class. Inside Dizzy in your Eyes: Poems about Love by Pat Mora, I discovered that the poem had included brief descriptions of poetic forms on the page with some poems. As I dictated a triolet to my students, I realized that this was a form I would like them to write. I saw the stack of random anthologies we had created. The Original Unique Poetry Anthology, or OUPA, was born.
It has become a weekly tradition for us to begin each week with the dictation of a poem. This poem then becomes the mentor text for a poem that they write for one of the OUPAs. Some students have written multiple pieces for the same book, others choose different ones each week. There are even brave souls who let their friends pick a book for them.
We write in our notebooks, we share, and we conference. Once we’ve got a piece we’re happy with, we grab a computer, type our poem, print it out and glue into the OUPA we’ve chosen.
How We Might Use Them:
Writing Poetry– The first addition to these books was a triolet. We focused on a form. We’ve only done this a handful of times, but we’ve written based upon two specific forms, the triolet and tanka. They have an example of the form in front of them, and we’ve discussed the particulars of the form. Having the form to follow, as well as the topic gives them what they need to write.
Because I love the poem, and watching students battle with the brevity, the message, the arrangement of it, I gave them William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” First off, dictating that to them is close to comedy, as they wait for the next lines. When we get into writing, there’s neat work to be done, as we look at the anthology we’ve chosen, and try to decide what it is that “so much depends upon.” If anything, my appreciation for this poem deepened as we wrote. Consider, given anything to respond to, using that poem as a mentor text for a response, identifying what “so much depends upon.”
When I gave them Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” I wanted them to focus upon the writing, the style. Hughes’ original heavy question, the rhetorical, imagery-laden questions he poses as possible answers, the weighted final question, “Or does it explode?” Though they may have chosen an anthology that takes them on a sillier path, looking at what Hughes wrote, and emulating it, even if in the pursuit of humour, has them writing in the shadow of a master of the craft.
For their next entry, I’ve chosen “Way Down Deep” by Elizabeth Scanlon. I want us to talk about the language after we’ve got it in our notebooks. I want to see what they feel matters in the poem. I know the first line, “Discarded hashtags are filling up the ocean” is what drew me in, and is a mentor line I’d want them to use. However, I really want to step back, and see what lines impact them, what elements they want us to use as mentor text material in our own creations. I wonder if the current reference to “Kim K” will resonate, and they’ll seize upon the critical nature of the piece.
Writing around a theme or topic — I know that a reality for many writers is an expectation that a piece about a certain topic be written and submitted. This is a pretty low stakes version of this. I don’t assess these hard. Our LMS gives us an option to assess things as Yes or No. I use this here, and if the writer has written in the spirit of the mentor text, they get all the points from my clicking Yes.
I love the random nature of the stack of books they choose from. They have fun topics, as well as some that can skew serious. Since they have created one themselves, they’re going to be able to find something in their wheelhouse. If I feel that they’re not pushing themselves, I can impose guidelines on their choices that pushes them to make a different choice. If we consider the writing variables, their central idea, as well as form has been chosen. They’ve taken to this activity so well, that they’ve created the audience as well.
Building a writing community — This activity is something that everyone does. What has become my favorite part of this is the sharing. Not only are writers sharing as they write, discussing their poems, asking for feedback, but often, the process of choice is lengthened because they no longer simply judge these anthologies by their covers, but they open them, and read the poems these books now contain. Already, students are writing poems that speak to others that their peers have written. The tone of some anthologies is established by the first poems they contain. Like good writers, some continue in that tone, while others deliberately write something to change or challenge the tone.
What I’ve realized though, is that in June, each of my students will walk out of class with their anthology, full of poems written by our community of poets. That may be the thing that excites me the most about this.
I didn’t realize this was a mentor text based project until I went looking for next week’s poem, muttering to myself, “I need a poem. I need my mentor text.” I had been thinking of this simply as a cool project, and a way to explore and create poetry. It was a silly idea that grew, and became a regular part of my Grade 10 class that I came to enjoy, as did the students. It’s a glorious activity that I can leave with a sub, because it’s established, and best of all, student directed. I only wish I had begun it earlier.
What would you title your anthology? What are great short(er) poems we could use as inspiration? What forms would you suggest we add to our anthologies?