I love the excitement of a great lesson. The kind of lesson that leaves you slack-jawed and all, “why haven’t I read this/thought of this/done this before?” The kind you know you will immediately take back with confidence to your classroom and to your students because it’s that engaging, that well-designed, that…good.
Recently, I presented at National Writing Project at West Virginia University at their Teachers as Leaders and Writers conference, and while I was thrilled to be there presenting, I was equally excited to be in sessions, learning alongside fellow WV teachers and pre-service teachers at my alma mater. Besides being a sucker for nostalgia, I enjoy being in the student’s seat—to engage with instructors and classmates, to catch my breath from the marathon of the school year.
The first session that caught my eye was entitled “Writing Poetry in the High School Classroom”, with poet and WVU English teacher Amy Alvarez. My brain went ding! and I found a lucky seat in her session that morning.
In the spirit of great lessons and the ending of National Poetry Month, here is the relevant and thought-provoking activity that Amy, being inspired by Linda Christensen’s lesson and her book Teaching for Joy and Justice, shared with us that day, and how I ended up adapting it to my classroom.
–Grab a journal. Talk about being “raised.” Questions you might ask include: What does it mean to “be raised”? Who were you raised by? What did these individuals, places, or groups contribute, say, or do that helped to “raise” you?
–Annotate and analyze the poem, paying particular attention to imagery, verbs, and categories.
–Share out literary “notices” (like the speaker is powerful and independent and pointing to specific supporting evidence from the poem) and then mentor text “notices” (like the poet uses repetition at the beginning of each stanza).
–Make a list of mentor text “noticings” to guide the assignment and writing.
A few reflections before we get to student samples…
When I took this lesson back to my classroom, I knew it’d be a hit. After reading as readers and then as writers, my students had once again made me the happiest teacher on the block by harnessing the power of a great mentor. They had read, listened to, and experienced the poem. And they had also looked through a critical lens—one apt for examining a writer’s craft and her choices.
As mentioned in the directions, before students embarked on their own writing, they built their list of mentor text noticings, which in turn became their assignment guidelines. This part of the our mentor text lessons is so valuable. This skill has become second nature to my students, and seeing them examine literature through multiple lenses not only makes them better, stronger, deeper readers, but it absolutely makes them better, stronger, more mature, more aware writers. And that’s what it’s all about.
Here is the list my students built and how they said Kelly Norman Ellis constructed her poem:
The writer of a “Raised By” poem…
- Begins and ends with “I was raised by…”
- Uses repetition at the beginning of each stanza
- Uses varied repetition at the end of each stanza
- Uses dialogue in each stanza
- Focuses on a specific topic in each stanza
- Uses plenty of rich, descriptive language and adjectives
- Paints a picture of the writer (or speaker)
And here are a few examples of the poetry my students made. I won’t lie—I am unabashedly proud. Thanks and gratitude to Haylee H., Emma D., Ryan H., and Skye S. for allowing me to share.
Diverse voices and experiences matter. My students acknowledge that we are bound together by place, but our experiences might be more universal than they realize. And even when it’s not the pie-in-the-sky seeming universal experience, voices such as Kelly Norman Ellis offer my students perspective, intellectual gut checks, and a purview to the experience they don’t or can’t have, or maybe one they might not have even listened to before.
Great mentor texts make my job easy. You know that whole, “sage on the stage, guide on the side” cliche? Yeah. Exciting mentor texts allow you to truly guide on the side or from anywhere else.
Poetry makes us vulnerable. I can say it no better than Linda Christensen who says, “We don’t build communities instead of working on academics. We build communities while we work on academics.” The transforming, communal experience of poetry study does this.
Creating poetry focuses student writing. As Amy brought up in our session, assessing creativity is a difficult task, and maybe one we shouldn’t be doing at all. That doesn’t mean we should’ve have students write with creativity. I’ve found that when my students write poetry with the confidence of a great mentor text, they are not only motivated to write, but they think through their choices and the effect of their writing.
Lessons like this can easily transfer to prose. We can ask our students to read like readers, read like writers, and think like poets.
How do you incorporate mentor texts into your poetry study? What are your go-to poetry mentors? I’d love to hear what poetry mentor texts you love!