We are delighted to share a guest post today from middle school teacher Elizabeth Oosterheert. You might remember her from a post earlier this year! You can connect with her on Twitter @oosterheerte.
Ah, spring. It’s that vibrant time when my “garden” of students begins to blossom beautifully, and the seeds planted earlier in the year stretch toward the sun as students gain a stronger sense of voice and begin to take more ownership of their writing. That’s the sweetness of seasons changing.
Another end of the year splendor is celebrating National Poetry Month in April, and flowing into May with more reasons than ever to incorporate poetry into my writing workshop. After reading Karla Hilliard’s post earlier this year about whipstitch poetry, and Rebekah’s challenge to strive for authenticity in literary analysis, I began to wonder what it would look like to use whipstitch poetry as a whimsical frame for everything from character study to thinking about more abstract concepts like theme and mood.
When I first explored this idea, my students were reading in coming of age book clubs that we called Voyages. As Karla suggested in her post, I began my workshop one day by inviting students to make a list of objects or natural forces they noticed in the books they were reading. We visited Randi Ward’s website and read examples of whipstitch poems, carefully examining the way that she used word choice, brevity, line breaks, and breathtaking photography to enhance her poetry. We discussed how vital the right image can be to inspiring excellent writing.
After using Ward’s poems as mentor texts, my students experimented with writing whipstitch poetry as an analytical response to their book club reading.
Tessa, one of my eighth grade writers, composed these poems after reading the novel Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt. Her poems invite readers to consider the natural forces at work in the story such as the ice that eventually leads to a character’s death, and also to think about Joseph, the protagonist, and his search for his daughter, Jupiter.
Orbiting Jupiter Whipstitch Poems
I am the ice
I climb with the cold
And fall with the heat
Do you not think I feel you Joseph?
I try to warn you with splinters on my surface
But you go too far
I fall, taking you with me
You escape the cold waters the first time
But your life seeps from you the second
You sink to the bone chilling cold beneath
I am the ice
I’m looking for you Jupiter
Gazing at the planet in the sky
Every night, gazing
I am alone with Silence
I let it have my heart
But I can’t make it breathe
Yet it grows, it grows big around me
But I am growing too
Warped stall doors creak
Bright motes of dust swirl between sinking beams
Streaking the spindly hay string loft
Careful hands squeeze and release my udder
Creating a steady stream of milk
The circular rubbing of the coarse hide on my rump
Makes my backside waggle
I moo a sigh of contentment
Chiming a melody with the steady thumping of milk
I love you, Joseph.
- Church Bell
Snowballs explode against my sturdy frame
Joseph seems to find it fun to strike me with snowballs
I scream loudly, clanging my tongue against my exterior
But no matter how hard I try, he doesn’t stop.
He shows up every day after school, tackling me
with an onslaught of snowballs.
Later, we read Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys, as a whole class text and the “banner” story in our study of World War II. An exemplary novel for examining characterization and voice, Sepetys’ haunting tale is told from the perspectives of four young refugees trying to escape the relentlessly advancing Russian army.
Working with coauthors, students were invited to compose whipstitch poems that explored characters’ motivations, fears, and questions. They were also encouraged to create their own artwork to accompany their poetry, or to import images that enhanced their message.
We shared our work in the context of a class poetry reading, and discussed what we had learned about characterization and other elements in the novel through the lens of whipstitch poetry.
Salt to the Sea Whipstitch
By Kayla, Maria, and Grant
I walk through the snow.
With every step I take my feet sink beneath the coldness.
I had nowhere to go, I could only follow.
Florian, he is much like August, my knight.
I carry him inside me wherever I go.
I look up to the nests in the trees.
Beautiful baby birds soon flying free.
No one is free.
No one is safe.
Shame is a hunter.
Sorry, but it’s true, we are nearly gone.
War is destroying everything around it.
No one is safe.
Soon we will all vanish, whether we are killed
or we starve.
The only thing we are fed is lies.
These people all around me have no hope.
Those who do soon will be swallowed by
the grave they dug for themselves.
Wandering Boy—- Grant
I follow life, just wandering
Wandering away from pain
Wandering toward freedom
One-eared Bunny—- Kayla
One hope lost
A new one found.
Like everyone in my sad story
I am just looking for someone to love me.
Everyone seems to forget-
War does not justify inhumanity.
Currently, to conclude our study of World War II, my students and I have been reading the young adult adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and we’ve chosen to revisit whipstitch one more time, but broaden the ways that we employ it as an analytical tool.
Today, my students received this invitation to engage with our shared text using a poetic lens:
What would it look like to frame the events in Unbroken as whipstitch reflections?
You might use whipstitch poetry to:
- Analyze decisions and the resulting actions/consequences
- Compose an apology from one character to another
- Capture one event from the book, such as one day on the raft, or one day in a japanese pow camp.
- Reflect on a word that has special meaning in the story such as: glory, courage, determination, champion, villain, faith, etc.
- Ask questions
- Emphasize an important conversation (what is being said, and what is implied, but left unspoken?)
- Focus on a definition
- Express a big idea
- Choose a theme you’ve noticed in unbroken, and frame a series of four whipstitch poems around your big idea.
- Example: “a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.” If you choose these words spoken by pete zamperini, your four poems could be about the following topics: Pete’s influence in Louie’s life, the determination that louie shows while training for the olympics, a reflection on louie’s time on the raft, or a day in louie’s struggle against the bird.
- You may work individually or collaboratively on your poems.
The final weeks of school are a perfect “garden” for growing student writers, an opportunity to engage students by using poetry to celebrate language and promote authentic analysis in your classroom. My students also enjoy writing narrative poetry and poetry in two or more voices. How do you use poetry with your students? What are your favorite poems?
Connect with me on Twitter @oosterheerte, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your ideas!