Mentor Text Wednesday: Using Ekphrastic Poetry With Students With Disabilities

Today’s guest post is from Donnie Welch, a poet and teacher out of New York who runs writing workshops specifically for students with developmental disabilities! You can connect with him on Twitter @donniewelchpoet or through his website, www.DonnieWelchPoetry.com.

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Mentor Text:

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell by Charles Simic

Writing Techniques:

Ekphrastic Poetry

List Poems

Student Boxes

Background:

Nature Jewlery Box
Student Work: “Nature Jewelry Box”

In my work with students with autism and developmental delays, art and sensory play are closely intertwined with reading and writing. I decided to combine those elements and start teaching ekphrastic poetry or poetry in direct response to art with some of my older students. A great source of ekphrastic poetry is Charles Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy. Here, the former poet laureate is writing in response to the singular collage boxes of Joesph Cornell. The book also contains a middle section with photographs of some of Cornell’s work that students can use a reference.

How we used it:

Ekphrastic Poetry:

The photos in Dime-Store Alchemy are a great tool! Just as Simic wrote in response to Cornell’s work I offer my students the same opportunity.

In using the Cornell boxes, I set up an anticipation/guessing game that also offers some tactile, sensory input. I have every student reach into a box filled with various sensory items (ie: cotton balls, cloth, confetti, etc.) and pull out a picture of one of the Cornell works from Dime-Store Alchemy I’ve hidden amongst the sensory material. Then I have a copies of all the pictures in the center of the table. Each student has to describe the box they received and the other poets use the pictures on the table to make a guess as to which box is being described.

This is fun memory and abstraction practice for students. They can use logic to reason out one of the boxes (the one that they’re holding) and then work with their peers to figure out the answer based on the clues the student speaking is giving them. Not necessarily every box is pulled out, though all the boxes from the book are on the table, so cleverness alone won’t solve the problem, they have to actually listen to their peer and, in turn, their peer has to communicate clear and accurate clues building on everyone’s imagery skills as they get more and more specific with descriptions.

After everyone’s box has been revealed, we move into writing. The students write about the box they’ve chosen. They all shared some details with their peers and now they turn inward to do a writing project with the confidence that they can in fact write about this piece of art because they already talked about it. I keep the prompt open ended and move around the workshop to offer suggestions if students feel lost. Prompting things like: a story about something happening in the box, someone entering or leaving the box, how it would feel to live in the box, and similar prompts depending on what I know about each individual student’s interests.

Box Fox
Student work: “Box Fox”

List Poems:

Simic’s book is full of list poems. This is a new format for many students, but one that allows them to engage all their senses. Using “Matchbox with a Fly in it” as a source for inspiration, students create list poems of their own based on observations of the photographs of Cornell’s boxes in Dime Store Alchemy.

I invite them to engage all their senses, imagining what it might sound, look, or smell like inside the box. One student even took the initiative to taste the paper the image was printed on, though reported it was pretty bland. This kind of sensory exploration and abstraction is important work for all writers and the list poem’s structure offers a comfortable form to express observations without worrying about a complex structure or delving into figurative language.

Student Boxes:

After all the writing lessons, students try their hand at making their own Cornell style boxes. (You can see examples of their work throughout this post!) The process usually takes a couple of sessions and involves planning and debate before the actual construction since each workshop has to work together to make one box.

While this is a fun exercise, it’s also an important practice in connecting the two forms.

Ink Box
Student Work: “Ink Box”

In actually taking the extra step to make a piece of art after writing poetry, the students gain a tangible appreciation for the way physical art and poetry can go hand-in-hand. The students undergo a hands-on learning process. While it’s one thing to look at a piece of art and appreciate the amount of work that went into it, it’s another thing entirely to do the work yourself!

This kind of understanding helps students take the perspective of Joesph Cornell and, by extension, Charles Simic. It also goes a long way in helping bridge the ideas of the poetry and the artwork in Dime Store Alchemy.

How could you envision using these pieces with your own students? What other forms of writing have been particularly effective in working with students with disabilities? Leave a comment below, connect with Donnie on Twitter (@donniewelchpoet), or join the conversation on Facebook

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