Today’s guest post is written by Ann Cox, a high school English teacher who has over twenty years of experience. Ann credits her involvement with the National Writing Project in transforming the way she teaches writing. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mentor Text: Silver-Lined Heart by Taylor Mali
- Writing About Oneself
- Writing Poetry
I’ve adored Taylor Mali’s work ever since I first heard his poem “What Teachers Make.” The humor and honesty of his poems resonate with me as well as my students. When I came across “Silver-Lined Heart,” I knew immediately that I wanted to use it in my classroom, but I wasn’t sure how. So I filed it away for “someday.”
Fast forward a year; “someday” arrived. In one class, students had a discussion about all the negativity they see and hear in the media on a daily basis. In another class, a student asked me, “Mrs. Cox, why don’t we ever read anything happy?” In yet another, we had a running joke about how one student managed to turn every piece she wrote into something negative, regardless of the topic. All of those ideas got me thinking, so I dug through my files searching for something happy–and rediscovered this gem. I love how this poem not only shares what the poet loves, but invites us to join in the conversation, too. And when Taylor Mali asks you to respond, how can you refuse?
How I Use the Piece:
I always begin by listening to the poem twice. (Check out the recording of Taylor Mali performing the piece on YouTube.) The first time we listen just to appreciate the poem; the second time we begin to look at the poem more closely. I give students a copy of the poem and ask them to mark particular lines that catch their attention. We discuss the poem starting with the general question, “What jumps out at you?”
Once we discuss the poem, I ask students to begin brainstorming ideas for their own pieces. Many students respond well to the question “What do you love?” with an old-fashioned brain dump, listing as many ideas as they can think of. For others who may need more guidance, here are some suggestions:
- Describe your dream day–Where might you go? Who would be with you? What would you eat? Wear? Say? Do?
- Use the poem as inspiration–What seasons/weather/nature do you enjoy most? Which writers/musicians/artists/etc. inspire you? What foods or drinks make your tummy happy? Are there certain phrases people say that you just love? What about personality traits or behaviors people exhibit that make you smile? What things in our world do you see as beautiful? What soothes you? Inspires you?
Students are then given time to begin writing their poems. It’s helpful here to discuss the structure of the mentor text with students and how they might use it to structure their own poems. For example, point out how the champagne glass image in the first stanza leads to “Raise an unexpected glass to” and “Here’s to” in subsequent stanzas. In addition to pointing out the repetition of phrases such as “I’m for,” you may want to suggest other options, such as “Cheers to” or even “I adore.” Some students will also find it helpful to discuss Mali’s use of poetic elements such as rhyme and alliteration as they may want to use these devices in their own pieces. I’ve found that while some students relish the freedom of creative writing, others need more structure and guidelines to feel confident enough to write.
This activity is a great one early in the year as it allows students to write confidently about a subject they know well–themselves. This poem also builds community in the classroom since both the students and teacher will learn so much from sharing these poems. (That’s right, teacher, you should write one of these poems, too!)
There are other possibilities here. Obviously, this poem lends itself to a discussion of slam poetry, so you could focus on the performance aspect and host a poetry slam in your school. Many teachers have used the journaling idea “100 Things I Love” as a brainstorming for creative writing activities, so this poem could serve as an example of a finished product that might spring from that exercise.
How would you use this mentor text in your classroom? Are there other spoken word poets you use (or want to introduce) with your students?