Poetry as Prewrite (part 1)

We are so very happy to introduce you to our newest contributing writer, Brett Vogelsinger. Brett teaches high school English in Pennsylvania, but might already know him from the brilliance he shares all day every day on Twitter (@theVogelman). We’ve been borrowing good ideas from him for awhile, and we are so happy that he agreed to join the Moving Writers Team! Please welcome him!

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Image via Jonas Jacobson on Unsplash

Poetry is having a moment.  In the US and the UK, sales of poetry books have been soaring for the past few years. Button Poetry brings spoken word poems to the masses via YouTube.  The #teachlivingpoets movement on Twitter draws teachers’ attention to the latest voices in contemporary poetry and methods for sharing their poems in the classroom.  The Instapoets have redefined the marketing of poetic language and Tracy K. Smith’s popular podcast The Slowdown introduces a new poem to listeners every day, framed with an anecdote.

In my classroom, poetry has a moment every day.  Our “Poem of the Day” routine introduces students to voices that span the globe and the century, and it only takes a few minutes each day at the beginning of class.

This season on Moving Writers, I will be exploring how a poetry-rich classroom environment affords students the opportunity to improve all sorts of writing, not just their creative work.  After all, a poetry quickwrite in the writer’s notebook can be the perfect tool to zero in on a main point, sharpen diction, prepare for revising a longer piece, or practice a key skill that helps students edit more carefully.  As Linda Rief says in her Introduction to The Quickwrite Handbook, “helping students find a way to get their initial ideas on paper helps them build confidence to realize that they do have something to say.  When the writing is so focused, so detailed, and so poignant so quickly, it gives them a solid direction for expanding on that idea.”

If there is one thing all writing teachers know for sure, writing is recursive and messy and never follows a lockstep path.  My hope is that this series of posts will help teachers see ways that crafting short poems along that myriad paths students take in lengthier writing projects can yield excellent results in a published piece.

In my ninth-grade curriculum, all students are required to write an essay that identifies and analyzes the theme an author develops in a book.  This is not a revolutionary assignment, and somewhere along the line in high school I am sure it is an assignment every student receives.

Earlier in the year, with a little help from Beyond Literary Analysis, I guide students in an analysis piece that builds their skills within the genre while analyzing TV shows they like, food, current events, or a current fad.  So while students are experienced in writing analysis, discovering a theme that they feel is worthy of their extended attention and analysis is still a challenge.  Additionally, we write this essay after a period of independent reading, so students are examining themes from a broad spectrum of books that I may not know as well as some of the core texts on our curriculum.

When we begin teasing out the themes from a book, my students tend to face a few challenges:

  • Students want to write out the theme as a single word: friendship, war, revenge.  They have heard from past teachers that themes are more complex than this, but they have trouble retaining and/or applying that knowledge from year to year.
  • Students who do craft sentence-length themes, sometimes settle too quickly for easy cliches or a rather sterile tone such as “The author develops the theme ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’” or “The author develops the theme ‘It takes a lot of determination to overcome obstacles.’”
  • Students sometimes struggle with the inference skills to pull bigger ideas from a plot in an independent reading book.  We work with this during reading conferences, but by the end of the book, some have a hard time pulling their observations together succinctly in a statement of theme.

A quote from poet Rita Dove that hangs in my classroom reads, “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”  So this year, near the end of their independent reading books but before even mentioning the theme assignment, I invited students to craft a short poem to “distill” their thinking into crisp and potent language.

We all begin the draft of our poems with the same first line:  “My author has something to say:” Naturally, we replace “my author” with the author’s full name.  I write my version, based on the book I am currently reading, under the document camera as my students write. Here are a few results from my students’ notebooks:

Ava L. wrote about the ARC of an upcoming Mulan novel by Grace Lin, while Christian P. applied the poetic format to his understanding of Walden.

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The pattern worked well for all sorts of genres including Brielle G.’s interpretation of April Henry’s suspense novel, The Girl I Used to Be and Ryan C.’s work with Phil Knight’s memoir, Shoe Dog.

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And some students used their poetic license to be slightly more verbose and develop their ideas with a bit more figurative perspective, as Luke B. did in his work with the Matthew Landis novel It’s the End of the World As I Know It.

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This activity requires less than five minutes and addresses all three of the major concerns I have seen with this essay assignment in the past.

  • Students naturally identify — or at least circle  — one of the major themes in the book and do so in more than a single word.
  • Student word choice tends to be more vivid, less cliche, because I have asked them to craft their idea as a poem. Our daily exposure to quality poems at the start of class helps with this, but teachers who have woven even some poetry into their lessons and writer’s notebook work during the term will find that almost every student succeeds in this initial poem-crafting. This is especially true when the teacher creates an example on the board or under the document camera in real time alongside the students.
  • Providing students with a sentence frame makes the inferential nature of theme more approachable.  Authors have observations to share, things to say to the world. The frame invites each student to take two minutes and start mulling over one of these ideas.

This is elemental prewriting for an essay about a theme in a text.  It is also a poem. Poetry can be prewriting, part of the process for a longer piece of a different genre.

What this activity does NOT do is uncover or organize evidence from the text to support a main idea.  In next month’s post, I will examine how another poetry prompt for the writer’s notebook and an unconventional graphic organizer — also introduced before ever mentioning the word “theme” — help students track this evidence through their independent reading books.

— Brett

How might you include a poem in the prewriting process for an assignment your students complete this year?  How can a simple form, such as haiku, help students sharpen their focus for a writing topic? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

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  1. I tried this out with my students for a theme analysis essay and got the best themes I had ever seen. So much deeper and more meaningful than the “people should/shouldn’t” themes students were struggling with before. Nothing ended up sounding like advice, finger wagging, or a t-shirt slogan.

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