Poetry as Prewrite (Part 2)

In last month’s post on Moving Writers, I shared how some simple poetry writing helped students tease out a theme in their reading. Crafting poetry can also help students dig deeper into details they later incorporate in the heart of their writing. Prewriting with poetry can give literary analysis essays a pulse.

While waiting in line to meet A. S. King at her NCTE 2019 book signing, I scrolled through my Twitter feed and stumbled upon an intriguing tweet. It featured a graphic from a session I was not able to attend where, coincidentally, A. S. King was one of the panel members. Here is a link to that tweet, and here is a clearer image of what I soon learned is called Plutchik’s wheel of emotions:

Image via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plutchik-wheel.svg

Returning home from NCTE to my students and their independent reading books, I changed my traditional approach to a curriculum-required writing assignment. Instead of haunting them with reminders of an impending “major theme essay assignment” the whole time they read their books, I gave them this challenge:  Pick two characters to follow through the book. Four times during the course of the plot, pinpoint the emotional state of each of these characters on this wheel. Explain in a quick annotation what circumstances have led each character to experience the emotion.  

I am in a 1:1 Microsoft building, so my students logged these brief observations on a personal OneNote page.  In a lower-tech setting, I would have given each student a photocopied image of the Plutchik wheel to color and tape in their Writer’s Notebook to keep these records. 

But let’s get back to the good stuff . . . the writing.  

After students recorded their observations on the Plutchik wheel, they wrote a poem in four stanzas, capturing the changes in one of the characters they followed and providing slightly more context for that character’s emotional journey.  Each point labeled on the wheel became its own stanza in the poem. 

Ava R. read All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and followed Finch and Violet’s emotions through the story. Here is her Plutchik wheel:

She chose to base her four-stanza poem on her observations about Finch. (Spoiler alert: If this book is on your TBR list, only read the first two stanzas!)

Michael F. chose to follow Josef and Isabel through Refugee by Alan Gratz.  While reading, he created this Plutchik wheel, then wrote the poem to trace Isabel’s emotional journey:

But how might these observations enhance a student’s essay about theme?

Teachers know that themes are not clinical, some kind of chip inserted just beneath the skin of the story by the author.  They are organic, like vessels and capillaries; they weave in and out of every muscle and joint of the novel. Themes pulse  through the main characters, people who — if the author succeeds — feel as real as our friends or foes, who bring us to laughter and tears alongside them. 

So by tracing a character’s emotions, struggles, and changes, we can also infer the themes in the book and the way these big ideas impact individual humans.  This helps students elaborate when it is time to write about the book. It helps them reflect on the major turning points and the critical decisions of the characters, some of the moments where themes become most apparent in novels. 

Consider Owen B. and his work the main character, Jay, from Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing. On his Plutchik wheel, Owen notes Jay’s emotional movement through remorse, interest, disapproval, and trust. 

In one stanza he looks at Jay’s interest in his cousin’s death:

“But the interest of 

why they left you

rises above everything

and you need to figure out why.”

This thinking eventually found its way into his essay draft in this snippet of analysis:

“When a loved one dies, no one can focus, no one has a care about anything else, and there is no exception to how Jay is feeling. Being a senior in high school puts a lot of pressure on teenagers, the workload, the grades, thinking about college, but at this point, the only thing Jay can think about is his dead cousin. Jay’s head is stuck in thought only about Jun. He says, “Besides, Jun’s death has me looking at things differently. Like, if I complete my assignments or not, what does It really matter?” (Ribay 29). Everyone has thought about something like this at least once, maybe even many times, all they care about is the passing of their loved one, and they do not care about school or anything else like that because they are so stuck in their sorrow.” 

Later in his poem, registering the emotion “disapproval,” he writes:

“Once finding out,

the disapproval is the 

only thing you’re worried about. 

You disapproved of the way he died,

you disapprove of how 

he died, you disapprove

of why he died.” 


This thinking found its way from his quick poem into part of the conclusion of his theme essay:

“In Patron Saints of Nothing, there is so much family aspect. The whole plot is about family and the realization of what is going on in the world. Jay, after the plenty of time playing video games, finally ventures out into the real world as he finds out that his cousin Jun has passed. He makes the realization that family is everything, and to him, that is way more important than anything else. Patron Saints of Nothing has an aspect of non-fiction to it, the plot is fiction, but the whole Drug war, President Duterte, it is all real.”

In Patron Saints of Nothing, Jay’s disapproval of his family’s reaction to Jun’s death is complicated by his new understanding of the drug war and how it affects individuals and families in the Phillipines, and Owen’s draft reveals that he is beginning to understand this important element of his character.  This gives him more interesting, specific things to say about the theme he explores in this essay.  

In short, pausing to name the character’s emotions throughout the book and write briefly about them in poem adds depth to student literary analysis.  It slows down their contemplation and fleshes out the content within an essay.  

The process is also a good return on investment, because it steals time from neither the reading nor the drafting process. The brief notes students take while reading are quick and pre-organized, even color-coded.  The Plutchik wheel urges students to think in a way that prepares them for their upcoming writing without hounding them with pesky “major assignment” reminders. The poems they draft become quick prewrites for a longer piece, yet they also stand alone — in some cases — as quality creative writing.  

And even students whose poems were not a resounding success had taken time to give words to emotions, a worthy, mindful endeavor that supports social emotional health in our students and in ourselves.  As Carol Jago says, “Let’s teach SEL through literature.” I’m sure she would would not mind me adding “and through writing about it.”

— Brett

How might you use Plutchik’s wheel of emotions in your classroom to engage students in discussion and writing?  How have you seen student poetry about characters in their reading improve their literary analysis? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

I’d like to give a special thanks to the four presenters from NCTE 2019 who first brought Plutchik’s wheel of emotions to my attention — A. S. King, Megan Adams, Eliot White, and Dr. Kim McCollom-Clark — as well as Jason Stephenson for tweeting the image.  Without their presentation and my glimpse into it, the process I describe in this post could not exist. 

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