Writing poetry is a rite of passage for many teens. Some discover it on their own, crafting lyrics or daily musings in dog-eared notebooks. Some discover it in English class when a teacher invites them to write beside the beautiful words of published poets.
This year, when we returned from winter break to start 2020 together, we read the book For Every One by Jason Reynolds during a single class period. It is an extended poem — or as Reynolds describes it on the first page, “a poem in form only, a letter written in parts, an offering that I’ve now been working on for years.” I beamed to tell my students they had finished their first book of the year, a book that could also count as part our Poem of the Day routine.
Reading the book took about twenty minutes total — we listened to the audiobook while following in print — and this gave us time to discuss big takeaways during the same class period.
The next day, I gave students a few options for some free-choice drafting time, and one of them was to write a letter to oneself in poetic form, using the previous day’s reading as a mentor text. This idea was first sparked by some thinking I heard from one of my local school board members, Lorraine Sciuto-Ballasy, and later informed by the work my friend Andy Schoenborn presented at NCTE.
If students chose this poetry option, I required a three page minimum for their poem. I wanted this to feel different from one of our frequent chances to play in the Writer’s Notebook, an invitation to use poetry to dive a bit deeper into their inner space than a few quick lines in class allows.
I expected a few things from this assignment:
- First, I hoped to see snatches of poetry that paralleled Reynolds’ words and returned to specific parts of the text for mentorship.
- Second, I looked forward to the integration of personal narratives from my students’ lives, which would prepare us for a narrative writing assessment later in the year.
- Finally, I wanted to see a sense of adventure with word choice, text structure, and line breaks as we incorporated our experiences with poetry into longer piece of writing.
What I heard from my students about one page into their writing process was a surprising refrain: “I started out strong, but what else do I write about?”
Their first drafts petered out quickly.
While my students are accustomed to writing short poems in their notebook, the three-page length requirement presented a new challenge. From my perspective, this new challenge was what psychologist Robert Bjork would call a “desirable difficulty.”
To help my students build stamina, I emphasize the healthy sense of uncertainty Jason Reynolds himself feels about his words, unsure of what to even call his work. Bringing in honest “writer talk” about the struggles and triumphs of their process can help our students to recognize the difficult work of drafting a longer piece is desirable — even professionally gratifying — to published writers.
In the afterword on the audiobook, Reynolds affirms that he never wrote this piece to share with others, and still feels a little uncomfortable. He says, For Every One “was written as almost like a bow-out. It was a letter that I wrote to myself to let myself know that it was okay that I’d failed . . . and I’m super grateful that everyone else will get to have that too, and it’s a little weird too, a little vulnerable.” So for writers, Reynolds’ mentorship in For Every One is not just about content and style and form, but also his feelings about his own work, his tolerance for ambiguity, and his insecurity, which all writers experience as they draft something new. That same skill set can help my students write past their own “discomfort zone” to uncover something fresh and exciting in their own words as they write them.
And that they did!
In fact, some of the best gems in my students’ writing occurred on page three (or later) in their poems. Several of their pieces gave me chills as I read them.
I have a few excerpts to share, with student permission, that demonstrate some of the strengths I observed in my students’ drafts. So welcome to my classroom, and let me introduce you to a few of my students.
Suraj and Dakotah are in many ways model students. They participate in class frequently, achieve high grades, and are known to teachers and peers alike for having a cheerful demeanor. Their writing helps reveal a deeper picture of how they see the world, and their places within it. Here is an excerpt from Suraj S’s piece:
The following excerpt comes from two different parts of Dakotah’s poem, which ran for more than three pages:
Pages later, she muses, “Do they see the precious porcelain I prepare every day, just for the sake of others?”
In drafting a poem that they needed to sustain over three pages, both Suraj and Dakotah ended up writing about some honest, personal, confessional ideas that travel far from where they began. Poet Billy Collins sometimes speaks about the importance of poetry moving from Point A to Point B: These poems do that well.
Alisa and Mckenzie turned in their finished pieces as books, employing pagination and typography as part of the poetic structure, just like the original mentor text. Their poems appear unabridged in the slideshows below.
In the end, requiring my students to stretch to write a longer poem alongside a masterful mentor text left me with two major teacher takeaways that will help me to be a better guide to students drafting in the future.
- Reading a potent, honest text like For Every One and then taking a quick veer into writing time can draw up some deep waters from students, some candid self-analysis we as teachers might not otherwise have the opportunity to hear. This helps grow our empathy, know what books to recommend, and talk more openly with our students about their lives after an assignment like this.
- Requiring my students to write long-form poetry helped them to push their stamina as writers and write past where they think they have already said everything that needs to be said. In this hinterland, they became brave and bold. They discovered what they really needed to say, just beyond what they thought they needed to say.
In my first post on Moving Writers, I mentioned that “poetry is having a moment.” This means our students have access to minutes-long slam poems online and pages-long poetry in collections published this year. They have novels-in-verse at their fingertips. Encourage students to write poems like these, that are simultaneously tightly crafted, rambling with aspiration, and full of heart. This challenge may unearth insights that take both you and your students by surprise.
What benefits have you seen in challenging your students with longer writing pieces? How might poetry provide an opportunity to build drafting stamina in your classroom? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.
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