A Collaborative Poem for An Isolating Pause

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

If you have been following my posts on Moving Writers this year, then you know I have been examining how poetry can influence writers during each phase of their process. It would make sense that this month’s post would consider poetry and revision. In fact, “Poetry as an Act of Revision” was the title of the draft I planned to share this month.

Then things changed.

For everyone.

And while quality writing instruction remains relevant to us all, our more pressing questions have more to do with how we adapt to sudden distance from our classrooms, our students, and our teaching lives we once knew so intimately. How do we create the best experiences possible for students who are not in front of or beside us each day? We have all been put in a “Jack-be-nimble-Jack-be-quick” kind of situation as we jump over a new candlestick we didn’t even realize was going to be in our path.

The good news is that words bind us together and can help us to create collaboratively with our students even as we all adjust to our new, socially distant ways. And while many of us are craving a handshake or a hug or a high-five, we have the power to capture unprecedented experiences with our words. So in our second week of distance learning — still the early days when we were strictly focused on enrichment — I invited my students to write with me.

The end result was a poem my students and I wrote together, which I published on Twitter and republish at the end of this post. We decided to call it “Distance.”

In this post, I share the steps we took to craft this piece in the hopes that you too might enjoy writing something like it with your students during these strange times.

Our Process

Step One: I invited students at the end of one day’s assignment to write a quick, fifteen-line-maximum poem that would not be shared with anyone until they had a chance to polish it a little. I told them to write it for themselves first. Their prompt: Capture in just a few lines what this experience (a sudden week away from school) feels like for you.

Step Two: Students shared their poems in a collaborative online space. For my students, this space was within a class OneNote, a virtual notebook tool that allows my students to share their drafts with their classmates only. I structured the collaborative page in two columns. One column was for students to type their drafts; the other was for constructive comments from other readers in the class.

Step Three: I read all the poems and collected some moments to highlight for all five of my classes, bits I wanted everyone to read. I shared these bits via a student-paced Peardeck.

Peardeck is a tool (currently with free premium features) that allows students to interact with a PowerPoint in ways that I could see live or see later. I found that adapting a template for ELA teachers from Peardeck’s website added a professional sheen and allowed a quick feedback loop with only a small time investment on my part.

For different schools and teachers, a helpful, more familiar tool might be Nearpod or Padlet or even a Google Form.

On the first slide of the Peardeck, I presented a choice of two titles for our poem: “The Quarantine” or “Distance.” Click the arrow below to see student responses, overlaid to reveal the clear winner.

The next two slides asked students to revise longer passages by their peers by whittling away some words, and I could see individual approaches to this challenge.

I invited students to drag a dot to vote for the opening and closing lines of the poem. Once again, overlaying the results quickly revealed a clear winner for each of these. And each of the options was crafted by a different writer from my classes.

Students voted for a recent vocab word we studied earlier in the year that should make an appearance in this piece.

I had students suggest a fresh simile to include in our collaborative poem, and here are two examples of suggestions that made the final cut.

Step Four: One of the slides on the Peardeck provided an opportunity for writers to suggest fresh, additional language to incorporate in our finished poem (and a subtle review of parts of speech).

The image below shows one student’s suggested set of words to include, but ultimately I had 80 slides of new words to remix into some fresh lines for the poem.

I pulled out my notebook and wrote a poem using only words from these student-generated lists.

The creation of our collaborative poem felt very much like the creation of an orchestral piece. The words (notes) came from my students. The arrangement came from me. Together we captured a moment in time that has kept us apart.

Here is our finished poem:

Every word of this poem, even the conjunctions and prepositions, showed up somewhere in my students’ work.

I first published this poem as a read-aloud on a private Flipgrid, available only to my team of students, and I invited them to create brief video replies about their favorite parts and any constructive criticism. Later, I published the poem for my PLN on Twitter.

Since publishing this poem on Twitter, a teacher from Washington D.C. and a teacher from Canada have shared how they have written a similar collaborative poem with their students. Maybe you and your students will try it too!

— Brett

How might you use technology tools that you and your students already know well in order to write a collaborative poem? How can you encourage to students to capture their current experiences in writing without adding to the anxiety and discouragement those experiences may be causing them? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

At Moving Writers, we love sharing our materials with you, and we work hard to ensure we are posting high-quality work that is both innovative and practical. Please help us continue to make this possible by refraining from selling our intellectual property or presenting it as your own. Thanks!

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