Place-Based Poetry Writing “Slow Unit”

Sometime during the first week of school this year, I taped this note to my desk:

I wanted this year to be different. Not just different than the last few years of COVID School, but different than all the other years of my teaching that valued efficiency and productivity almost above all. (I love efficiency. I love productivity.) But I’m tired of feeling like I’m running at breakneck speed from August to June. I’m tired of shoving aside activities I know would be fun and enriching because they don’t advance the unit. I wanted all of us to just enjoy it more.

So, in the name of slowing down, I am trying a “slow” mini-unit this year (think “slow” like “slow chat”) that I’ve had in mind for years but never attempted.

Four-Seasons Poetry

The goals of this “slow” unit (meaning, I am spreading it out throughout the year rather than doing it all at once in a three-four week unit) are many:

  • To expose students to excellent poetry in a palatable way
  • To reduce students’ fear of poetry
  • To engage in place-based writing
  • To learn. some fundamentals of poetry-writing
  • To have fun with writing

The concept is this: artists often return to a subject many times to capture the subject in different circumstances. Think Monet and the water lilies. He wanted to see how light changed his beloved lilies; we want to see how the different seasons change a self-chosen location on campus.

Monet’s water lilies at different times of day.

This slow mini-unit takes about 3 days per season (so, 12 days total by the end of the year). We choose a spot on campus and return to that spot one day each season to observe, sketch, jot, and, ultimately draft a poem. We read some mentor texts about places written in that particular season. Then, we do a quick one-day poetry workshop: one foundational mini-lesson and then station work to make our poem drafts a little bit better. Here’s our rhythm each season:

I Tried It This Fall

A few weeks ago, we put this into motion. I gave students the following handout (with loads of mentor text help from resident poetry expert Brett Vogelsinger!) :

After reviewing the expectations for the day, we went outside. And we wrote and drew and read mentor texts and luxuriated in falling leaves.

Initially, I was going to basically leave it at that. I planned on asking students to put their poem draft in Google Docs and just walking away until the winter. But students loved our day of writing. And they really did it! So, I felt like it would be a waste to leave this so soon. I added a mini-lesson (this season, line and stanza breaks) and added some poetry revision stations:

After a bit of revision (“Just make your draft a little bit better.”), students contributed their favorite line or best line to a piece of chart paper to become a community poem in the style of Kwame Alexander. But the kids were so excited about the community poem (and how challenging it would be for me to compose it!) that I once again added one more day of class to give them space to actually engage with the community poem.

This time, students worked in groups with the lines to compose their own version of the community poem. (Next season, they will create a digital representation of the community poem inspired by the videos Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher shared at NCTE this year and in their most-recent book.)

How I’m Growing

Taking a three-class-period break in the middle of a writing unit is actually hard for me. But truly leaning into the students’ enthusiasm made for my best three class periods this whole year. It reminds me of what Kylene Beers and Bob Probst say about “rigor” in a reading curriculum: rigor isn’t created by how challenging a text is, it’s created by how deeply students are engaging with the text. And the same goes for writing, doesn’t it? It doesn’t matter how rigorous and serious a writing unit is. A couple of days of deep engagement will yield more.

I’m excited to move through this year with this “slow” poetry mini-unit. I’m already looking for winter mentor texts. (And, at the end of the year, I’ll share the complete unit with the Moving Writers Community!) I’m excited about the concept of a slow unit that proceeds apace throughout the school year rather than all at once — where else can I try this? Where else could it benefit our learning rather than make it feel disconnected? Maybe another way I’m growing as a writing teacher this year is by embracing questions and uncertainty as I experiment in my teaching.

If you’d like this unit (later this year) and dozens of other complete reading and writing units (along with monthly chats, professional development sessions, and Q+A), we’d love for you to join our community! Because we are thankful for YOU this holiday season, dear reader, we are offering a free 7-day trial of the Moving Writers Community between now and December 17! To take advantage of this offer, please complete this form!

Allison and I are offering a four-part digital course called 20ish Strategies to Help Students Do More with Mentor Texts. You can pre-order it now for delivery within the next two weeks!

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