Poetry Moves the Writer

Last week, I learned what it means to “move the writer.”

My AP Literature students are in the middle of a heavy duty poetry study, and I’ve tried to honor their requests for what activities might best help them tackle Poetry-with-a-capital-P. So far, students have studied plenty of classics and rites of passage poems, they’ve tackled the sometimes scary “exam poems”, accounted for their no-fail poetry analysis strategies, shared their thoughts, ideas, and interpretations with their classmates, read and enjoyed a few “non-depressing poems”, and even “played” with the poetry for a day or two, too.

But one request I see over and over in my AP Lit class has nothing to do with close reading or analysis. Many students seem to have a deeply rooted desire to express themselves, to explore language in new ways, to write creatively. I figure there is almost no better way for students to consider the intentional choices writers make in crafting poetry than to become poets themselves.

The mentor text we studied: Whipstitches by Randi Ward 


image via madhat-press.com

I began this activity with an “in house” field trip. I asked students to grab a journal and take a stroll around the school, noticing ordinary objects that could be a source of great inspiration. We spent 10-15 minutes wandering, journaling, and contemplating.

When we returned to class, I passed out a selection of 12 “whipstitches” as the class has so fondly come to call these wonderful little poems.

And here are more selections from Ward’s web site you don’t want to miss: http://randiward.com/work

After reading as readers, all 12 aloud — in 12 different student voices, one for each poem, which was downright chill-inducing, we then read the poems as writers. What I found surprised me. For as many times as we’ve gone to the “read as readers then as writers” well, and given the various activities and protocols I’ve built to guide students in and out of text analysis and writers’ moves, I discovered with my students that poetry is the sweet spot in the middle — the genre that seamlessly blends reading as readers and reading as writers.

As students applied their poetry analysis strategies and began internalizing and making sense of the work, they shared out their “notices” on the board. I began the list with “Writers of “whipstitches”…

Here’s what they said and what also became our co-constructed guidelines for their own “whipstitches” poetry assignment:

Writers of “whipstitches”…

  • Use simple words that contain deep meaning
  • Create poems that are short, concise, and concentrated
  • Know the themes and ideas they want to explore
  • Are sometimes ambiguous
  • Use figurative language
  • Create feeling and trigger emotions or memories
  • Use only 1 sentence or question for their poems
  • Break or stop lines intentionally for “flow”, emphasis, tone, or rhythm
  • Present work in an intentional and cohesive way (if you get a closer look at Ward’s book, each page is uniquely crafted with a backdrop of what looks like pressings of straw)

Building this list lead to insightful conversations about meaning and craft. I asked students to write six of their own “whipstitches,” borrowing from the writer’s moves, and to present their work in a creative and cohesive way. They had creative control, but all parts needed to work together. Once we’d identified this criteria, students got to work.

And there was an energy in the room that only real thinking can create. It had little to do with my teaching. I simply created an experience for my students. It had everything to do with poetry and art — how it unifies us and inspires us and moves us in ineffable ways. Ways that moved my young writers to make poetry.

Here is some of the work they created, and I am grateful to Mya J., Anayla D., Sydney S., Danielle K., Jessica H., Malerie W., Katie U., Amy F., Hannah B., and Eric J., Hailey M., and David C. for allowing me to share it here.

*To learn more about Whipstitches and poet Randi Ward, make sure to visit her web site or send her an email. After contacting her to ask permission to use her work in this post, she said she’d love to hear from other teachers!

What texts move your students to write? What writing assignments or activities inspire your students? I’d love to hear from you! 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!


The Poetry and Image Pairing

Sometimes, when we’re really, really lucky, many of our goals and passions weave together in wonderful ways.

In 2016, I decided I wanted to dedicate myself to exploring poetry more deeply, partly for my work with my students, but also, because of what poetry is, and how moving it can be. I also wanted to explore ways, in this current school year, to emphasize the six language arts in my classes, bringing the four that aren’t reading and writing into the mix more frequently. I also wanted to explore ways to generate critical thought, and encourage discussion and discourse in my classroom.

I didn’t realize that one lesson plan would enable me to hit many of these things in what has become a favorite activity of late.

Two of the courses I teach this semester are attached to outcomes related to another course, a Global Issues course. This means I’ve been incorporating a fair amount of social justice material into these courses, which is pretty much standard practice for me. A colleague and I I happened along the Teach This Poem lesson from poets.org for the week of September 19. (If you’re not aware, this part of the site offers a weekly lesson based around a poem. They’re fantastic!) The featured poem was “A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay, which deals with the death of Eric Garner.

The poem is powerful, but it was in doing the lesson that is offered to accompany the poem that we felt like we had struck gold. The students begin by looking at, and studying a visual, an image of a rabbit in a garden. There are guiding questions attached to help students “read” and interpret the visual. They then do a similar sort of thing with the poem. Then, we look at the connections between the two. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: The Snowy Lambeau

Mentor Texts:

Snowy Lambeau – a poem by Gord Downie

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Poetry
  • Reflecting on Craft


The preamble is a bit of a tale this week.

If you’re a Canadian reader, then you understand what Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip mean. If not, Downie is the singer of The Hip, a band that many people consider to be the best band Canada has ever produced. They’re definitely the most Canadian, in no small part thanks to the infusion of Canadiana in Downie’s lyrics.


Image via National Post

In May, we found out that Gord has terminal brain cancer. The band released what is believed to be a final album, and embarked on a farewell tour. I was able to attend one of the concerts, as well as watch the final show of that tour, along with much of my country, broadcast on the CBC. These were moving moments in my summer, and I wrote a bit about the impact on my blog.

I came back to Gord’s work in a big way this summer. I worked my way through much of the discography, and decided I would finally read his book of poetry, Coke Machine Glow. Alas, between me placing it in my online cart, and actually processing the order, it was sold out. A few days later, I am in a used book store, and spot a copy in the poetry section. It goes into my stack of books, no consideration of price, just the excitement of finding a book you want.

Busy life intercedes, and I don’t open this book until late at night, a few days later. To discover that not only have I found the book I felt I must have, but I’ve purchased a signed copy. In a summer that I largely dedicated to his work, this felt magical. Continue reading

Connecting Through Words: Kids as Writing Coaches, Part I

This week, we bring you a special treat — a three-part series from two new guest writers. Over the next few days, they will tell the story of their cross-school, cross-grade writing collaboration as they connected 9th and 12th grade writers. As you’ll see, this partnership grew beyond their expectations! 

Christopher Bronke is the English Department Chair at Downers Grove North High School, and Robyn Corelitz teaches English at Hinsdale Central High School.  Both schools are located in the Western Suburbs of Chicago.  In addition to their work at school, they both work for the National Blogging Collaborative–Chris as co-director and Robyn as a writing coach.  They met first, digitally, through collaborative writing, and are passionate about connecting teachers and students through writing. You can connect with them on Twitter @MrBronke and @RobynCorelitz. 


modern day pen pals- (1)

There was a palpable energy in the room; nervous, yet weirdly charming. It was a foreign experience for these seniors, but one to which they had been looking forward for a few months now. The room was set up to look and feel like a collegiate workspace – pods of desks and chairs arranged in friendly quads, a break table full of donuts, a tangle of power cords and adapters criss-crossing the floor.

The bus slowly rumbled its way over the final speed bump, and that is when it hit the freshmen: they were about to meet their senior writing partners.  The youthful laughter and playful sounds of the bus ride quickly turned into faces filled with consternation, a few quizzical smiles.  Finally, after working together for eight months, they were going to meet their partners.

They knew one another as writers, editors, readers, poets, presenters, and people; despite having never met, all of this was accomplished through the power of collaborative writing.  It started as an exercise aimed to improve peer feedback.  Robyn, a teacher at Hinsdale Central High School,  faced a problem: her seniors weren’t taking peer-editing as seriously as she would have liked (we can all relate to that). Chris, department chair at Downers Grove North High School, also faced a problem: he feared his freshmen did not have the discipline-specific vocabulary (yet) to give meaningful enough peer-feedback to truly improve writing.  So, a collaboration was born.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 9.07.25 PM.pngOver the course of eight months, these two groups of students from two different schools in two very different grade levels, came together virtually to learn from one another.  The collaboration started with an introduction letter, ninth grade students writing to their senior partners not only introduce themselves but to share their fears about being in high school as a person and as a learner/writer.  In return, the seniors wrote back, also introducing themselves, but then addressing the freshmen fears as as well as making a few book recommendations.

From there, we changed gears to the main purpose of this partnership: improving peer-to-peer feedback.  After finishing Fahrenheit 451, the freshmen wrote an analysis essay, and then  shared those with their senior partners.  Seniors then had a few days to give feedback.  The best part about this: none of it was graded.  Not the actual essay for the freshmen nor the feedback for the seniors.  This really was scholars, being scholarly for the sake of scholarship, and it was beautiful.  While not required, most pairings exchanged multiple drafts and received multiple iterations of feedback.  One fact became clear: this exchange, the power of having an authentic audience with which to share one’s writing and one’s feedback, created an intrinsic motivation within our students that neither of us had ever seen before.

This exchanged continued for two more rounds of papers. Chris’s students shared their drafts and Robyn’s students provided high-quality and meaningful feedback; however, we quickly realized, based on student feedback, we were missing the bigger point: this didn’t have to be a one-way street.  The seniors wanted to share their writing with the freshmen in order to get their feedback, too.  This serendipitous surprise truly blew our minds.  We never figured a senior Advanced Placement student would see any value in sharing a piece of his or her writing with a freshman honors student, and yet, they were clamoring for it.   As good fortune would have it, the seniors were currently working on their college admission essays, so not only were the freshmen able to see the seniors’ writing and give feedback, they were able to already start to think about college essays and learn from the seniors.  This step in the process was a highlight for Chris in particular as his earlier fear about his students not having the discipline-specific vocabulary to give meaningful feedback was quickly laid to rest; as a result of getting multiple rounds of great feedback from the seniors, his freshmen had developed the language needed to reciprocate that feedback.

It was at this point in the year that both sets of students began to ask for two things: can we meet our partners at some point this year and can we write WITH them?  Who were we to deny these requests? We quickly worked with our administrations to get a field trip scheduled, and began to create a collaborative writing experience based on the protocols used by the National Blogging Collaborative. Students were paired based on a common passion, given time to gush write, categorize their gushes, and eventually work to turn that into a single coherent piece of writing. After a few weeks on this project, we realized that in order to finish these well, we would need to have them work face-to-face at the field trip (which we will share more about in the second blog in this series).  So, we put this assignment on hold and turned our attention to reading and analyzing poetry.

Students, regardless of age, struggle with poetry; this much we know.  Because of this, we thought these partnerships might be the perfect way to attack poetry.  Turns out, we were right.  Over the course of a month or so, students, using Google Docs, collaboratively annotated/text-marked poems, learning from, questioning, and challenging one another.  This honest and open -yet safe- environment provided the perfect space for students to take risks when discussing poetry, something that is not normally easy for them to do.  Ultimately, this part of the project ended with a true and authentic They Say/I Say style writing piece in which the seniors selected a poem and did a written analysis.  The freshmen then had to read the poem and their partner’s paper and do a response back, working on their argumentative and analytical writing skills while being forced to authentically navigate a real counterclaim. Many of Robyn’s seniors claimed that the feedback from their freshman partners was one of the most valuable writing exercises of the year – many of the freshman really took them to task in their counter-analysis, which sharpened the seniors’ revision process and made them acutely aware of shortcomings in their analyses.

The reality is that we could go on and on about some of the other projects that the pairings went through, but the purpose of this first blog in the series is for you to get a sense of this project, the why, how, and what of this collaboration.  Stay tuned for part two in which we will discuss the actual field trip and what it was like to bring these classes together, face-to-face: to write, think and laugh – not as students, but as people.


Mentor Text Wednesday: Exploring Memoir via Song

Mentor Texts:

Mama’s Eyes by Justin Townes Earle

Lyrics      Audio (via YouTube)

Chris Carrabba’s cover (via YouTube)

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Memoir
  • Writing Poetry



This is a mentor text that I’ve been sitting on for a long time.


Played my JTE records while writing

Justin Townes Earle is the son of legendary singer-songwriter Steve Earle, and a fine songwriter himself. This song, from his fine, fine album Midnight at the Movies, is one of my favorites of his. It’s a gorgeous piece in which Earle ruminates on being a product of his parents, talking about the similarities he shares with each of them.

Like many pieces that strike us, ‘Mama’s Eyes’ came to me in waves. I loved it as soon as I heard it. I loved the confessional tone, the admission of struggle, issues with his dad, and that he got what he feels are his best qualities from his mom.

Then I became a parent, and experienced the bizarreness of seeing yourself, your looks, mannerisms, quirks and whatnot reflected back at you in a smaller package. The song took on a different meaning.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve not brought it into class yet, but I know how to do it. Continue reading

Genre Hopping: Using Mentor Texts to Cross Boundaries Between History and Hip Hop

Detroit teachers have been on my mind a lot lately. They’ve been in the news quite a bit recently as they fight for safer conditions and learning environments for their students and as they expose financial mismanagement through controversial sickouts. Their headlines aren’t the only reason I’ve been thinking about Detroit teachers, though. I used to be one of them. I got my start as a middle school teacher in Detroit Public Schools, and now, as I finish up my tenth year of teaching, I find myself looking back and reflecting on my first year in the classroom.

I had a lot of qualities of any good first-year teacher. I was dedicated, I was energetic, and I was wildly optimistic. Looking back, though, there are very few lessons I’d even consider using again. I was new. I was passionate, but I was unpracticed. I tried a lot of creative ideas, and I worked to engage my students, but I certainly didn’t know much about the research behind learning and literacy.

My first year, I was assigned four sections of eighth grade Language Arts, one homeroom, and one elective. Every teacher was assigned one elective in their subject area, and when I was asked what I’d be interested in teaching, I said I’d take on anything: journalism, creative writing, Shakespeare, mythology – just NOT drama. So what did they give me? Drama. Of course.

Aside from being in the pit orchestra of my own high school musicals, I knew squat about drama. But, like I said, I was dedicated and wildly optimistic, so I dove in. I decided I should start small with speeches and monologues to give me time to work up the courage to tackle something like a play. I bought books of monologues for the students to try out, but something just wasn’t connecting for me. I knew I had to teach them how to do it well, but I had no idea what it meant to “do it well.” Now, I’m positive that as a new teacher, I had not yet crossed paths with the term “mentor texts,” so what I did next was not intentional, but I dug into mentor texts to figure out what made a good speech.

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: The OUPA

Mentor Text: Various Poems

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing poetry
  • Writing around a theme or topic
  • Building a writing community


Though it’s no longer something that I do, I have taught Art. It’s pretty clear in my classroom, as I do a lot of work that incorporates visual elements. I love having students express their learning in different ways, and it’s been very engaging for many young people as they’ve come through my room. As an artist, I know that this kind of creation taps into things in our brains that bring out the best in us.

Out of habit, I still haunt a number of my favorite websites I surfed for inspiration as an Art teacher. I keep a file on every device to drop inspiring visuals and project ideas into. As second semester finished, I stumbled upon one of Johan Deckmann’s Imaginary Books. The title, “Smart Ways to use Poetry in a Street Fight” made me laugh, and I tucked it away, digitally, as well as mentally, knowing that I would most definitely be coming back to it. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday – Found Poetry: The Online Version

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 9.55.05 AM

Mentor Text: WFM: Allergic to Pine-Sol, Am I the Only One by Melissa Barrett

Writing Techniques:

  • Poetry (specifically found poetry)
  • Manipulating existing text for creative purposes
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creative response
  • Editing
  • The importance of a title


In the spirit of Poetry Month, I decided to commit the remainder of April’s columns to poetic mentor texts. Which, of course, meant that I needed to find them. Luckily, I keep a stack of poetry anthologies near my desk at work!

I cracked open The Best American Poetry 2015, and flipped to all the poems that I had flagged for use in my classroom. That brought me to Melissa Barrett’s poem, which not only had I flagged, but I had stuck a note in the book outlining my plan for that poem.

Barrett’s poem is made up of lines from Craigslist personal ads. I was fascinated right away. I have this distinct memory of a teacher telling me about a beat poet who wrote poetry using snatches of conversation he overheard while in the park in San Fransisco. I have a clipping on my bulletin board at home from the book section of the paper about a book of poetry called Forge, in which Kevin McPherson Eckhoff collected lines from public computers by cutting and pasting what had been entered by the previous user. This notion of “repurposing” others’, well, unpoetic writing fascinates me. Continue reading

The Power of Reading Work Out Loud: A Culminating Project for Poetry Study

A few weeks ago, I blogged about different ways writers can share and publish their work in the classroom. In today’s post, I zoom in on one of those options: creating an audio recording of a piece of writing.


Students use fluency phones to practice reading their work out loud!

“Here, try it,” I said, nudging the fluency phone towards Cameron, a 9th grade writer.

“I looks like something I used in second grade,” he said, taking the macaroni-shaped PVC pipe in his hand. He put it up to his ear and whispered hello into the opening. “Wow, that is really loud!” He smiled.

Carthen grabbed the phone from him. “Let me try!” she said and whispered something inaudible into the phone, giggling at the sound of her own voice amplified.

At first my students were skeptical of the fluency phones. They look like toys, or something out of an elementary school teacher’s bag of tricks. But soon, almost every student had taken one from the oversized bag.

The fluency phones are perfect for young students learning to read books with expression, and they are perfect for high school students learning (mustering up the confidence!) to read their own work out loud – an important step in the writing process but one that students often shy away from or skip altogether because they hate hearing the sound of their own voice.

Students used the fluency phones in preparation for the culminating step of our poetry study: making audio recordings of their work. This project took three days and revealed a lot to me about students’ fears connected to writing. It’s hard enough to share your ideas, they said. It’s even harder to force yourself to listen to them as you read out loud.

The Mini Project

On the first day, we talked about how to read a poem out loud with feeling. We listened to a few different recordings of professional poets, and one by a former student. For instance, we listened to a live recording of Billy Collins reading “Forgetfulness.” If you follow this link, you’ll find his recording, along with several hundred other recordings of poets reading their work. The Poetry Foundation really is an amazing resource!

With the text pulled up in front of them, students listened to the recordings, honing in on

  • how the poets “read” line breaks
  • the pace of each poem
  • how the poet communicated emotion with his/her voice

Then we made a list of all of our noticings. Students observed many things about the different recordings, including how readers drop their voices to indicate the end of an idea or create a somber mood; poems that are presented “faster” are still read slowly enough to hear every word, every pause; the readers sound like they are talking to you rather than giving a presentation; most readers slow down at the end of the poem; and poets pause on significant words, dragging them out more than others.

Then I gave students some guiding questions to help them think about how they might read their own poems:

  • What is the mood of my poem? How can I communicate this mood with my voice?
  • Is my poem fast- or slow-paced (are there more end-stopped lines or enjambed lines)? Where should I speed up my reading and where should I slow it down?
  • What are the most important words in my poem? How do I want to emphasize these words with my voice?

Students spent the rest of the period practicing reading one of their poems to a friend or to themselves with the help of a fluency phone.

The next day, the technology coordinator at our school previewed several apps that students could use to record their work, and students had an opportunity to try out different software and ask the coordinator questions.

The audio recordings were due two days later. I asked students to complete them at home, knowing it would be very difficult or impossible for each of them to find a perfectly quiet space on campus for recording.

When I asked my students to reflect on the experiment, although many of them said they hated listening to their own voice, they recognized the value in the project. Here’s what some of them had to say:

“I enjoyed the experience of recording because now the reader knows how I want my poem to sound in his mind.” — Cory M.

“[When I recorded my poem] I noticed how line breaks played into the speed of my poem.” — Cameron B.

“I enjoyed [this project] because it made me feel like an actual poet reading [my poem] out loud.” –Ella N.

“[When I read my work out loud], I noticed how some words didn’t sound well with other words. I also heard how my line breaks sounded and if I needed to edit them.” –James G.

“I was really able to notice the effect of line breaks. I hadn’t really noticed how much line breaks change the flow of a poem, in a good way.” Blair H.

“I feel like my poem was more deep and meaningful when read thoughtfully aloud.” — Liza R.

“I noticed that the last line of each stanza needed a really long pause for effect.” Daniel M.

“When I wrote my poem I meant for it to be sad and emotional to express how I felt when my Grampa died, but after I read it aloud I really got to hear how emotional it actually was.” — Abby E.

“The way you read it is the way you want people to read it, so it’s interesting to see what that is.”  Julia K.

What’s next:

Next week I am going to set up listening stations so my students can listen to one another’s poems. I plan to organize each station by theme, and invite students to listen to 1-2 poems at each station. I’ll be sure to report back about this activity in one of my next posts!

How do you encourage students to read their work out loud? Do you offer alternative ways of sharing or publishing work in your classroom? Leave us a comment below to tell us what you’re thinking about or find us on Facebook or Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.