Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

"I Am...": Prompts for Poetry

Last month, I suggested a dozen or so "approachable" poems, which I've used successfully in my poetry-abhorring classroom. This column builds on that, as I share some of the ideas I've used to help my students write poetry in the classroom.

You may recollect that I'm a playwright and fiction writer, and I enjoy using a varying set of writing prompts for those genres, especially in my Beginning Playwriting class. Here, though, I want to focus specifically on poetry. I like to write poetry with the kids because it's (usually) short, and I can get all but the most recalcitrant students to write eight lines. Also, I think writing poetry demystifies the genre a bit (as I mentioned last month, my students approach poetry as though I suggested we slice off our fingertips so as to study blood clotting). On the other hand, writing poetry does also allow my students to appreciate the craft and skill that goes into doing so; I hear less of "Why doesn't he just write what he means!?" after this unit. Finally, poetry is deeply personal, and teenagers have a lot of deeply personal stuff to say.

Where to Begin

I titled this column "I Am," not merely because of my intense love of Neil Diamond, but also because this is the first poem I assign to my kids. Here's the thing: I always write this poem myself, too. It's something that has meaning and creates a window into where we each are in the moments when we write it.

An "I am..." poem is very simple. There are good models online here and here, or you can easily draft one yourself. What makes it so appealing for students is that it looks like it's just filling the blanks. They begin with "I am..." and their names or nicknames. Then most templates move on to "I feel..." "I think..." "I want..."

One element of the poem that my students often dismiss is the repetition — each stanza begins with the same opening line (e.g. "I am Ms. Reed AKA Shannon").  I insist that they include the repetition, and when we make final copies and/or share their work aloud, they always remark on the power of the repeated line, and the rhythm it creates. It's a good mini-lesson. Another is to encourage young writers to be as specific as possible in their adjective use. Instead of just writing "I feel sad," for example, how about feeling woebegone, melancholy or enervated?

Another simple lesson I use from time to time is based on my observation that my students' were drawn to my Magnetic Poetry set on my file cabinet. Somehow writing seems less intimidating if we are given the words, right? So I do so, providing my students with stacks of magazines (or even cut-out words) to cut up to make poems. The playfulness of this exercise really allows students to, well, play with language. (This is a great intro into ee cummings, too, since it allows students to feel the snap and crackle of how he used words without a didactic lesson).

Metaphors and similes are a major part of poetry and can form the building blocks of a cool poem. Last year, a teaching artist in my classroom did a great exercise with our students. He asked them to write all the clichés (in simile and metaphor) about love that they could think of. We had a long list, from "Love is a battlefield" to "True love gives you butterflies in your stomach." Then he challenged the class to write new metaphors and similes. This was quite a struggle (and he was wonderfully dramatic about crossing out those he'd heard before) but we finally came up with some wonderful new metaphors. (My favorite was "Love is butter.") Then we put them together in a class poem that took pride of place on room's wall for quite a few months.

What Next

There are so many ways to continue this unit! That's part of the fun. I most often go to haikus next, but I adjust to my students' interest and skills. Haikus — which are three-lined poems of 5/7/5 syllables, in the most common form — are simple and direct. They provide a very specific framework and are demanding, but still allow students to think that what they're doing is writing "only" three lines. I often mourn my urban students' lack of experience with the natural world and haikus are traditionally about nature (although I've crafted a set of haikus about '80s movies which I feel are some of my finest work). Spending a little time observing something natural (remember, March is the month for staring out the window) or recollecting a memory from a vacation or trip to the park provides enough fodder for the composition.

A completely different, but equally approachable, way to continue the unit that's worked for me is to use parody or satire. You can ask students to choose a poem or assign something to them, but either way, they have a structure to work off of. (By the way, I mentioned a poem and its parody last month, which provides another way in to this idea.) I must admit, this is one of the very few lessons that I first experienced as a high school student myself. My 11th grade English student teacher asked us to write parodies of "America the Beautiful." The idea of messing around with something so lauded really appealed to me, and I ended up churning out a 5 stanza pseudo-Community anthem. It was my first formal introduction to satire, and I've always been grateful for it. My students usually also enjoy this opportunity to make fun or comment on something. Occasionally, we've had to discuss what appropriate targets are — yes to Jewel's poems; no to the Bible — and why.

More Challenging

You'll notice that nothing I've suggested thus far involves necessary rhyme. I do this because rhyming seems to trip my students up. I find that they either shut down (miserably muttering "orange, orange, orange" to themselves) or feel over-empowered and write drivel of the spoon/moon/June/platoon sort, and then wonder why I'm not thrilled to pieces at their work. (Aside: I consider forced rhyme to be one, if not the leader, of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.) Thus, I choose to have our first longer poetry writing project to be a piece of blank verse.

Parameters really help students with this project, so I suggest as much as I think they need to feel competent — a topic, a first line, or more. Students freeze up at this point in the unit, so sometimes I encourage them to just write whatever they'd like to write, generally in the first person (for my theatre arts students, that often means, "Just write a monologue"). Then I show them how to break up their writing into lines and move words around on the page. "Is that really a poem?" they ask. "It looks like a poem and sounds like one," I say.

For students who are ready to rhyme, the best way to help, I think, is to provide a firm structure for the poem. I generally use the Shakespearean sonnet, with its rigorous yet easily grasped structure of A/B/A/B C/D/C/D E/F/E/F GG, but that's because I include several sonnets in our curriculum. I strongly advise you to ask students to write in a form that they will have encountered recently in your class. This allows them to use their prior knowledge and saves you a lot of grief.

Next Steps

Some students will gladly exit your poetry writing unit, never to ponder rhyme scheme again. A few will really take to the craft and mention your name as they accept the title of Poet Laureate. But I bet that many of your students will, like me, become people who find that most days of the year, they do not want to write poetry, but every so often, they really need to do so. The unique way poetry expresses our inner selves is a powerful tool to have at one's disposal, and irreplaceable when needed. What a gift you're giving to your students by teaching them how to write poetry! What a gift you're giving to yourself when you write it, too!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.