I like to start my poetry units by first immersing students in free verse poetry books and encouraging them to name what they notice about this type of poetry. Then I help them realize that poems are hiding everywhere by taking poetry walks around the classroom and outside of the school. Early on in the unit—even before I have done minilessons on things like using line breaks, repetition, or metaphor—I have them try their hand at writing some poems of their own. Most students jump right in and try it, but there are some that are hesitant and not quite sure where to start.
I would like to share some strategies for helping students get their thoughts down in free verse poem form. I encourage you to try this out with a poem of your own along with your students. A few summers ago I participated in the Oakland Writing Project (affiliated with the National Writing Project). We did an exercise called a “fishing expedition”, which eventually led to my very first poem (other than some limericks and haiku poems I wrote in elementary school).
First we thought about places that poems might be hiding in our lives. You can see my list here:
The next thing we did was pick one item from our lists and write it at the top of a clean page in our writer’s notebooks. I chose my washing machine. I had known for awhile that a poem was hiding there. Here’s why: It seemed that every time I did laundry I would open my washing machine to find items that my children had neglected to remove from their pockets when sorting their dirty clothes. As I would pull the trinkets out, they seemed to tell me a story about what my children had been up to lately. I hadn’t really thought about how this might look as a poem, but since I needed a topic for my assignment, I wrote “washing machine” at the top of the page. We were then invited to start jotting words and phrases as a list separated by commas in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. We were timed for several minutes and told to write as quickly as we could, any ideas that popped into our minds. Here is my list:
When I read back over my list, I realized that the beginning of the list included very concrete objects. But as I exhausted all of those, I had to dig deeper and the words began to represent more abstract ideas. I was surprised by how effective this “fishing expedition” was for drawing out those thoughts.
Our next task was to “put it on the page so it looks like a poem”. Here is what my first attempts looked like:
As part of this four-week institute, we were required to take a few pieces of writing through the entire writing process. This was one of the pieces I chose to spend some time on. Here is the finished poem:
I am a treasure hunter.
Each time the spinning stops
I pry open my washing machine door
and peer inside.
I don’t try to predict
what gems I will find.
Each load reveals this day’s catch:
a Lego, an acorn top,
a shrunken Jolly Rancher,
a faded sweet tart wrapper,
a Game boy cartridge (will it still work?),
a hair band, sometimes two or three,
and always “cool” stones.
I am an anthropologist.
I arrange the laundered artifacts,
a collage on top of my machine.
I study my human subjects
and reconstruct the past week.
create Lego starfighters,
make acorn whistles,
and collect one more fossil rock.
I am a detective.
The jewels are my clues.
accessorizing every outfit
with matching hair bands,
sneaks a piece of candy
but forgets to eat it.
Once a source of annoyance,
the past week’s cache
an exercise in reminiscence.
One day my treasure trove will run dry
and no longer be
the secret window
through which I have a view
into my children’s daily lives.
I was pleased with the final product, but I think it was the process that I enjoyed most. I really was surprised by how much these three simple strategies helped spark the ideas that led to the finished piece:
- Look for places where poetry is hiding.
- Go on a fishing expedition with your topic.
- Put your ideas on a page so they look like a poem.
If your students seem reluctant to write poetry, I hope these will be some tools you can use. But first, try it out yourself! Remember, as Katie Wood Ray says, we have to try, at least once, to do the things we are asking our students to do in order to understand the process of writing as insiders.