Thoughts on Summer Reading Part 27: Poetry Challenge

In high school, I had an amazing English teacher who inspired me to write poetry.  In fact, during my senior year, I took a special independent study with her so that I could have more time to work on my writing.  It was awesome.  I wrote all sorts of poems.  Poetry helped me come to terms with my grandfather’s death.  For the longest time, I thought it was my fault that he died.  Clearly, ten-year-old me had nothing to do with it.  But, up until I was 18, I thought I did.  Writing poetry allowed me to explore my inner feelings and make sense of everything.  When poetry found me, I felt a sense of peace flush over me as if a burden had been lifted from my soul.  While most people find the writing of poetry daunting and overwhelming, I find it freeing and much more engaging than prose.  I love the idea of playing with words to create just the right emotion, image, or feeling within a reader.  It’s empowering in an approachable manner.  

In 59 Reasons to Write by Kate Messner, she mentions how difficult most writers find poetry.  As a writing teacher and fellow writer, I would agree.  However, I do feel as though it is the approach that is crucial.  Poetry can seem difficult and unattainable if it is presented as such.  You can’t introduce poetry to student writers with Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson.  You need to find a hook first.  Most students and people today enjoy listening to music.  Music is a relatable form of poetry.  Try using music as the hook and you might find more success.  Sometimes, complicated tasks or ideas come down to presentation.  The students want to feel as though it is challenging but doable.  They also want to see the relevance in what they are doing.  So, try coming at challenging topics like poetry from a completely different angle.

In Messner’s book Jo Knowles suggests a very cool poetry writing activity that I feel would engage students.  First, you have the students choose a topic of interest such as a sport or historical event.  Then, have them list their phone number, area code included, vertically down the side of a piece of paper.  The number on each line dictates how many words must be used in that particular line.  0s are wild cards and the poet can choose any number of words for lines that contain a 0.  Then, the students begin crafting a poem about their self-selected topic using the phone number as a mathematical formula.  It’s open-ended, yet containing at the same time.  Students can choose any topic on which to write about but don’t have to worry about filling each line withwords  because they are only allowed so many.  What a cool idea!  I love it.  I’m totally trying this with my students.

In fact, here’s my sample Phone Number Poem entitled No Ladder is Ending Me:

6 I heard a loud CLINK! when

0 the ladder slipped, sending me earthward.

3 My mind wandered,

5 “Is this how it ends?

2 A ladder?”

3 The fall seemed

4 infinite as a calmness

3 filled my soul–

2 “It’ll be

1 okay.”

That was tricky.  It took me a while to figure out my topic.  I started with a few different ones before I settled on something that happened to me just this morning.  Then, the words flowed onto the screen like quarters being shoved into a Skee-Ball machine at Fun Spot.  My first draft was not quite right and so I revised, focusing on the heart of the idea.  After reading over it again, I knew I had something of which to be proud.  The title came to me like a vision and that was that.

So, thank you Ms. Knowles for sharing such a unique poetry brainstorming idea.  I hope my students find it as captivating as I did.


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