5 Ways I Sneak Poetry into My Rhetoric Class

Notes from the Classroom


Full disclosure: I’ve never thought of myself as a poetry person. I taught a lot of Debate for the first half of my career and then I shifted into AP Language and Composition. I’m argument, research, rhetoric. Not poetry.

It’s not that I dislike poetry–I loved studying it in high school and college–but the way I studied it has never meshed with the curriculum I teach.

In the past few years, however, I’ve found poems popping up at just the right moment, providing exactly the messages or skill lessons my students need.  

Here are five ways I sneak poetry into a rhetoric class:

A Way to Begin Tough Conversations

Though I sometimes avoided hot topics as a young teacher, there is little today that I’m unwilling to discuss with my students. Still, I try very hard to reign in my own opinions because whether I like it or not, many students see me as the person who holds the position of power in the room. What I share with the class shows what I value, and I must be careful how I use my voice.  

For me, poems are often a good starting point because their arguments are less explicit than those you would find in an op-ed. Recently, my students read and responded to the poem “Playground Elegy,” by Clint Smith. The poem makes an argument, but it also gives students a way into the discussion that is less intimidating–relatable imagery of a common childhood experience. In my class, this shared imagery gave them some common ground to begin a discussion about race and violence.

A Way to Examine Writers’ Choices

Poetry also provides quick mentor texts for discussing a writer’s choices. In September, George Clooney wrote a poem about the take-a-knee movement. The poem is a simple one, but provided a quick study in analysis. Why a poem? Why repeat the word “pray”? What’s the impact of the final line?

We could accomplish a lot analytically in ten minutes. A longer piece might have taken the whole hour to wade through. Again, there was an argument, too. After our analysis of the discussion, we were able to shift naturally into a discussion of the argument Clooney was making.

A Way to Process Big Emotions

Sometimes poems aren’t for arguing or analyzing, though. The day after the Parkland shooting, I knew I needed to address it with my students. Tricia Ebarvia of the Moving Writers blog encouraged me to just write with my students, and suggested several poems as a prompt. We ended up writing in response to “The Way It Is” by William Stafford and my students considered what it means to hold onto a thread and keep going when things are difficult. The notebook writing they did that day helped them process a lot of emotions and fears that they hadn’t had a chance to work through.

A Way to Spark Research Questions

In addition to argumentation, my students also do a lot of research. Poems can serve as perfect sparks for research questions because they often leave things unanswered. Students are used to having research topics, but when they have research questions, I find their thinking, researching, and writing becomes much more complex.

For example, after reading “Gate A4,” by Naomi Shihab Nye, and “Broken English,” by Rupi Kaur, students had all kinds of questions about the extent to which language impacts our daily lives and the way we interact with one another. Had I just asked them to research, for example, whether or not the United States should have a national language, many would have never examined the murkier, more complex areas of the topic.

A Way to Blow Off Steam

Last week, following the SAT test, my juniors were burned out. I shared a funny tweet I’d seen riffing on the William Carlos Williams poem “This is Just to Say” and explained how that had become a meme. To give our brains a break, we wrote our own poems. Though I had only intended to give their brains a little break, this, too, turned into an easy (and fun!) lesson about a writer’s choices. What’s the impact of that giant long line? What was the writer trying to accomplish and why is it successful?

In the introduction to her book Poems Are Teachers, Amy Ludwig Vanderwater explains that “poems wake us up, keep us company, remind us that our world is big and small. And, too, poems teach us to write. Anything.” Regardless of the course you teach, there is a space for poetry. I’ve found lots of spaces in my course and I’d argue (see? It’s my thing) that you can, too.

Hattie Maguire (@teacherhattie) hit a milestone in her career this year: she realized she’s been teaching longer than her students have been alive (17 years!). She is spending that 17th year at Novi High School, teaching AP English Language and AP Seminar for half of her day, and spending the other half working as an MTSS literacy student support coach. When she’s not at school, she spends her time trying to wrangle the special people in her life: her 8-year-old son, who recently channeled Ponyboy in his school picture by rolling up his sleeves and flexing; her 5-year-old daughter, who has discovered the word apparently and uses it to provide biting commentary on the world around her; and her 40-year-old husband, whom she holds responsible for the other two.

Launching into Poetry with “Love That Dog”

Notes from the Classroom

As a 5th grade teacher, I would always have students moan, eyeroll, and state either dramatically or smugly, “I’ve read that book,” when I would pull out Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech.

“Yes, I’m sure you have,” I would reply sweetly. “But never the way you are going to read it with me.”

An Adventure in Reading and Writing

I always tried to carve out two weeks in the spring for this text, and use it as a reading and writing experience.

As readers, we were able to infer quite a bit about our main character, Jack, and his teacher, Miss Stretchberry. We could easily select character traits and defend them with evidence from the text. We were able to think deeply about Jack and the changes we saw in him as a learner and a person.

We also got to experience poetry in multiple ways: from our own experience and Jack’s experience, and using poems as mentor texts for writing. I will tell you this: No matter if they had read the story before, or even heard it before, my students always ended up loving this experience.

How It Works: Reading

If you are not familiar with this story, it is a must read. But please, please read it this way:

When Jack first mentions a poem within the text, stop immediately and read the poem. (As a teacher, I would project the poem at the beginning of our Language Arts time, read it aloud, and then immediately go into the text to hear what Jack had to say about it.) Then process as readers what is happening in the story and the poem. I had post-its throughout my text about the poems, as well as the stopping points where I wanted students to reflect.

Surprise–Writing!

After each day that we read a new poem, my students would be tasked with using the poem as a mentor text. We would spend some time talking about the structure and meaning, and because I taught students with a wide range of abilities, I would always have scaffolds in place to make these structures were accessible for all students.

The kids loved this. We would write multiple versions using the same mentor text and they were excited to publish and share their writing. Many would ask to publish theirs on their blog pages or to hang theirs in the hallways. This excitement was contagious and carried throughout the month.

A Springboard

This text was a great springboard into exploring a variety of poetry styles. I also used A Kick In The Head, An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms  and A Poke in the I, A Collection of Concrete Poems to further our study and writing. There is a little something for everyone in these books so it is easy to bump things up for students who need a challenge.

Spring is a great time to explore Haiku as well. Take a walk, notice some things in nature, and write! The structure is a good way to talk about word choice as well. (It doesn’t hurt to review syllables either!) There are many examples of haiku out there. I stuck to making them about nature but you can do what works for your students!

There are so many resources out there to explore poetry with your students in April. Check out 30 ways to celebrate, the Poetry Foundation, Scholastic Poetry Resources, and listen to ordinary Americans reading poetry at the Favorite Poem Project. (Be sure to preview first.)

I hope that you will dive in and explore this month–there is so much to discover. You’ll be amazed what you find.

beth Beth Rogers (@bethann1468) has taught in the elementary setting for the past 11 years. During this time, she earned her Master’s in Educational Technology from Michigan State University. This year, she is in a new position: Instructional Technologist K-12. This gives her the unique opportunity to work with teachers and students, district wide, to incorporate technology into their teaching and learning, in ways that engage, enhance, and extend the learning. She has already already begun to work with multiple classrooms to engage students in blogging, and to help teachers understand the power of this platform. At home, she lives with her husband, sons, and an anxiety-ridden German Shepherd who requires inordinate amounts of time and attention.

Bringing Warmth into These Last Cold Weeks

Notes from the Classroom

Here in Michigan winters are long–seeming to last well into spring. And in the classroom winter can feel eternal. The grey outside is often reflected in the moods of the students, and to be honest, ours too.

How to combat the cold-month blahs? Here are a few ideas to help you through:

Pull Out Poetry

One book that I use all year long, but which is especially effective this time of year, is Red Sings from Treetops, by Joyce Sidman. This book is wonderful for teaching the power of language, and for inspiring kids to think outside the box.

I use Red Sings as a mentor text and have kids write poems inspired by it. We brainstorm, choose a color to focus on, do some quality writing, and then spend some time working on our illustrations. If you have time and patience, true collage is a fun way to go. We usually use colored pencils, and I am always pleased with the result. We hang these in the hall and it is so nice to be greeted by springtime images every morning.

Share Your Favorite Books

There are always books that I don’t have time to read to my students but want to share. So, it’s important to set aside a few minutes each day to book talk your favorites.

If you have them available, hold them until the end of the week and have students enter a lottery to check them out. Pull names and make a big deal out of it. Let students put their names on waiting lists too–they will badger their classmates, which just might inspire them to keep reading!

This is also a great time to talk about realistic time frames for finishing a text. I have a colleague who does this with new books from book orders. It generates a ton of excitement and puts some life into conversations about books.

Check Out “Breakout”!

If you are not familiar with Breakout EDU, the educational-gaming platform, you must check it out! Most people won’t have the resources to create actual breakout boxes, but you can use the concept and create a “breakout” with clues in envelopes, forcing students to solve clues in order to get to the end.

There are many breakouts already created that people have shared online. Students work in small groups, so we make six sets of clues for a classroom. You can create a breakout around any content: I have designed them around books, social studies content, and math. We are also creating them for March is Reading Month and Leader in Me. Students apply what they know to solve clues, and they love the challenge! This is a great way to extend the content and get kids excited again.

Whatever you do to get through the last cold weeks, remember to focus on what you love and what brings you joy. Your students will feel your enthusiasm and they will catch it too!

beth Beth Rogers (@bethann1468) has taught in the elementary setting for the past 11 years. During this time, she earned her Master’s in Educational Technology from Michigan State University. This year, she is in a new position: Instructional Technologist K-12. This gives her the unique opportunity to work with teachers and students, district wide, to incorporate technology into their teaching and learning, in ways that engage, enhance, and extend the learning. She has already already begun to work with multiple classrooms to engage students in blogging, and to help teachers understand the power of this platform. At home, she lives with her husband, sons, and an anxiety-ridden German Shepherd who requires inordinate amounts of time and attention.

Developing the Writing Habit

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

the knackWriting instruction has become my favorite part of teaching, though it didn’t always come easily. In the beginning, my own writing was stilted in structure and lacked voice. I wrote what I had been taught, which was a five paragraph essay and a five sentence paragraph. Not only was my writing boring.  The moves I made to create it were not defined enough for students to use as models, except for stilted, formulaic writing that also lacked voice and a sense of ownership.

It also took a long time to produce this writing because I didn’t care about it. I knew I needed to write more and I needed to write things that I cared about. Essentially, I needed to develop my writing habit so I could help my students develop theirs.

The Value in Habit

One summer, while planning for narrative-poetry writing in the fall, I ordered Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises. Here I found my dream writing. The challenge was to write for one minute without edits for 10 days. I found that after a minute I didn’t want to stop, so many days I didn’t.

I still use this exercise when I am stuck, or when I have more assigned writing than pieces I choose myself. Overall, it helps to clear my brain and return to the habit of writing.

It helps my students, too. They realized the power to clear one’s brain and write every day, as a way to generate topics. It helped my students set goals as well. If I can write 30 words in just one minute, then how many can I expect of myself in 15 minutes?

Using these exercises, my writing models came faster and my voice showed more than before. But my writing was still very one note. I needed some new craft strategies to vary the way I was writing.

So I studied my units of study, in order to really understand the writing skills and moves that I was asking students to use.

Detailed further in my earlier post “My Favorite Writing Strategy,” I also imitated mentor texts. As I have said before, when imitating mentors, you can learn what makes their writing great, but eventually the writing becomes your own. As I wrote in this way, my model texts became excellent mentors for my students. I used skills I asked them to use, and I explained how and why I made those choices. Metacognition became an integral part of my writing progress and the culture of writing in my classroom.

Other Steps to Keep in the Habit

Writing for students may be hard and it may be scary, but as a wonderful mentor told me once, “You only have to write slightly better than your students.” In the end, if we are going to teach writing, then we have to be writers ourselves.

With this in mind, here are a few other strategies that I have used to remain in the habit of writing:

  • Found Poetry. The idea is that you choose any text that is 50-100 words long. From there, you choose 25-50 words. Make a list out of those words, and use only those listed words to create a new piece of poetry. You have the opportunity to add just two words to your list that did not come from the text.
  • 50 Images. Make a list of 50 images. These can be things you see around yourself, like magnets lined up on a refrigerator, or a glass of iced tea with melting ice cubes. Make sure the list is labeled with numbers. Then have a friend choose two random numbers. Using the images on your list that correspond to those numbers, create a piece of writing that includes both of those images.
  • 25 “Because” Statements. Make a list of “because” statements. “Because I am almost finished writing this post,” or “because it is Monday,” and many others. Use these statements as a starting point for writing.

pic 2Amy Gurney (@agurney_amy) is an ELA and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Walled Lake Schools. She has a Master’s degree from Michigan State University in Educational Administration and is currently pursuing an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership at Oakland University. She is a current Galileo Leader. She worked on the MAISA units of study and has studied reading and writing workshop practice and conducted action research.

Imitation: My Favorite Writing Strategy

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project
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The author’s imitation of a Haydn poem. Click the image to enlarge it.

Several years ago, I participated in the Oakland Writing Project. Here, I learned a strategy that enhanced my writing and my study of authors’ craft. I began to understand how writers wrote, and I learned to use those same moves in my own writing.  

Last week, I spent some time in my friend’s classroom, and she was using the same strategy with her students. The strategy is imitation, and it helps student-writers to develop their voice and enhance their ability to make choices.

Walking into the room, I smiled when I saw this learning target on the board: “I can imitate a mentor poem.” I immediately thought back to the first poem I imitated in The Oakland Writing Project. It was “Those Winter Sundays,” by Robert Hayden.

This is a short poem with only three stanzas. It describes a routine morning where a dad gets up early to light fires to warm the house. There are also underlying messages like the speaker’s lack of gratitude and a fear of his father.

Through imitation, I could mimic the topic or theme of the poem, or I could imitate the structure and style of the poem. In the picture above, you can see that I imitated the structure by keeping the same number of lines and words. 

Imitation in the Classroom

Learning from my own writing experiences, I teach imitation to students.

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We start small and grow when students are ready. We start by using the same topic as the writer. We imitate the same number of words per line and the same number of lines in a stanza. To model for kids how to begin this work, a template might look like the one listed to the right. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

At this point, you’ve given students something successful which they can strive to imitate, but they haven’t made any personal writing choices. As you conference with students, you’ll notice that some are ready to move forward. A great next step for student-writers is to choose a topic of his/her own within the same structure as the mentor poem. This allows the writing to begin to be the student’s.  

Another next step is to study the words and imitate craft choices like alliteration and assonance, verb and noun placement, and words that share similar syllables.

Breaking Away from Imitation

In a later draft of my own poem, I used a standalone line. The poem I was imitating doesn’t have a standalone line, but as a writer, I felt that my writing needed that line, which took me out of imitation. So, I started using the strategy and continued by making decisions of my own.

Later, another writing piece became my own, even though I started with imitation. I began with “Patterns,” by Anne Atwell-McLeod. Here is a finished piece of writing that began with imitation.

You’ll notice while conferencing that, as they’re ready to move forward with imitation, some students will continue to use these strategies. They will also grow the strategies they use throughout the year as you expose them to excellent mentor texts.  

pic 2Amy Gurney (@agurney_amy) is an ELA and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Walled Lake Schools. She has a Master’s degree from Michigan State University in Educational Administration and is currently pursuing an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership at Oakland University. She is a current Galileo Leader. She worked on the MAISA units of study and has studied reading and writing workshop practice and conducted action research.

Student Voices Matter

Notes from the Classroom
InsideOut Literary Arts Project gives student voices power through presence and audience at Western

InsideOut Literary Arts Project empowers student voices through presence and audience

I was thrilled.

On a visit to Western International High School, a Detroit Public School close to the Ambassador Bridge to Canada, I had the opportunity to witness a poetry reading by students who had been part of the legendary InsideOut Literary Arts Project. As is clearly demonstrated on their Facebook page, InsideOut empowers students throughout Detroit by affording them a vehicle to express their thoughts and feelings in creative and unfettered ways. The work dispels despair and replaces it with hope.

Students read, recited, and performed their poetry in Western’s black box theatre. Poems spoke of the reality of growing up amidst the challenges of adolescence. Some poets spoke of the inequity and indignity faced by people of color, and the societal challenges we all must address in order to create a more just reality for everyone.

What struck me as most meaningful was the profound feeling of liberation that accompanied the opportunity to share. While students had no illusions that their situations would change quickly, what endures with me is the profound feeling of empowerment that was on display. Kids’ voices were heard. There is real power in providing a time and place for students to express themselves.

InsideOut enables students to live a writerly life. Kids understand the power that comes with self-expression, and leverage it to speak up and speak out. Messages of hope abound. Students’ voices are heard!

rick josephRick Joseph (@rjoseph852) is a National Board Certified Teacher and has taught 5/6 grade at Covington School in the Birmingham Public School district since 2003. Prior, he served as a bilingual educator and trainer for nine years in the Chicago Public Schools. Rick is thrilled to serve as the 2016 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Through Superhero Training Academy, Rick’s students have created a superhero identity to uplift the communities where they learn and live.