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.

Empathy Through Research Writing

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_426313705As my students work through the Extended Research Argument unit from the National Writing Project, we’re having really good conversations about the issues they’re interested in, and we’re doing a lot of thinking about evidence.

Most recently, we’ve considered viewpoints that don’t align with our own. We’re at a point where they’ve looked at what is being said about their issues, and are trying to write sympathetic, fair statements that sum up what they’re seeing from people holding different viewpoints.

This is a shift from the way I’ve taught this in the past. Before, of course I taught my students about making concessions and why that’s an important move. The good reason: making a concession shows your reader that you understand the issue’s complexity, and that you’re not a fanatic. The bad reason: The Big Test you’re going to take won’t give you a high score without one.

I taught, and maybe thought, about argument as a contest–and so they did too. But what’s coming out of this new work is some real empathy, something I mostly ascribed to fiction reading. I’m thinking that empathy and fairness are traits that are lacking and in need of teaching.

Cultivating Empathy

Fiction maybe lets us experience what another person experiences and feels, but I don’t know a way to require that, or how a student might demonstrate empathy in the kinds of writing we do. Our research-argument project, though, requires it. Students write a statement from the opposing viewpoint that’s fair, and which someone holding that viewpoint would agree with.

Here’s a sample of what all of this has lead us to:

An African-American student, male, tells me his peer reviews don’t think he’s being entirely fair while representing the opposing viewpoint. He writes about police use of force when dealing with communities and individuals of color. He’s not sure he knows how to keep his own bias out of the writing, and how could he?

What’s great about the conversation is that he genuinely wants to be fair because he knows he can make a good argument. He doesn’t want his bias to undermine that. We talk and I read what he’s written. We decide that he’s going to be honest about who he is, and that his next step is to think about whom he wants as his audience.
Whom does he most want to speak to and what might that look like? This young man has little motivation to seek empathy with people who see him as a threat, but because he wants his argument to be taken seriously he’s going to work hard on that empathy piece.

Another young man announced to the class that his issue was raising the minimum wage, because “only losers work for minimum wage–McDonald’s money–and they don’t deserve more.” But now he sits, sharing statements about the opposing viewpoint that contains references to living wages and other topics he hadn’t thought about. His own point of view shows growth and empathy and an understanding of the complexity of his issue. His “only losers” claim is gone, replaced by one that show nuance.

shutterstock_278574116Not all the conversations go this way. But enough of them do that I take notice. Is my thinking about empathy and how to get it wrong? I’m also worried that some of these students will slip back into “a prove my point/win the argument” mindset, but I am encouraged.

I sat today and looked through my social media feeds. I didn’t see much empathy, didn’t see anyone trying to sympathetically represent the opposing viewpoint. Is that what we’re up against? A genre that only tries to “win” and never understand?

I thought about my students’ projects. In the last step they are going to produce a piece of civic writing that hopefully achieves their purpose. We’re going to talk about op-eds and petitions, speeches and letters. But I’m afraid that their efforts will get lost in the myopic howling noise of their Twitter feeds and Instagrams and Snapchats. I’m also struggling with how to capture and reward–if that’s the right word–these students for their thinking.

Still it’s a good start.


RICKRick Kreinbring (@kreinbring_rick) teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

With Writing, Quantity Begets Quality

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_560033377“There are no more words left in me to write, I think.” (Read with melodramatic hand on brow, maybe even a Southern belle accent for an extra flair of drama.)

A student of mine said this the other day as I returned the class’ most recent essays and started describing our next writing adventure. I am lucky to teach both AP Language and Composition and AP Seminar (a new, research-writing based course) this year. The young lady who made the dramatic pronouncement has the pleasure (?) of being in both. That means she did a lot of writing this fall. A crazy amount of writing.

And exactly the right amount of writing, I think.

She’s not the only student in this position. I have about 15 overlappers, and they’ve really made me rethink the amount of writing I’m doing in my classes. Despite the dramatic “there are no words left” comment, they actually have quite a few words left, and those words are getting more insightful and more interesting. All of that writing is paying off–and I think they know it.

I always thought I had a lot of writing in my classes. But watching how far my overlappers’ writing is coming, I’m realizing that maybe they need even more. Kelly Gallagher, a reading-and-writing-teacher guru, is often quoted as saying, Students should be writing way more than a teacher can grade.Though I know that’s true, I have never really embraced it fully. I have been so caught up in the idea that I need to give feedback in order to help them grow, that I thought that meant grading everything. It simply wasn’t possible for them to write and write and write and write, if I wasn’t going to write all over it. Right?


Wrong. There are plenty of smaller writing activities that I could replicate in each class, and I have different strategies from each class that could be copied and pasted into the other. My students shouldn’t need to be in two of my classes to get such a flood of writing opportunities. There are four things I’ve been doing on and off in each class this fall. What if I did all four things consistently in both classes?


A page from my bullet journal. (Click the thumbnail to view a larger image.)

Bullet Journals
My AP Seminar kids have been experimenting with different ways to reflect on their research process all year, and most recently, we’ve started bullet journals. I hesitated to start this with my Lang students because I already had writing notebooks in AP Lang. But, my notebooks in Lang are inconsistent. Bullet journaling would force daily reflection and guarantee that my students would never go a day without writing at least a few lines.

Holistic Feedback
The other thing I’ve been very good about in AP Seminar is giving consistent holistic feedback. There is one, 4-point, simple scale in my Seminar class. Because my students have worked with that scale all year, it works as shorthand with us now. A 3 scribbled in the margins tells them just as much as a paragraph of feedback. And it’s a lot faster. AP Lang has a holistic, 9 pt scale, but it’s not simple and isn’t as clear to my students. If I could break the scale down for them more and help them see the levels more clearly, I could start using this practice in that class as well.

Write Two, Choose Your Best
I often ask my AP Lang students to write two different pieces (different days) and then choose the best one for me to evaluate. This works really well in AP Lang because sometimes students feel great about one analytical piece and horrible about the next one. This both removes the pressure and pushes them to be a little more critical of their own writing. I hadn’t thought about doing this in AP Seminar because all of our writing has been long, workshopped pieces. But, I need to do a better job of assessing my Seminar students’ reading, and this strategy would work well with that.

One of the ways I save time prior to writing conferences in AP Lang is by asking the students to annotate their own essays with reflective comments and questions. What were you trying to accomplish with a particular section? Why did you choose one word rather than another? This reflective writing has been absent from my Seminar class, and I think I need to add it. 


When my son was a baby, his pediatrician used to tell us, “Sleep begets sleep.” Put him to bed early, make sure he gets lots of naps, and he will sleep perfectly. My pediatrician was right. Lots of sleep led to better sleep.

This fall I learned the same thing about my writers. Lots of writing leads to better writing. Quantity begets quality.  This spring, I’ll see if I can up the writing in each class. My poor overlappers don’t know what they’re in for.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Kindergarten Research Project

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

061Yes, we have to do a research project in kindergarten!

Like it or not, the Common Core State Standards clearly require this work. For one standard, students must “participate in shared research and writing projects.” Another states: students must “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic.” And a third requires that, with guidance, students “gather information from provided sources to answer a question.”

Talk about stress—students who are just learning to read and write, who have to do research and write a report. It’s a challenge for everyone involved.

So last year we approached this differently than in the past, and ended up loving it.

Finding Animals

We began by choosing a handful of animals living at the Detroit Zoo. We pulled books from the library and magazines like Ranger Rick, and created easy-reader nonfiction books about these animals. We had these available in the classroom.

leopard_amur_01We also looked for kid-appropriate videos and zoos that had viewing cameras on the animals. The San Diego Zoo, for example, has a lot of great animal cams.

We started off the unit talking about the three things animals need to survive: food, water, and shelter. We had a deck of cards, with each card listing one of the needs to survive. Students took turns pulling three cards. If they didn’t have one of each need, they sat down. If they received one of each, they were able to get back in line for another turn.

When more than half the class was sitting down, we started discussing what they noticed. We then led the conversation toward the students’ understanding that animals need food, water, and shelter to survive. This segued into a discussion about endangered animals as compared to extinct ones.

Thinking Like Scientists

The next lesson focused on scientists. We talked about how scientists would do research and what they might need or want to know. The class came up with these questions and then it was game on!

  • What does the animal look like?
  • Where does the animal live (habitat)?
  • What does the animal eat?
  • What are some interesting facts?

As a class, we were researching an animal to practice how to find the information. The students also split into small groups and chose an animal.

Before we started our research, we wrote on a chart page what we already knew, or thought we knew, about our chosen animal. Then each day we chose one of the driving questions to focus on. As a class, we found the answer for our class animal, and then the groups split off and went to work.

Some groups wanted to watch the videos, while others hunted through the books. They had a packet to complete together with the information they found.

The culmination of this research project was my favorite part. The students had to create a model of the animal, its habitat, and food source. We encouraged them to incorporate the interesting facts they learned, too, and instructed them to label items. When they were completed, we recorded a video of each group showing us what they created and answering our driving questions. Students were so excited to share what they had completed, and they were so proud of themselves.

We celebrated a wonderful learning unit by going to the Detroit Zoo and teaching our chaperones about the animals we studied. Needless to say, the parents were impressed!

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: http://kindergartentreasures.blogspot.com/) is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She recently became part of the Walled Lake Teacher Leader Fellowship. She is in her tenth year of teaching, with eight in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

Interdisciplinary Curriculum: A Union of Disciplines

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

Lisa Kraiza and her collaborator, Doug Eiland, were part of a year-long interdisciplinary curriculum writing initiative at Oakland Schools focused on research writing.  Explore their interdisciplinary unit about the Civil War and the other completed units from the initiative.


croppedLisa&Doug copy

Lisa Kraiza & Doug Eiland, 8th grade teachers at Oak Park Prepratory Academy

The conversation went a little like this:

“Doug, would you like to write an ELA/Social Studies unit together?”

“Sure, what topic should we do?”

“You pick. I can make ELA work into anything.”

“How about the American Civil War?  The kids really seemed into the brother against brother concept of the event.”

“Great! I can work with that…”

Uh, wait a second, I later thought to myself, I only know the bare bones of the Civil War.  And so it began, the great American journey into cross-curricular unit writing. (I would like to thank my brother-in-arms, Douglass Eiland, for taking a risk and jumping feet first into this adventure.  Our students are lucky to have him as their social studies teacher and a role model.)

Doug and I had this conversation in September of 2013.  We piloted our finished unit in April of 2014.  We decided we wanted the outcome of this unit to be: students can see the connection between two disciplines when learning about a topic and understand the broader scope of the Civil War not as just a bunch of battles that happened a long time ago, but as a period in American history that still has repercussions for us today.  This looked great on paper, but there was one major problem.  I, the ELA teacher, barely knew a speck about the Civil War.  I needed to learn as much as I could so I could feel comfortable teaching my students during this cross-curricular unit.  I had to quickly immerse myself in this time period.  And oh boy, did I ever!

We decided that the essential question underpinning the unit would be: what does it take to survive civil war? Once we had gathered all the information and resources we thought students would need, the question became — what do we do with all this?  How would we remain in this cross-curricular mindset and capture the minds of the students?  The answer: student learning centers.  There is so much to learn and know about the Civil War that it could prove overwhelming for both us as teachers and for the students.  So our plan was to introduce the Civil War in a joint teaching session that involved student learning centers.  We broke the Civil War material down by type of media, resulting in seven different learning centers:

  • Trade Books
  • Photography
  • Poetry
  • Film
  • Trading Cards
  • Political Cartoons
  • Writing
small.studentsworking copy

students learning collaboratively at a learning center

There was a task to complete at each center and students had a recording sheet (click here to see an example).  They would receive a grade in both social studies and ELA for their work.  At the end of the two-day session, students completed an exit ticket to reflect on their introduction to the Civil War.  It was thrilling to see students so engaged and curious.  We received many tickets with “a-has” and “this makes sense.”  After Doug and I high fived each other, we went into our classrooms to answer the students’ questions with our respective lessons.

So now what?  How would Doug and I come together to summatively assess what the students would learn in this unit?  The answer came in the form of a multimedia presentation on a Civil War personality.  Each student was assigned a person on day one of our unit.  These figures from the Civil War came from all walks of life, famous, infamous or long-forgotten.  We had a balance of Northerners, Southerners, military personnel, and folks on the home front.  Students were to present to their peers a study of how their person survived, or did not survive, the Civil War.

We allowed for joint research time, supported students in finding and using sources, and encouraged collaboration.  Students presented to both their ELA and social studies classes and again received double credit.  We had some amazing presentations!  Students became their Civil War personas.  They connected to the war on an emotional level and were able to see that that choices these historical figures made were not as simple as they had once believed.  We saw increased pride and motivation in our students to do a good job.  This wasn’t always the case with traditional “final” projects.  Lastly, students developed a clear vision of how social studies and ELA can live together in their minds.  There were many light bulb moments for our students.

croppedLisawithstudents copyThis experience showed me and Doug that it is imperative for disciplines to collaborate.  Neither of us could have gotten the quality of work the students produced had we done this separately.  For the first time, students were seeing exactly how the skills they learn in their individual classes apply to all classes.  They were developing skills–research skills, presentation skills– not just memorizing facts and figures.

And we learned that it is okay to have students see their teachers try new things.  It is okay to “share the spotlight” and lean on other educators to fill in gaps for us.  True collaboration is honoring what the other person brings to the table, and Doug and I feel that we 100% honor each other as professional educators.  Of course, there are many small items that we will change or revisit in this unit, but the overall meaning and intention of the unit was met with vigor and enthusiasm.

Let the Union prevail and in the words of the great Abraham Lincoln:

“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.”

LisaKraizaLisa Kraiza teachers eighth grade English Language Arts at Oak Park Preparatory Academy.  She is also a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project.

Webinar – Small Bites: Research in the 6-12 Classroom

Facilitator: Delia DeCourcy, Secondary Literacy Consultant, Oakland Schools ISD
Wednesday, November 19  7-8pm EST (optional follow up discussion from 8-9pm)
recording    slides    Google Doc for session collaboration    resources

The Common Core says: engage students in short, focused research experiences across the year.  So how do we do this?  In this interactive session, we’ll consider how to scaffold for increasing student independence during the research writing process, discuss the key skills our students need to be successful in research, and explore how all this can fit into your existing curriculum.  We’ll also talk about tech tools students can use to improve and display their research and research writing skills.

Delia DeCourcy is an education literacy consultant with Oakland Schools, an ISD serving 28 districts in Oakland County, Michigan.  In this role, she creates and facilitates professional learning opportunities for ELA teachers, focusing on best practices in the teaching of reading and writing and effective technology integration.  Delia is the co-author of Teaching Romeo & Juliet: A Differentiated Approach published by NCTE and has delivered workshops on a wide range of writing, literature, new media, and ed tech topics.  Previously, she was a faculty member at the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan, where she earned an MFA in creative writing in 2008.  In the first sixteen years of her career, Delia taught public and private school students in California, Kentucky, North Carolina and Michigan at the middle, high school and college levels.  She has facilitated online courses for middle and high school students in the Duke Talent Identification Program and also written three online curriculums for their independent learning program.  

Twitter ID: @delia_decourcy