Proud of a Newly Published Poet

Right in the midst of exam-week frenzy, I’ve gotten a piece of exciting news that reminds me how fulfilling my job is, and how lucky I am to do what I do.

Back in April, my students participated in the Poet-to-Poet project from the Academy of American Poets, one of their many wonderful initiatives for National Poetry Month. The classes I spent on this project were fun and energizing, and I knew my students’ creative sides had been engaged by the task of writing their own poems inspired by what they heard and read. Having the poets recorded reading and discussing their own work is such a genius touch, and I thought it was a great addition to my regular poetry unit.

The Academy received over one thousand poems from students all over the country and have published a selection of them on their website. I’m thrilled and proud that one of those published student poems is a student of mine! Charlotte’s poem, Things That I Hide/Are Hidden, is beautiful, and I’m honored to have been a tiny part of its genesis.

On Losing Maya Angelou

Each year, I offer my students many gifts in the form of literature.

I offer them Holden Caulfield and his battered heart, his sense of confusion and loneliness in the world. I offer them the fierce lunacy of Lady Macbeth, a woman trapped by her society and broken by her own frustrated ambition. I offer them words to express their own dreams and rage, and I offer them the tools to make those words heard and understood by others.

Each spring, I slip Still I Rise into a packet of poems and ask one girl to read the poem aloud. The first time I did this, I chose a girl new to our school, a girl still deciding whether she would find a place in our community, a girl with inner treasures she had not yet discovered. Did she read that poem? She read that poem, her voice gathering power with each repeated line, instinctively hitting the words like piano keys and bringing forth her own melody from the music of the poem. When she finished, we all sat there, and then the students began clapping.

I’ve taught “Still I Rise” ever since, and each year, I see it unfold itself for the students, the lyrical quality woven through it like a golden thread, the frank and confident sexuality and power that this woman feels. Each year, girls are struck by the sense of actually understanding a poem, seeing the power in it and feeling their own powers enhanced by it. Each year, I watch them discover it, and I feel enriched all over again by what Maya Angelou has achieved in this beautiful piece.

Today we lost a great voice, a powerful member of the choir of African-America, one of the many writing a new history, truly reconstructing what it means to be American, to be a woman, to be the descendent of slaves. Today we cannot lose what she offered us, the value of her story, and the wisdom she embodied and espoused.

National Poetry Month: “Poetry Is….”

“Now that I’ve got all your responses, I’d love to have Lucie and Grace read theirs aloud.”

This is what I said to my class after starting a recent lesson on poetry with a very simple freewrite; I wrote “Poetry is……” on the board, and they had to complete the sentence as often as they could in five minutes, writing the whole time. Here are some of the responses I got, and I think you’ll see how they wrote little poems back to me, probably without even knowing that’s what they were doing.

Poetry is metaphoric.
Poetry is piece of mind.
Poetry is finding your center.
Poetry is the thoughts we have at random.
Poetry is the song we hear from nature.
Poetry is the world’s way of manifesting grace.
Poetry is the dreams we fear to tell.
Poetry is a path to the soul and spirit.
Poetry is a way of showing our beautiful thoughts.
Poetry is profound in a way that only the mind can decipher.
Poetry is calming to the weak the and needy.
Poetry is therapy for the strong who fall weak.
Poetry is the childhood and life we see every day and imagine in our dreams.
Poetry is the mind’s camera.
Poetry is for everyone.
Poetry is for dreamers.

Poetry is interesting.
Poetry is boring as well.
Poetry is rhythm.
Poetry is for adults.
Poetry is like the sea, it flows.
Poetry is something that I’m not good at.
Poetry is hard.
Poetry is a way of expressing yourself.
Poetry is what people back in the days used to write.
Poetry is not my favorite.
Poetry is cool, I guess.
Poetry is a word.
Poetry is a poem.

Poetry is rhyming. Poetry is like a flowing river. Poetry is the heart speaking. Poetry is an empty nothing that means something. Poetry is fear. Poetry is love. Poetry is passion. Poetry is in everyone. Poetry is inspiration.

National Poetry Month: Poet-to-Poet Project

Today my classroom was filled with the grunts and squeals of manatees.

In addition to understanding poetic terminology, creating public poetry projects, and writing timed explications, my students are participating in the Poet-to-Poet Project, another wonderful initiative from the Academy of American Poets.

We worked through a modified version of a lesson plan provided on the website, which incorporates Manatee/Humanity by Anne Waldman and Valentine for Ernest Mann by Naomi Shihab Nye. We began with taking notes on background information about manatees, including a photograph and audio recording of the noises they make, and then read Waldman’s poem aloud, recording our impressions afterwards. Finally, we watched a great performance of the poem by Waldman herself, and recorded our impressions of it, followed by group discussion and writing about how the performance impacted our experience of the poem and how the poem itself made us see manatees differently and think think more emotionally about what it means when animals are endangered. As directed in the lesson plan, we only watched Waldman talk about her inspiration after we had discussed the poem more ourselves, which I think worked really well. Waldman’s reading really adds a richness to the text, and as one of my students noted, “she’s definitely giving off a hippie vibe, in a good way.” It’s a great poem to connect to the environment and sustainability issues, as well as a reminder of the interconnectedness of life, and Waldman’s passionate intensity shines through the screen.

Next, we read Nye’s poem and recorded our impressions as well. We watched Nye perform the poem and also speak about what inspired it, this great anecdote about an 8th grade boy who walked up to her in a school hallway and “ordered a poem,” as well as a friend of hers who gave his wife a pair of skunks for Valentine’s Day. Immediately afterwards, my students said how much they loved her line, “the person you almost like, but not quite,” so we brainstormed in our notes for a few minutes about what that line inspired in us.

In our next class, the students will work on a series of planning questions to help them write a poem of their own, inspired by either Waldman or Nye’s work, which they will send in to the Academy. I’m so excited to see what they write!

National Poetry Month: Public Poetry Project

One of my favorite parts of celebrating National Poetry Month with my ninth graders is watching what they do with the public poetry project I’ve been evolving for them over the past few years. I used to offer it as extra credit, but I’m so in love with the assignment that I’ve required it this year. This assignment has been popular in our community as well; faculty and students have approached me and others to express how much they enjoyed seeing poetry  I’m going to include the entire assignment in this post, and if you end up doing something similar with your students, here are some recommendations:

  • make sure to approve each student’s poem, not necessarily because they will find something inappropriate, but because they will find lots of “poetry” on the Internet that more closely resembles what you find on the inside of a greeting card. I approve each poem to make sure it has an identifiable author and is of literary merit.
  • student choice is really important here to increase engagement, but I make sure to require the students to explain why they chose their particular poem, as well as why they chose this particular method of sharing it publicly with our community, to encourage them to think carefully about their choices.
  • the other advantage of approving poems is making sure you don’t flood your school with “Where the Sidewalk Ends” in fifteen different presentations!
  • it can also be helpful to keep a public list somewhere so students can check it themselves and see what poems have already been claimed.

Here’s the assignment I give them–feel free to adapt or modify for your own use:

Dear students,

As April is National Poetry Month, we will conceive and execute a public poetry project! First, you will choose a poem (go here for some suggestions, but you can choose others as well), and then think about how you will make it public. Here are some ideas for you to consider:

• posting poems in public places like hallways or bathrooms (with approval)
• making a greeting card or bookmark featuring a poem to distribute in student and/or faculty mailboxes
• reading a poem aloud at a morning or class meeting
• printing the poem (or a portion of it) on a t-shirt and wearing it in public
• teaming up with a few other students to create a bulletin board display for my classroom (or another classroom, with that teacher’s approval)
• creating a visual representation of the poem that would hang in my classroom for the month
• writing your poem on sidewalks with chalk
• teaming up with a few other students to organize a poetry reading, like perhaps for a Lower School class (see me if you want help arranging this)
• many other creative possibilities!

The requirements are that you must document your project, either through pictures, giving me an example of what you have distributed or some other form you clear with me, and including a paragraph about why you have chosen this poem and this method of public display. You must also submit your event on the Academy of American Poets website so that it will be recorded with all the other public poetry projects happening this month across the country. I must approve your chosen poem before you do anything public with it, and I must approve any proposals involving more than one student. Finally, your public project must happen in the month of April and take place on campus. This project will be worth 25 pts.

Have fun—I’m looking forward to the results!

National Poetry Month: Analyzing “Let It Go”

Do you want to build a snowman?

If you’re like me, then you have some young people in your life obsessed with Frozen, the animated juggernaut breaking records and flooding the world with the Frozen soundtrack and Frozen digital or DVD edition.

Yesterday and today with my ninth graders, I decided to tie our study of poetry to analyzing “Let It Go,” so my students could see that the same poetic tools we were discussing are often essential in songwriting as well. We began by discussing imagery, metaphors, and similes, and then moved into making sure we could define alliteration, rhyme, assonance, and consonance. We focused in particular on these sections of the song:

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried


My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I’m never going back,
The past is in the past

which I projected and had the students annotate on their own copies. In just these two sections, you can point out alliteration, assonance, rhyme, metaphors, images, similes, word choice, structure and characterization. We had a very good discussion about the complex ways the songwriters used language to create the same effects that we would see and hear in the film version as well, and I think it helped make our discussion of poetry more closely tied to the power of language in their own lives. Of course, reading the song made them want to hear it, so I did play a few minutes of it to wrap up our discussion!

Help Me Choose!

Now that the Pulitzer Remix project is over, our fearless leader Jenni B. Baker is assembling a manuscript to pitch to publishers. Due to the sheer number of poems, we are all choosing what we think are the best of the work we produced, to help her sort out some early candidates. After some personal/family factors, I do not have the entire 31 poems I hoped to have, but I do have a good amount of poems to choose from–if I could make a decision.

That’s where you come in.

Please go see all the poems I wrote during the project (click on each book cover to reveal the poems), and let me know here in the comments which poems you like the most. The project will be hidden from public view after May 19th, while Jenni assembles the manuscript, so if you could look sometime soon, that would be great. While you’re on the website, feel free to look around; there’s an incredible amount of interesting work posted, and I’ve read some amazing stuff from my fellow remix poets.

Thanks for your help!

Poetry Month: Pulitzer Remix

Elbow Room (short story collection)

Elbow Room (short story collection) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For National Poetry Month 2013, I’m tackling the biggest challenge I’ve set for myself as a poet; I’m one of 85 participating poets in the Pulitzer Remix project, sponsored by The Found Poetry Review. Each of us chose a novel or collection of stories that has won the Pulitzer, and are “remixing” it by creating found poems from the text, one poem for each day of April. You can find out more about the project or the poets, and read the poems here. I first posted about this project, after Anjali tagged me in a meme, and now it’s finally launched.

My text is Elbow Room, a collection of stories that won the Prize in 1978, which also happens to be the year I was born. You can view all the poems I’ve written so far here; just click on each image of the book cover to see the individual poems. I admit that at first I was a little dismayed that I hadn’t been quick enough to nab one of my favorite books, but I think this has made it more challenging, and I’m looking forward to remixing more novels in the future.

For my poems, I’m using several different techniques. Some poems I created from choosing random words from the list of story titles, while others I chose from stories themselves. I’m creating one poem each that will stick to one particular story and be titled the same, but will deviate from the content of the story itself, if that makes sense. I also got inspired early on by these two characters I’ve dreamed up, and have been writing a series of love songs about their relationship, with words from the entire book.

I’m so proud to be part of this project, as the work I’ve seen from other poets has been amazing, and it’s been both inspiring and challenging for me as well. I feel reinvigorated in my life in general these days, and as a writer, I feel like I’ve opened an exciting chapter. Come check it out!

From My Event Calendar….

Baltimore Museum of Art on a fall morning.

Baltimore Museum of Art on a fall morning. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last year, I realized that amidst all my color-coded categories in my Outlook calendar, I had neglected to add one for myself. I have six different work categories and four different family categories, but none just for me–a not-too-subtle sign that I need to make some literal space in my life for my own needs and interests! So I made a category for myself (a relaxing seafoam green) and have tried to make more “events” for myself, whether it’s something as mundane as a haircut, or plans with friends. Sometimes, I even get to add something like the event I’m talking about today……

Last February, I was pleased and proud to have two poems published in the Feb 2012 edition of the light ekphrastic, an online journal dedicated to ekphrasis art and literature. I submitted a poem, Chant for Cooks, and was paired with a painter, who sent me a painting of hers, and then we created new pieces inspired by what our partner had sent us. It was such a fun experience, and continued my love affair with ekphrastic art that began with a few workshops I took at the Baltimore Museum of Art several years ago, and has included one of my poems being included in the audio tour for the BMA’s permanent collection.

A few weeks from now, my poems will be featured among other works from the journal as part of exhibition at a local art gallery, and I’m so thrilled. I’m going to bring my family, soak in all the inspiring work from other contributors, and maybe even talk a little about my own writing/creative process. It’s my husband’s birthday, but supportive guy that he is, he is just as excited to attend as I am, and I’m enjoying the idea of showing my girls this side of myself as well.

As lovely as I expect this experience to be, it’s also a good reminder to myself to keep making space in my life for me as a person, outside of the fulfillment I find in my family and job. Whether it’s blogging, writing, or seeking out other events and pursuits I enjoy, I know we’ll all be the richer for it.

Teaching Metaphors: Caged Bird, Free Bird

Sketch of African-American poet Paul Laurence ...

Sketch of African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This one goes out to all the English teachers and poetry lovers in the crowd, so let me know if this was useful or interesting to you!

Here’s how I recently began an introductory unit on metaphors and similes with my ninth graders, adapted from an Edsitement lesson on introducing metaphors through poetry. We are about to begin Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel, which is rich with figurative language, and so I like to make sure they have a working understanding of similes and metaphors before we dive in. I chose this particular grouping of poems because the novel also touches on the idea of freedom and how we yearn for it, but don’t always know how to achieve or preserve it, and I liked the idea of using variations on a theme to help them think about the metaphor in different ways.

First, I gave them Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for homework, with modified response questions, adding the final question, “In your life, do you most often feel like a caged bird or a free bird?” I added this question to build on the metaphors in the poem and ask students to make a text-to-self connection, a strategy in I Read It, but I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers that I love and try to use it whenever possible, after reading that great book.

Day One In Class: They sent me their homework, we reviewed the poem together and made sure we understood the metaphors and how they were used; this included reviewing what they could have annotated, making sure they were adding to their annotations as we went, counting lines and stanzas, discussing metaphors, titles, refrains and repetition. This took about twenty minutes, and involved my whiteboard.

Next, I split the class in half: one half got Well, I Have Lost You, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, the other half Sympathy, the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem that inspired Angelou. I gave them that background, and also that there is a high school in Baltimore named after Dunbar, and their sports teams are called the Poets (text-to-world connection!). I asked them to silently read and annotate their poems for several minutes. Next, I asked them to get into pairs and compare annotations, and then write 3-4 sentences together comparing either the Dunbar/Millay poem to the Angelou poem they had read for homework, thinking about metaphors, structure, repetition and more. I gave them about ten minutes to write their sentences and walked around the room, checking understanding and encouraging them to expand and add detail.

Next, I asked them to pair up in different groups with someone from the other “team”; so if student A had read the Dunbar poem, she now needed to pair up with someone who had read the Millay poem. Their next task was to share the sentences they had written in their groups and merge them together in one (semi) cohesive paragraph. This took us until the end of class.

For homework: they completed this Edsitement worksheet on creating your own metaphors. They also read I Go Back to May 1937, and answered response questions, which included, “If you could go back in time, what would you say to your parents before they had you?” We spent the next class period reinforcing similes by reviewing the poem, discussing the metaphors they had created, and then reading aloud the first few pages of the novel, which features an abundance of figurative language alongside passages in dialect. We annotated and discussed, and I previewed the structure of the novel (flashback) and encouraged them to think about examples of dialect in their own lives.

Tasks I was striving for: to expose them to some beautiful poetry, encourage them to think about metaphors and understand this literary tool and why it can be powerful, practice close readings of poems and responding in writing, practice comparing one text to another, begin to think about the themes of our next novel and connect those themes to their own experiences.

I think this lesson shows how many complex tasks I’m asking my students to perform in one class period, but also how much scaffolding I am giving them to support them in doing so. Clearly, I benefited a lot from Internet resources while planning this lesson, and I think it also shows how much can go into planning a lesson, designing tasks, finding materials, figuring out how to extend the learning experience with relevant and creative homework. I get a lot of search terms for lesson plans, and so I thought this would be a good example of how I map out a class and teach or reinforce several different important skills during one period. It’s a good representation of my style with my ninth graders: a mix of small group work and discussion, switching from activity to activity, incorporating writing and reading tasks, and having them collaborate while also being responsible for individual contributions.