Hooked ‘em through the heartstrings is what we did before winter break. As poet Glenis Redmond says, “Tap your pen to your heart, and let it flow.” We paused for poetry. We pushed pause on the pressures of delivering the curriculum and spent some time learning more about our students and building relationships. We paused to help students see the magic inside of them. What we got in return was a lot of surprising and touching information about our students and their lives.
To frame our work, we used a lesson from the HMH Literacy@Work web series. The goal was to help students see that poetry is relevant to their everyday experiences as well as to continuing the work of growing our reading and writing community. Although the lesson plan is recommended for Grades 6–8, we had success with it at the high school level as well.
Sandra Windham, a high school teacher and co-author of this blog post, relates that she was truly in awe of her students' willingness and, most importantly, openness, with this lesson. The final products were simply amazing. Reading and sharing the poetry was emotional for many participants, and her class bonded in a way she never could have imagined. The lesson was easy, manageable, and fun. This low-stakes writing assignment culminated in high-stakes results not easily drawn from teens: risk taking, honesty, ambition.
Our classes learned about the struggles of an immigrant trying to fit into an American high school, another student’s homelessness, a sibling who had been shot due to gang violence, another student’s relationship issues, one student’s dyslexia, and whatever else students were willing to share in a supportive, low-stakes writing environment. The student authors said writing poems made them feel good because it helped to relieve stress and that poetry made them happy because it enabled them to express their true feelings.
All of the students we worked with produced something. Almost all produced a poem. Several wanted to share. Many others wanted to publish.
We got moments like this:
Break the cocoon
Flying, higher, higher, and higher
If you want to give this lesson a go, here are some tips:
- Plan in advance and tweak the lesson to meet your needs or style.
- Create a low-stakes environment.
- Do the doing.
- Provide plenty of time to work.
- Use scaffolds and supports.
- Share and celebrate.
Plan in Advance and Tweak
Prior to teaching the lesson, we read through it and thought about the students we teach. We didn’t want to scare them, so we tried to lure them into the work with some fun. Charmion Mohning, a co-author of this blog post, introduced the lesson with a turn-and-talk about what a self-portrait is. Dionna Smith, another co-author of this blog, started with some tongue twisters and some appropriate rap lyrics to introduce alliteration and assonance. We rearranged the components to fit our teaching styles and the students’ needs.
Create a Low-Stakes Environment
Writing can intimidate students because it’s personal and sometimes challenging. Something we really thought about while planning was how to make the work nonthreatening. We made sure to tell the students that we weren’t doing this work for a grade—just to get to know each other better since we have only been together as a literacy family for a few months.
We invested in felt-tip pens and let each student choose his or her magic writing wand. Some students chose to use their pens, and some chose to draft in pencil. Some even used colored pens to do creative work with paragraphing. Colored paper would be another nice touch, as would fun paper for publishing. It’s not really about the pens, paper, or the tools, though. It’s about creating a safe space for students to share a tiny slice of their identity with you.