Thursday, April 2, 2020

2020 Post #19 -- Something You Should Know

by Rebekah O'Dell

If we English teachers could get together and dub a Reigning King of Poetry, I submit it would be Clint Smith. Smith, an English teacher himself, has been a favorite of many high school English teachers (especially those in the #TeachLivingPoets movement) in recent years due to both his incredible verse and his willingness to Skype with students and support teachers.

But let’s be honest: while Smith’s poetry is not difficult, it is heavy.

Teaching middle schoolers, my class needs scaffolding -- a strategy to help students make the figurative leaps of metaphor. And a scaffold to help students build confidence and write like Smith a little bit at a time. Naturally, the poem I chose to introduce Smith is his brilliant “Something You Should Know.

Here’s how we did it in about 10 minutes of class time:

  • Read the poem aloud (project it or give a copy to students so they can see the words on the page, too. They’ll love seeing the trick at the beginning with the title flowing into the first line!)
  • Turn and Talk: The title of the poem is “Something You Should Know”. So, for the speaker of this poem, what is the thing that you, the reader, should know about him or her? What story does the speaker connect with this secret?
  • Share Out: This is a great time to talk about the idea of metaphor -- the speaker reveals his fear (being exposed and vulnerable) by telling us a story about something different (hermit crabs). Smith builds the metaphor by combining his secret with an experience. 
  • Grab Your Notebooks: Invite students to begin by building a metaphor in the same way that Clint Smith did. Give them a few minutes to try in their own notebooks.
I promise students they won’t have to share this, but they do have to try it. If a student or two finishes quickly, you can invite them to build additional metaphors!

Once everyone has built a metaphor, they are ready to try a bit of Smith-inspired writing. Most of my students are not ready to launch into a full poem at this point, so we build confidence by approaching it in a smaller chunk:

Students choose to either write the first four lines (which focus on the experience/story part of the metaphor) OR the last four lines (which focus on the secret or the “something you should know”). Trying four lines is usually relatively undaunting. For students who are ready for more, they can choose to try BOTH the beginning and the end of the poem, or they can just keep writing -- fleshing out their poem as a whole.

Here are a few samples of students in my 7th grade trying their hand at this activity.

Something that you should know

is that when I was younger,

I remember watching a movie about birds.

My favorite part was the scene about the owls.

The silent but powerful creatures that only come out for a short amount of time.


Something you should know

is that when I was a kid, I would help my mom prune flowers

I snipped the dead ones

but observed the buds that were shut up tight


Perhaps that is why I'm afraid of forgetting.

Perhaps that is why, even now, when I so desperately want to share how I feel,

I don't, I lock it away.

Because the outcome can be even more upsetting than forgetting.


You’ll notice that some mimic Smith and others riff off of his lead. Either way, this activity leads students to a greater awareness of how to create powerful metaphors themselves and gives them a bit of poetry they can build on later!

Further Reading:

Rebekah O’Dell teaches middle school English in Richmond, Virginia. She is the co-founder of and the author of a number of professional books. You can find her on Twitter @RebekahODell1 and at

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

2020 Post #18 -- I Am and I Am Not

by Linda Rief

COVID 19 has shut down many schools for the next few weeks, preventing so many of you from participating in those activities that make the school experience so important to you: athletics, drama, musicals, jazz band, orchestra, Mathcounts, Robotics, outdoor ed, community volunteer work, etc.

As you read the following excerpt think of the “Try This…” prompts in terms of what you are experiencing right now, at home or at school. You could start with the line “I am a… but…” or grab any one of the ideas and write as fast as you can, outrunning the censor in you that often stops the writing.

Read the poem out loud to yourself once. Then read the prompts underneath the excerpt, to see which one appeals to you the most. Then read the excerpt again, and write nonstop as quickly as you can for two to three minutes in response to any of the prompts. You are writing to find writing, trusting that the process will lead you to some surprises, some things you didn’t expect to write.

An Excerpt from Chapter 2 from The Running Dream (Van Draanen)

(from The Quickwrite Handbook, 2018, Heinemann)


That’s what I do.

That’s who I am.

Running is all I know, or want, or care about.

It was a race around the soccer field in third grade that swept me into a real love of running.

Breathing the sweet smell of spring grass.

Sailing over dots of blooming clover.

Beating all the boys.

After that, I couldn’t stop. I ran everywhere. Raced everyone. I loved the wind across my cheeks, through my hair.

Running aired out my soul.

It made me feel alive.

And now?

I’m stuck in this bed, knowing I’ll never run again.

Try This (as quickly and as specifically as you can for 2-3 minutes):

Write out anything this excerpt brings to mind for you.

Borrow any line and write as fast as you can, letting the line lead your thinking.

Think about something you are passionate about (something that “airs out your soul,” “makes you feel alive”) and write down everything that makes this activity so important to you.

Start with the line “I AM A ___________ ", and fill in the blank, describing all that you do, think, feel, experience while doing this activity.

Change the line to “I am not a ____________", expanding on all the reasons why you are not whatever it is.

Her last two lines say she will never run again. What has stopped you, or has halted you temporarily, from doing something you love doing?

After finishing this one quickwrite, go back to see if there is a line or a phrase you want to slow down and develop. Write more. Or simply take some time to extend what you said in only two to three minutes.

Further Reading:

Linda left the classroom (reluctantly) last June (2019) after 40 years of learning from eighth graders. She misses their energy, their curiosity, and their desire to read and write. She is an instructor in the University of New Hampshire's Summer Literacy Institute and a national and international presenter on issues of adolescent literacy. Her latest two books are The Quickwrite Handbook (2018) and Read Write Teach (2014), both published through Heinemann. Her Twitter handle is @LindaMRief.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

2020 Post #17 -- A Harlem Renaissance Classic

by Donte' Demonbruen

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. Langston Hughes was an African American writer whose poems, columns, novels and plays made him a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's.

It was during this time that Hughes first began to write poetry, and one of his teachers introduced him to the poetry of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman both of whom Hughes would later cite as primary influences.

Langston’s 1926 poem "I, Too" is a riveting poem that sparked much conversation during the Harlem Renaissance but is still very much relevant today in 2020. Hughes focused on the importance of being accepted and treated equally in America, two important topics in today’s society.

As a class, read the poem aloud and when finished, take a few moments to allow those words to sink into the minds of the students who just experienced Hughes's writing. Ask students how those lines relate to the world we live in today in America. Are we still fighting the same exact fight for equality or are we battling new demons? If the students respond with "we aren’t battling the same demons," then what demons are we battling?


Further Reading: 

Donte’ Demonbreum is a senior English major currently studying English education at a four-year public university in Clarksville, Tennessee, Austin Peay State University. Donte’ enjoys reading young adult literature in his free time and being with family. He graduates from APSU this spring with an English degree and a minor in professional education. You can follow him on Twitter @MrDemonbreum.

Monday, March 30, 2020

2020 Post #16 -- Star Dust

by Rama Janamanchi

This year on Valentine’s Day, NASA celebrated the anniversary of one of our most famous self-portraits and I found myself falling in love again with the Voyager photo of the ‘pale blue dot.’ I am reminded each time I see the image of the feeling of being awestruck. I felt similar awe when I held my children right after they were born. I was filled with wonder at the possibilities they embodied even as I was humbled by their fragility. Ada Limon’s poem, “Dead Stars,” reminds me forcefully that we need to create space in our routine for those moments of awe. It is too easy for us to forget the extraordinary panorama against which we lead our mundane lives. 

Before the kids come into the room, I place these images in different parts of the room. Two are from NASA’s Hubble Telescope and two are of neurons firing. 

We read Ada Limon’s poem - silently, then chorally. 

Students walk up to the images and write down a brief description of each image. Then they walk around again and this time they add emotions to their description. We talk about the similarities between images of the brain and the Hubble images. We list the similarities in how they look and how they make us feel. We talk about how the feeling of discovery when we recognize our connections to the stars. 

We read the poem again. Students read silently, then chorally. We highlight moments of discovery in the poem. We write down our own rediscoveries of the ordinary.

Further Reading:

Rama Janamanchi teaches at a private high school for students with language-based learning differences. Twitter: @MsJanamanchi410 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

2020 Post #15 -- A Simple Poem to Explore Text Complexity

by Don Kemball
One of my favourite poems to use early in the year with students is the Roger Stevens poem, “I did not eat the goldfish”.

We use the SWIFT format (Structure, Word Choice, Imagery, Figurative Language, Tone/Theme) when reading our poems to break down the various elements we see. What I love about this poem is that the truth of its meaning does not come out until students begin to share the imagery the poem creates for them -- the movie they see in their heads.

Many students struggle to find meaning beyond the literal, but when their colleagues begin sharing the idea of a cat in a tree who clearly ate the goldfish, they begin to see that a poem can say one thing, but mean another -- even the direct opposite of what it says.

We springboard from here to discussions of other times people will say one thing but mean another. We connect to real life events as often as possible. This usually leads to a conversation about politics and important world issues. We then bring it back to our independent reading and talk about the difference between literal, figurative, and implied meaning in our texts.

While this may sound simplistic for secondary learners, I still struggled with these ideas in my upper high school years. It wasn’t until Ms. Patterson used a similar poetic text in class that I was able to see the importance of reading for different kinds of meaning. That made all the difference for me and is one of the reasons I use a Poem of the Day strategy in my class.
Further Reading:

Don Kemball is an elementary teacher in the York Region District School Board, just North of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada. He has been teaching a variety of subjects in various situations for more than 15 years. He can be found at @dkemball on Twitter and Don Kemball #GridPal on Flipgrid

Saturday, March 28, 2020

2020 Post #14 -- We Lived Happily During the War

by Carol Jago
If you haven’t yet discovered Ilya Kaminsky’s play in verse, Deaf Republic, you have an extraordinary shock to your poetic system in store. No volume of poetry has had such a powerful impact upon me as a reader in a very long time.

Let’s look at the very first poem in Kaminsky’s play, "We Lived Happily During the War". Read it aloud to the class and then ask students to read it once more to themselves, noting an image or phrase that struck them as intriguing or perplexing.

Put students into small groups and invite them to:

1. Read the poem aloud once more.

2. Share the lines they noted.

3. Discuss what they think the poem wants us to know.

Together as a whole class, consider Ilya Kaminsky’s use of repetition. How does it affect our understanding of the poem?

Ilya Kaminsky was deaf until he came to the United States. Invite students to reflect upon the idea of a deaf poet. For further reading on this subject, see Kaminsky’s essay that appeared in the New York Times, “Searching for a Lost Odessa and a Deaf Childhood: A poet returns to the city of his birth.”

“I turn off my hearing aids and walk up to walls, touch them with my fingers. This is the act of a fool who touches the skin of time and walks through it.” -- Ilya Kaminsky
Further Reading: 

Carol Jago has taught middle and high school for 32 years and is past president of NCTE. She is associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA and the author of The Book in Question: Why and How Reading Is in Crisis. (Heinemann 2019).

Friday, March 27, 2020

2020 Post #13 -- Shel Silverstein and Poetic Nostalgia

by Matthew Johnson

Three years ago, in an attempt to get students excited about an upcoming poetry unit, I asked them to bring in their favorite poems. I expected that most would bring in favorite songs or little poems that had grabbed them along the way, but instead nearly 30 of my 60 ninth graders independently brought in a poem by Shel Silverstein. Volumes of Where the Sidewalk Ends populated my desks, and while I have my own fondness for Shel Silverstein, I was at first deeply annoyed by this. Bringing him in felt like a mockery of the class and the assignment. Obviously, “Peanut Butter Sandwich” has no place in a high school–or so it seemed to me at the time.

I was stuck though, so I begrudgingly let each student talk about his/her/their favorite poet, and as I listened to them, it quickly became clear that the vast majority of students who brought in Shel Silverstein weren’t trying to be funny or to make a snarky statement about the class. They brought in his poems because reading them was the last time that they truly connected with poetry or felt that it wasn’t over their heads.

This day was a revelation for me. Up until that point I’d been the sole selector of poems in my classroom, and while the poems I selected undoubtedly worked for some students, I’m sure others didn’t connect with them as much as I’d like. But by asking students to help me supply poems, I could broaden the reach of the class and form interesting and novel bridges between what the students already love and the curriculum.

Take for example the Shel Silverstein poem “Whatif,” which several students identified as their favorite. I decided to use this poem to discuss how poets use rhyme and repetition in the next class, and I have never seen so many students so quickly identify nuanced craft moves around rhyme and rhythm, moves like the purposeful capitalization of Whatifs to emphasizing their bigness or that Silverstein uses an AABB rhyme scheme in the vein of a nursery rhyme until the line “Whatif they start a war?/Whatif my parents get divorce?”–potentially showing the narrator’s fear of her family falling apart. Further, and even more amazing was that every single student–even those who’d told me they didn’t like poetry–leaned forward, amazed to see me taking this suggestion from one of their childhoods so seriously on the board in a high school class.

So this National Poetry Month, definitely share your favorite poems with students, but when trying to plan poems that will excite and engage students, don’t forget about the best co-conspirators possible: the students themselves!

Further Reading: 

Matthew Johnson is an English teacher from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also a husband and father, and over the last decade he has read, thought, and written about how teachers can balance teaching with all of the other important roles they play in their lives. His work has been published by Principal Leadership, Edutopia, ASCD, The National Writing Project, and the National Council of Teachers of English, and his weekly thoughts on how to be a better teacher of writing in less time can be found on his website When not teaching, reading, or writing, he can often be found in the kitchen, his garden, or out on a run through the gently rolling hills of Southeast Michigan.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

2020 Post #12 -- In This Together

by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong

Teachers and administrators are doing heroic things on a daily basis to help families in their learning communities. Families are stepping up to comfort and educate children. But kids are still feeling a jumbled mix of emotions—joy over being able to sleep late, boredom due to social distancing, and anxiety over the uncertainties of the COVID-19 situation.

How can poetry provide relief?

By filling us with empathy.

By reminding us that there are helpers everywhere, people who can offer support.

By pointing to the good things, no matter how small.

By making us laugh.

And by doing all of the above, in most cases, in just a minute.

This is a perfect time to catch up on reading. But reading, in the traditional sense of placing eyes on words, can be very difficult right now. It’s just so hard to focus. Listening is slightly easier; this is one reason that many authors are offering read-alouds via social media. Author Kate Messner has gathered many author, illustrator, and poet read-alouds here. Also check out the resources of #OperationReadAloud on Facebook. And Audible is offering access to free audiobooks while schools are closed.

But fifteen minutes of quiet concentration, even if it’s passive listening, can still be hard. So here are some poems that take only 30 seconds each (on average), offered both as written text and also in video format. Some of the video offerings are “poem movies” featuring a montage of images; others are simply video readings. 

Step 1: listen to a few poems.
Step 2: if you like what you hear, read the text.
Step 3: if you really like the poem, use it as a writing prompt; put your own ideas down on paper.

Give it a try. If one of these poems brings you some hope, please spread the word. We are #inthistogether.

“Blue Bucket” by Naomi Shihab Nye (from HERE WE GO: A Poetry Friday Power Book by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong)

Poem Movie

Poem Text

“Look for the Helpers” by Michelle Heidenrich Barnes

Poem Movie

Video Reading (along with two other poems: “Bear” by Janet Wong and “Look for Birds” by Janet Wong)

Poem Text

Further Reading:

Sylvia Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University; her current work focuses on poetry for children, including the nationally recognized blog, PoetryforChildren http://poetryforchildren.blogspot.comJanet Wong is the author of more than thirty books for children and teens on a wide variety of subjects, including identity (A Suitcase of Seaweed & MORE). Together, Vardell and Wong are the forces behind the Poetry Friday books published by Pomelo Books.