Monday, April 13, 2020

2020 Post #30 -- One of Those Days

by Brett Vogelsinger

If you keep a writer's notebook with classes of young people, then you have heard the words "I have nothing to write" before.  Sometimes, we (in our heads) write this off to a bad attitude in our our writers. But as we know from our own writing experiences, sometimes there are days when the words do not want to cooperate, and the empty page mocks our attempts to find something to say.

Professional writers feel this too, and the new poem "One of Those Days" by Jason Reynolds, published as part of his National Poetry Month writing project, captures this feeling well.

When your students say they have nothing to write about, encourage them to write about that feeling. Try putting words down that convey the failures or weaknesses or cacophony of words that will not fall into line.  Students may even find it useful to borrow the opening lines of this poem: "There are days when . . . "

As I share this poem with my students this week, I realize that it will meet some of them finding relief from the pressures of school in their new, stay-at-home lives. Some will be having trouble staying motivated now that they know we will not be returning to our building this year.  There are others whose pressures at home are intensified by this isolation. There are those whose parents work in health or public safety, and they fear for their parents' lives.  There are some who will be deeply saddened by the sheer horror of a pandemic, and others who are trying to avoid the news entirely and escape into another world through reading, binge-watching, or gaming.

Every one one of them is navigating something new.  So am I. So are you. 

The words for this do not always flow.  Right now, our lives don't always flow. 

These experiences can steal our capacity to find  words to express ourselves, and they can offer new reflections about which to write.

In this, the last Go Poems post of 2020, I'd like to thank you, our readers, for visiting the site, many of you on a daily basis, and sticking with us through the abrupt "swerve" of COVID-19.  Our first post of this year was called "What is Worth A Swerve?" -- how fitting that now seems!

Keep reading poems and sharing them with your students.  Words, carefully stitched and tailored as they are in poetry, can help us feel less alone, even when it is one of those days when we struggle to shape words into a poem of our own.

Take care, stay at home, and be safe.

Further Reading:

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth grade English teacher and NBCT at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA. He is the founding editor of Go Poems, facilitates his school's literary magazine, Sevenatenineand contributes monthly posts at Moving Writers. Follow him on Twitter @theVogelman.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

2020 Post #29 -- What Is Your House?

by Brett Vogelsinger

It is unprecedented to include two poems by the same poet in a single, annual series of Go Poems posts, but since "unprecedented" is the word of the day, it seems fitting.

Earlier this month, I shared how Idris Goodwin's poem "Say My Name" can inspire students to write about their own names.

Just days ago, Goodwin released a new poem, dedicated to all the children and parents trying to stay productive, creative, and sane while stuck at home.  It echoes the ideas about our human need to be creative that we read earlier this week in "Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale," but this time in practical, spot-on terms that children and adults need to hear in the spring of 2020.

Today's poem is called "Your House Is Not Just a House."

A challenge we might bring to students in a quickwrite during a live teaching session or via an online learning management system:  What is your house?  In what ways is it not "just a house" right now?

Share this poem and this prompt to see what your students create!

Further Reading:

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth grade English teacher and NBCT at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA. He is the founding editor of Go Poems, facilitates his school's literary magazine, Sevenatenineand contributes monthly posts at Moving Writers. Follow him on Twitter @theVogelman.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

2020 Post #28 -- Toi Dericotte Cherry Blossoms

by Brett Vogelsinger

I recently asked students what they noticed they had more time to do during the days of our state's stay-at-home order. One student told me, "I'm taking long bike rides again," and then added after a slight, shy pause, "and I'm noticing flowers a lot more."  

There is a vulnerability in 21st century teens acknowledging that they look at flowers.  

You have likely noticed that this great pause we are taking tears down some of the walls that prevent us from sharing that kind of vulnerability.  Teachers unabashedly confess their love of their classes and their chagrin at being torn unexpectedly from their students.  Students express what they miss about school, and the strange new discoveries they are making in confinement, pulling out old crates of Legos, watching backyard birds.  

The poem "Cherry blossoms" by Toi Derricotte, is about pausing to take notice of flowers.  It is also about togetherness, and the common bonds we enjoy during warmer seasons and our shared interactions with beauty.  While our shared interactions may be on hold right now, our common bonds are not, beauty is not.  

The first and last stanzas of the poem seems to resonate more than ever right now: our desire to "mingle our breath" and our simultaneous need to be "patient" with social distancing. The crux of the poem creates tableaux of the kind of moments we are craving to return to again.  

There is no special assignment to go along with this poem.  If you use a poem of the day with your class, it is important to have days where there is no writing, no analysis, no wisdom nugget you specifically hope to impart.  Just enjoy the poem. Share it.  Marvel at it's beauty, it's relevance, it's heart. 

And for the fascinating story behind "the friendship of the cherry trees" in Washington D.C. see the National Park Department's page here.  

Further Reading:

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher and NBCT at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA.  He is the founding editor of Go Poems, facilitates his school's literary magazine, Sevenatenine, and contributes monthly posts at Moving Writers.  You can find him on Twitter @theVogelman.  

Friday, April 10, 2020

2020 Post #27 -- The Stories of Tattoos

by Brett Vogelsinger

One of my favorite poets I have discovered in the past few months is Ariel Fransisco.  I've shared several of his poems with my classes, but one short piece that provokes some great conversation and writing is "Poem Written in the Parking Lot of a Tattoo Shop While Waiting For an Appointment."  Sometimes when sharing a poem that is brand new to me for our Poem of the Day routine, is simply put the question to students:  What do you notice?  What should we talk about in this poem?

They are experienced readers of poetry by this point in the year, and invariably they find something I missed in my own reading of a poem.

In this poem, we end up talking about the speaker.  Is this the speaker's first tattoo?  Why is he getting one?  Will he go through with it? The line "I'm in search of any kind of permanence" becomes central to our conversation.

I ask students "How many of you will likely get a tattoo someday?  How many of you think you never will?  Why? And why are tattoos so popular right now?"  This could be a conversation or a writing prompt, but in the course of talking as a class, students began to tell stories of family members and their reasons for getting tattoos, some of which opened my eyes to people's quest for "permanence," often using tattoos to record a painful loss or deep devotion.  These personal stories  looped us back to talking about the speaker in the poem again.

Further Reading (out 4/21/20):

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth grade English teacher and NBCT at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA. He is the founding editor of Go Poems, facilitates his school's literary magazine, Sevenatenineand contributes monthly posts at Moving Writers. Follow him on Twitter @theVogelman.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

2020 Post #26 -- Engaging With Ekphrastic Poetry

by Andy Schoenborn

As the winter’s chill gives way to the warming months of Spring it becomes easier to see the world through fresh eyes. March and April are months filled with new beginnings as well as recollections that are worth celebrating with words. These are months beckoning us to take out our phones and capture pieces of them in photographs.

Today let’s ask students to take out their phones, peruse their camera rolls, or snap a picture of something beautiful. Using a photo of their choice let’s have fun with an Ekphrastic poem by responding to the image in verse.

Mini Lesson:

Briefly explore a simple photography technique called the Rule of Thirds. This technique asks users to make intentional choices with any subject to improve the composition and balance of an image. Ask students to notice how an image gains or loses appeal based on the choices a photographer makes.

With photography, and poetry, an artist’s composition is strengthened by the intentional choices made and the effect of those choices on a viewer. As a composer of images and words, a writer is in control and powerful pieces are crafted when the author reveals their unique (and sometimes unexpected) perspective. 


This writing strategy puts the “Go” in Go Poems as you invite students and yourself to explore the environment of the classroom, hallways, or outside. They have five-minutes to snap, browse, crop, and filter. Then write to the selected image for five minutes.

With the Rule of Thirds photography technique in mind, either crop an existing image or, if inspired, snap one of your own that causes you to either see the world with fresh eyes or recall surfacing memories.

  • You may apply filters, if you choose, or stay true by using no filter at all.
  • Once you have settled on an image, respond to it in verse.
  • When sharing, please include the image or link the image that inspired you.
  • You have five-minutes to find an image and five-minutes to write.


Sample poem:
“For Us” by Andy Schoenborn

Photo Febiyan on Unsplash by Click to Enlarge Image 

I have found you shaking,

bones rattling,

in the wind

and am reminded of my grandfather

whose wooden reach stretched further than

was comfortable.

Grounded in dark, hard earth

he pushed through life – lifting the soil.

Unearthing fragmented crust

the smaller parts defying gravity, clinging.

On erratic branches we grew from him.



(not) straight.

Until our reach sprouted new limbs.

Fragile saplings hardened too soon.

Themselves growing protective leaves

–like serrated lives –

unsure of the future.

Hard, brittle, and shaking in the wind

we were


by he who was daring

enough to push

through the hard,

impacted earth – for us.

Reflecting on the Strategy:

In the classroom, students are often asked to put phones away. While I ask students to do this as well, I recognize the way students interact with their devices, photography, and digital communities. When teachers encourage their students to use unexpected mediums, in this case their phones, students feel understood and validated.

This poetry writing strategy creates a win-win-win in the classroom. Students win because they are encouraged to use the tools in their pockets in productive ways. Teachers win because they will experience student engagement and the joy of writing to self-chosen ekphrastic prompts. And, poetry wins because words will be viewed through a new lens that encourages the sharing of personal perspective through poetry.

Further Reading:

Andy Schoenborn is an award-winning author and high school English teacher in Michigan at Mt. Pleasant Public Schools. He is a co-facilitator of the monthly #TeachWrite Twitter chat and first book, co-authored with Dr. Troy Hicks, Creating Confident Writers will be published on June 2, 2020. Follow him on Twitter @aschoenborn.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

2020 Post #25 -- A Poetic To-Do List

by Brett Vogelsinger

This week, two inspiring, creative educators -- Austin Kleon and Katherine Schulten -- brought a poem back to the surface of my attention that I had forgotten about for some time.  "Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale" by  Dan Albergotti is a bittersweet look at what we can do with a period of confinement, ennui, boredom.  In times like these, the poem feels both realistic and empowering; it is a poem that wears a wry grin. 

I brought this poem to my students during a live class meeting via video conference this week and asked a quick question after our first read. "Why do you think I chose this poem to read with you now?" Of course, that was an easy pitch, and students had no problem identifying links between the idea of being stuck "in the belly of the whale" and being confined during this period of stay-at-home orders and mass quarantine.  Fewer of them, though, were aware of the biblical allusion in the title, to the book of Jonah

A student read the poem a second time on our video conference, and I proposed this question: "What do you notice about the structure of this piece?  How is it built?" Your students may note the fact that is is a "to do list," it is made up of short sentences, and that each sentence begins with a verb, the grammatical structure of a command.  One student pointed out to my class that the first few items seem realistic, and the poem seems to become more whimsical, then more philosophical as the list progresses.  I thought this was a particularly astute observation.  

"Let's try writing one like this!" I said to my students.  "Call it something like 'Things to Do While Stuck at Home' or 'Things to Do During COVID-19.'  There is one catch.   Let's take the first three things that come to your mind and exclude them from our list.  We want to avoid stating the obvious in poetry."  All classes chose the same three things to exclude:  sleeping, watching TV, and playing video games.  

After a few minutes of drafting, I gave them an assignment to complete after our video conference class time ended.  Students could revise their first drafts and post the revised version on a collaborative writing space on OneNote.  I would provide feedback for everyone's revised drafts before next week.  

Here are some memorable excerpts, written by my students: 

Paint the walls. Sing in the shower. Pull weeds from the dirt. Buy a blanket to cuddle up in. Go for a run. Laugh with joy when you're with your family. -- Brielle G. 

Make your bed
Wash your clothes
Dust everything in your room
Because apparently
Your room is disgusting
Although you don't see it
Build something with wood and nails
Doesn't matter what it is, just build
And finally
Make your family LAUGH -- Christian P. 

Pace the concrete sidewalk. Walk among the trees. Get out and live a little.
Try something new. Change your surroundings.
Look up and open your eyes. See the world around you. Move outside your bubble. -- Shayne S.

I am grateful for how this poem helped me to see my students' present situations and perspectives while also allowing us to talk about poetic structure, theme, and grammar.  It brought us back to a Writer's Notebook style of response that I have missed since our last day of school, which was refreshing and necessary and lively.  

Further Reading: 

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher and NBCT at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA.  He is the founding editor of Go Poems, facilitates his school's literary magazine, Sevenatenine, and contributes monthly posts at Moving Writers.  You can find him on Twitter @theVogelman.  

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

2020 Post #24 -- A Diamond-Shaped Puzzle

by John Waite

Layli Long Soldier’s “Obligations 2” comes from her first full-length collection, 2017’s Whereas. It is an amazing poem that will challenge students on a couple levels. While the language is very simple, the structure is a puzzle with many answers. I can imagine students engaging with this poem both in terms of its content and its form. Possible discussion questions include:
1. What is the subject of this poem?
2. What is Soldier’s attitude toward grief?
3. How different are the different readings based on how you choose to progress through the poem? Is it possible for them to be contradictory?
4. Why would an author give the reader so much freedom in how to read a poem?
5. Since each reader can have a different experience, can the poem really be said to mean anything for certain?
6. What choices does Soldier make for the reader, and why?
7. How does Soldier’s choice of verbs help create complexity?
8. How does repetition function in the poem?
9. What word might you replace the word “grief” with?

Another possible exercise would be to have students try to create a similar poem, though possibly shorter.
Further Reading:

John Waite an English teacher at Downers Grove High School in Illinois.

Monday, April 6, 2020

2020 Post #23 -- You Say, I Say

by Chris Kehan

I love using music in the classroom to teach reading strategies and of course to ignite writing.  "You Say" by Lauren Daigle is very inspiring.  Hand out copies of the lyrics and play the song.  Allow your students to listen to the song as they read along with the lyrics.  Discuss what they think the lyrics mean.

Have your students divide a page in half (in their Writer’s Notebooks) and label the left "You Say" and the right "I Say."  Have them list what the lyrics say from both vantage points (example: You say I am strong, I say I’m weak). 

Then have students think of someone in their lives that is close to them or knows them well (i.e. parent, friend, teacher, etc.)  They can jot what they think that person would say about them under the "You Say" column and how they might counter this under the "I Say" column.  Model your own "You Say, I Say" so they feel more comfortable doing their own. (example: You say I’m organized, I say it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes planning to look that way) 

Return to the part of the song that is the refrain/chorus and have them put their ideas into the format of "You say I am _____ when I ____." These lines will become their poem.  You can have students use line breaks and some white space between the "You say __" and "I __ " parts so it looks more like a poem.  They can close the poem with an "I believe" statement of their own.

"Most People Are Good" by Luke Bryan is another good song/lyrics to use to get young writers to jot down what they believe about things in their world.  They can write "I believe" poems using these lyrics as a mentor text.

Further Reading: 

Chris Kehan is a Library Media Specialist in the Central Bucks School District and a proud fellow of PAWLP (PA Writing & Literature Project) whose passion is teaching reading and writing to all grade levels and ages. Follow her on Twitter @CBckehan