Sylvia: In our collaborations, Janet and I have worked with more than 150 poets who write for young people to create poetry anthologies with something extra—mini-lessons that make it easy to “teach” each poem. In The PoetryFriday Anthology for Middle School, you’ll find a poem-a-week for the whole school year for each grade level (6-8) along with a 5-step lesson we call “Take 5” activities. Here’s just one example:
What She Asked
by Virginia Euwer Wolff
Remember that classroom afternoon,
every big and little thing
was wrong: Sleet outside, radiator clank within,
broken chalk, stubborn pens,
misbehaving software staring back.
The wall told us in its blunt rasp
about another bus delay.
Minds lolling, girls moody, guys grouchy,
we’d have tried on dour if we’d ever heard of it.
Even the boy who was memorizing pi
had dimmed his lights.
Marooned on the crust of that mopey day
our teacher looked around at all 38 of us
and up at the sullen, pocked ceiling squares
and wondered softly,
“Who in this whole room
can fly a paper airplane the highest?”
And every one of us did.
Poem copyright ©2013 by Virginia Euwer Wolff from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong (Pomelo Books); used with permission from Curtis Brown, Ltd.
1. Before reading this poem aloud, fold a paper airplane as your poetry prop. Then read the poem aloud and let your airplane fly.
2. Share the poem aloud again, and this time invite one student volunteer to read the lines in quotation marks spoken by the teacher in the poem (“Who in this whole room / can fly a paper airplane the highest?”). Invite the rest of the students to chime in on the final line (And every one of us did) while you read the rest of the poem as narrator.
3. Students will almost certainly want to fold and fly a paper airplane after reading this poem. Graph the results of whose airplane flies where and then post the planes alongside a copy of the poem. For help, look for Seymour Simon’s classic how-to book, The Paper Airplane Book, or The World Record Paper Airplane Book by Ken Blackburn and Jeff Lammers.
4. Sometimes poets use their imaginations to guess what it might be like if something that is not alive had a real personality; this is called the element of personification. Guide the students in determining which words or lines in this poem personify inanimate objects as living, breathing beings (stubborn pens; misbehaving software staring back; The wall told us; sullen, pocked ceiling squares). What does this element add to the tone of the poem? (Answers include heightening the sense that “every big and every little thing / was wrong,” even things without feelings.)
5. Share another poem about a stubborn pen, “Pen” by Nikki Grimes (page 93), or selections from Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade trilogy.
Sylvia: In just 5-15 minutes, we can engage in a meaningful poem, read it aloud multiple times, and zone in on looking closely at ONE skill (personification). We can even incorporate a simple craft and basic math—taking a poem across the curriculum.
Janet: We also featured this poem as one of twelve anchor poems by multiple poets in You Just Wait: A Poetry Friday Power Book, the first of three books in the Poetry Friday Power Book series.
The books in this series are interactive guides for thinking about and writing poetry. For each book, I selected twelve disparate poems and wove them together into a mini-novel in verse with twenty-four new poems of my own (written in the voices of characters). The poems are arranged into twelve PowerPacks—with prewriting activities and writing prompts created by Sylvia—that provide a focus on different kinds of poetry writing.
Sylvia: In our work, we try to make it as easy as possible for busy teachers to share a poem in a way that is engaging for students, while providing skill exposure, and opportunities to think and respond to poetry in open-ended ways. There are so many ways to invite young people into poetry; we like to offer a delicious menu of multiple possibilities.
Sylvia M. Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University and teaches graduate courses in children’s and young adult literature. Her current work focuses on poetry for children, including a regular blog, PoetryforChildren.Blogspot.com.
Janet Wong is the author of more than 30 books for children and teens. Her most recent book is A Suitcase ofSeaweed & MORE, a reissue of her classic book on Asian American identity, featuring fifty new pages of prose and writing prompts.
Together, Vardell & Wong are the creative forces behind The Poetry Friday Anthology series and the Poetry Friday Power Book series. You can learn more about their books at PomeloBooks.com.