Friday, November 26, 2021

Some News and An Invitation

To the readers of Go Poems:

I have two exciting things to share. 

First, I will soon be in the process of inviting teachers to post on our final year of Go Poems. If you are interested in being one of the writers for the blog this year, please reply in the comments with your email address.  I will not publish the comments on this post, so as to keep your email address private, but you will hear from me during December with directions and timelines to get started. This blog could not exist without contributors, so thank you to any who are able to reach out and give it a try!

Second, I am starting up a newsletter called A Pleasant Surprise that will feature poems (of course) and also book recs, teaching ideas, and sparks for your own creative life.  Please consider signing up using the form below, and get my first newsletter in your inbox in December.  


* indicates required

Stay tuned for new posts on Go Poems around the ides of March as we prepare for National Poetry Month!


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

2021 Post #30 -- "Remember" by Joy Harjo: A Salve for Seniors

by Oona Marie Abrams

I first heard Joy Harjo’s “Remember” recited by Georgia Heard at NCTE 2019. The line I immediately fell into was “Remember your birth, how your mother struggled to give you form and breath.” My eyes welled up, in fact, to hear the line read aloud. It mirrored my birth story: one month premature, cord wrapped around my neck, emergency caesarean. I thought also in the moment I read the poem of my house-bound mother, recovering far too slowly from knee replacement surgery. Through 45 years in a matter of seconds, Harjo’s words connected me to her.

One word, one phrase, one line is often all it takes. Poetry is an explosion of grace into the mundane.

The act of remembering was especially important to my seniors in the spring of 2020 without the rituals that (let’s be honest!) are mostly what senior year is about. The fashion show, the prom, the awards ceremonies, the senior picnic: all pulled from the roster. I shared this poem and the story above with my seniors in late May. Unmuting their microphones, they shared their favorite lines in a “whip-around” and were also invited (but not required) to type into the chat why that was their selection. What followed was such a range of treasured memories and stories from their lives. I then invited students to do a short write beside the poem, which they could later extend upon as a longer piece in their portfolios. Below are some lines from those short writes, some of which became the genesis for other written pieces:
  • Remember that first F on a test
  • Remember the birds picking at the bread we gave away
  • Remember playing varsity, the green line dominating the ice
  • Remember the friends you’ve lost, the friends you still have
  • Remember something embarrassing, even if you may not want to
  • Remember the rage that fueled your determination
  • Remember when we used to argue over the smallest things
  • Remember when our decisions did not affect others
  • Remember the Starbucks trips that made the school day worth it
  • Remember all those practices where we said we’d quit but never did
  • Remember that stuffed animal that you refused to leave at home
  • Remember your first time you looked at somebody differently.
  • Remember when we made super buttery popcorn
Try to model your own personal connection with the poem; one time-efficient way to do this is by putting your annotated poem or writer’s notebook under a document camera. We’re all strapped for time these days! Just make your connections and responses as transparent as possible so students can do their best work. Happy sharing!

P.S. Joy Harjo read this poem aloud for PBS Kids and talks a little about poetry.  Find the video here.  

Further Reading:

Oona Marie Abrams (@oonziela) is one of the co-organizers of NerdCampNJ. She lives and teaches in northern New Jersey.

Monday, April 12, 2021

2021 Post #29 -- Dive Into Unfathomable Life

 by Stacey Smith

In 1996, Wislawa Syzmborska won the Nobel Prize in Literature for her ability to ask existential questions of the world around her with deep empathy and untangled language. In a world currently shrouded by the unknown, Szymborska’s poem “Utopia” is a fitting dive into how a perfect place does not exist, and we should not only face, but embrace the reality of our now—and find meaning in the experiences we’ve had during this uniquely trying year.

It is easy for us and our students to focus on the what ifs, the ideals of what could be, the way the world was before the pandemic. In reading “Utopia”, we have the ability to both explore those ideals that we want to map out on our island, but also to address them as potentially unrealistic and detrimental to our real growth as people, as learners, and as a community. Sometimes our ideals crush our hopes because we have created a world that isn’t reachable.

We want Szymborska’s poem to allow students to explore their “unfathomable life”—What did we have to let go of in the pandemic? During quarantine? As virtual learners vs. in person learners? What freedoms did we have to give up and how did that sacrifice pay off?

Start by reading “Utopia” out loud once through. Deliberately.

Then, read it again, and as you are reading, have the students think about what they had to let go of that existed pre-2020 (the “Trees of Understanding” and “Caves where Meaning Lies”).

Have students read the poem again on their own. Once they have finished reading, ask them to write in their journal some individual hopes they found in Post-2020 life (and potentially model your own version for them as well)—What have you left behind and how it has maybe made life better? How have you had to slow down? What have you seen by doing this? Have you become closer to people without the distractions of the world? Have you learned to communicate better? What freedoms did we have to give up and how did that sacrifice pay off?

Szymborska’s poem does not end in despair, but rather reminds us that hope is not lost— in the words of researcher BrenĂ© Brown, we have to be “bravely vulnerable” and accept that life is flawed, but we can find our own meaning and purpose beyond the safe, yet false utopias our imagination sometimes creates.

Further Reading:

Stacey Smith is a Freshman English teacher at Lenape Middle School in Doylestown, PA. When she’s not encouraging her students to be bravely vulnerable, she thrives on new experiences with food and travel and discovering the stories of anything vintage. You can find her occasionally on IG @ihatetoread

Sunday, April 11, 2021

2021 Post #28 -- Musings On Mother's Hands

by Nawal Qarooni Casiano

A creator’s ability to hone in on one object, item or body part and describe its weight, meaning and importance is a skill that student writers, too, can replicate in their craft. It’s one that can lead to homages and odes, broadening gratitude for things that might go unnoticed without a keen writer’s eye. In its simplest form, it can lead to emotional musings about individualized objects that beg for reflection.

Nate Marshall, in his poem titled "my mother’s hands" from his latest poetry book, Finna, brings alive descriptions of hands as a salve in hardship, outlining childhood memories in a small slice of time.

In the classroom, we might share this poem and ask students:
  • How does his mother’s hands care for him?
  • What message does he glean from his mother’s massage?
  • How does he use repetition in the poem?
Once students have had time to digest and discuss the poem, we might ask them to generate their own lists of items, objects or body parts that are especially meaningful, and carry emotion or story. When I feel stuck generating ideas, I close my eyes and recall moments where I cried or felt like screaming; where I was worried or scared. In a simple T-chart, model brainstorming like this aloud.

For example, I would include:

my daughter’s slim wrists → carries emotions about my last daughter.
my grandmother’s headscarf → flashbacks to memories of her laughter and everyday smiles.
my father’s handlebar mustache→ and how it represents, for me, what he wanted but didn’t achieve in life.

These body and item connections evoke strong emotion and memory that support the creation of poetry similar to Nate Marshall’s. Once students brainstorm lists, set a timer and ask that they try their hand at a poem- perhaps weaving in repetition, perhaps never sharing it. I leave it up to students whether or not they choose to share. Yes, there’s power in having an audience and writers are fueled by feedback but at the same time, some writing is personal, cathartic, and for the creator alone.

Further reading:

Nawal Qarooni Casiano is an educator, writer and literacy coach based out of Chicago, IL. She designs learning experiences alongside teachers and is mother to four multilingual, multiethnic kids, who very much shape the way she understands learning. You can read more about her work at and follow her on Twitter @NQCLiteracy.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

2021 Post #27 -- A Happy Reunion, Rich in Words

 by Brett Vogelsinger

Family reunions have not been the same this past year.  The physical travel and proximity, the largeness that these gatherings entail for some: all of this became suddenly forbidden. It has become an act of love to stay apart, to visit via teleconference.  

We all look forward to those reunions resuming, whether with the family we are born into or the family we make for ourselves.  Rita Dove's beautiful poem, "Family Reunion" is rich in flavor and love, in family history and personal idiosyncrasy. In a way that is subtle and warm, the poem fits this year's theme as a poem of hope and encouragement. 

When I read this poem with my class this year, I said: "Did you notice how many fun words she includes in this poem?  What are some words we don't hear everyday but are just fun to hear in this poem?  What are the words that bring out the joy of this reunion? Listen for this when we read it aloud second time."

My students each made a quick list. Many included the following:








"demolish" instead of "eat"

We shared our lists, added to them, and talked about why these words stood out to us. Their rarity, their sound, their playfulness appeal to us as readers. 

We were in the midst of writing our own memoirs, so I said to my students, "Don't forget that when you write.  Reach for words you know but don't use everyday.  If it's a fun, joyful moment like this, pick words that reflect that mood.  If it's a somber moment, choose words with a heavier sound to reflect that mood.  And never underestimate the power of a good food image! But for now . . . maybe choose one word from your list that you enjoyed reading and might be able to weave into your writing today. Find a home for it in your work!"

Simply inviting students to borrow language from poets and to transfer some words into their own context enriches the vocabulary in our students' writing. This is a can-do kind of challenge that everyone can succeed at in their revision, learning from the craft of published poets.  

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.

Friday, April 9, 2021

2021 Post #26 -- A Phone-Scroll Self-Portrait

 by Brett Vogelsinger

Every teenager -- and most adults -- can be seen in their native habitats scrolling through their phones sometimes.  While the term "doomscrolling" has emerged as an etymological outcropping of our lives over the past year, there can also be a pleasanter sort of scroll to try on your phone. Wandering through photos of better times you have almost forgotten about can bring a sense of warmth to a cold and lonely season. 

Jonathan Potter's poem, "Self-Portrait with Wife" is an excellent example of the power words have when they are inspired by and create images.  

Potter's poem seems simple enough, at first, a list of the details of an image of two people with photographic accuracy.  But the words used to capture these images are powerfully suggestive of backstory and plot: "our bed of bliss," "the laundry basket empty," "your son's painting" and "the almost hidden books." What do each of these snippets suggest about these characters?  What do they show but never tell us about the people in the portrait? 

Challenge students to scroll through their own phone and find a "self-portrait" with another person.  Capture the details in the photo with words, even the unintended details of the background, clothing, positioning, and light.  Suggest some of the history of these two people without telling the reader about them.  What might their footwear (or lack of it) imply, like it does in the poem we just read?  What fragment of a story do the surroundings of these people tell, like that smudge on the mirror in Jonathan Potter's poem? Has anything been cropped from this photo, and what might this suggest to a reader, if we let them in on that secret? 

Every developing artist creates a self-portrait at some point.  Developing poets can too.  Make it a self-portrait with a second person, and possible plots emerge at the edges.  

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.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

2021 Post #25 -- Achieving Victory

by Nathan Harris

Earlier this school year, I introduced my eighth graders to “Victory”, a poem by Sherman Alexie. I asked six volunteers to read it aloud to the rest of the class (one student per quatrain), and then I asked them to read it to themselves while answering one question in their notebook: Why does the father weep? A large number of students thought that the father wept because he was ashamed of and disappointed in his son’s actions, whereas a smaller number of students were able to correctly recognize that the father wept out of shame for his own inability to provide the best for his son.

I then briefly lectured to my students about the concept of identity, which had been a topic of ongoing conversations in my classroom since we read The Outsiders. My students were first reminded that part of our identity is written without our say: who are parents and family are, how and where we are raised, and everything that comes with the ripple effect from those circumstances and decisions. None of us can alter the exposition of our lives.

But then I present the most encouraging news of all: the story of their lives is still largely unwritten. Just like Ponyboy Curtis and the boy from the poem, my 13 and 14-year-old students are realizing that the biggest part of their identities is going to be shaped by their own decisions going forward. No matter their beginnings, all of my students are now old enough and capable enough to make decisions that can put them in a position to be happy, maximize their talents, and achieve their own victories as they do their best to write the rest of their life story.

Further Reading:

My name is Nate Harris, and I am in my seventh year of teaching English Language Arts at the middle school level. I am excited and humbled to be a part of a collection of inspirational ideas. I have not had any social media since my senior year of college, but I can be reached at

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

2021 Post #24 -- Poetry For Athletes

 by Brett Vogelsinger

Sports provide abundant space for words.  The sports fans in our classroom often read and listen to more analysis than the rest of our students. I encourage them to write analysis pieces in their weekly writer's notebook entries.  Sports Illustrated contains some complex writing and The Player's Tribune features pieces written by athletes.  So students who feel like sports is their main reason for coming to school never need to feel left out in an English class. 

Since I am not a big sports fan, I occasionally have to remind myself of the importance of including sports poems in our classroom life.  Not everyone feels as moved by Mary Oliver's description of a meadow as I do, so variety matters when it comes to a daily poetry routine.  

The poem "Makin Jump Shots" by Michael S. Harper is a poem that is rich in movement and the potential to teach inference as a reading skill or showing vs. telling as a writing skill.

After our first read aloud of this poem in class and before inviting a student to read it a second time, I ask students to think about this:  What does the poet show us about this basketball player but never really tell us about him?  What do we have to infer?  

Students may comment on the setting (likely a public park) the skills (he seems good) or the demeanor (he seems confident) of the player.  

After a student shares a conclusion, I am always sure to ask them, "What words does the poet use that help you to draw that conclusion?" 

When it comes to inferential thinking, a broader and important question is "How does inference make reading and writing more enjoyable?"  

Learning to read between the lines add to our joy.  If reading were a sport, this would be the skill that separates a spectator from a participant.

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.