Thursday, February 18, 2021
Monday, July 27, 2020
Three middle-school writers chose to respond to the following prompt in my summer writing workshop based on Sharon G. Flake’s YA novel The Skin I’m In. If I hadn’t observed them writing their poetic pieces on Zoom, and hadn’t seen them revising onscreen in response to the questions and comments I was leaving in the margins of their documents, I would swear these writers had been transcribing part of a conversation they had had with the fictional protagonist Maleeka herself!
Prompt 8A: Reread pages 73-74 (69-70 in newer edition), when Maleeka recalls her momma’s response to grief over her husband’s death. “When my daddy died three years ago, Momma fell apart. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t sleep…. I was ten years old and brushing her teeth, feeding her oatmeal like a baby. She cried all the time.” Write a short descriptive scene or poem about this time in Maleeka’s life. Try to use Maleeka’s point-of-view and voice.
Here are the three poetic creations by Nakita Ray, Resha Shukla, and Ryan Hu—whose artistry is equaled by their obvious empathy.
Tearstains are left on my cheeks.
Yet it’s nothing compared to Momma.
She looks like she’s been crying a river.
Their bed has not been slept in ever since he was declared dead.
Instead he’s lying in a box that’s underground, six feet deep.
Every time I check on Momma at night,
her eyes are open like she’s dying of fright.
Daddy’s ghost looms over us like a shadow that never leaves.
Needles pierce my heart and I feel so much agony.
I’m shaking but Momma looks like a wreck compared to me.
Getting up from the ball I was in,
I stand up to help Momma all that I can.
Holding up a spoon of oatmeal,
I’m pleading to Momma to open her mouth,
But she looks so lost.
Her eyes gloss over the spoon and me,
Looking behind, seeing an endless path,
Momma reaches for something that she cannot have.
A dream of paradise with Daddy alive,
I see it, too. (seemingly dictated by Maleeka to Nakita Ray)
It’s morning, and the last thing I want to do is get up. After last night's fiasco of hauling Momma up to her bed, my limbs are about to turn into mush and give out. Doesn't help that I ain’t that strong anyways. Momma’s like a lifeless body, but somehow, she’s still got some life in her, and I'm sure that that's all that's keeping her from collapsing. For the past week, mornings have been the same. Get up, make me and Momma some breakfast, drag Momma downstairs, feed her (even though most of it don't even make it into her mouth), and eat my own share while Momma stares out the window, not saying a word. I'm getting sick of this, every day I follow this stupid routine and then leave Momma alone in her thoughts until it’s time for another meal or sleep. The main problem, though, is how quiet it is. Momma don’t try speaking, and I can't seem to find the right words to say. No words are spoken in this house, and it seems like with the way our family is functioning, in the future there won't be any either. It would’ve been fine cause I know that Momma's brain is never gonna stop thinking about Dad, but the silence and lack of words is leaving me in my thoughts also. And to be honest, I don't wanna be left alone with my thoughts at all. ‘Cause I'm afraid, I'm afraid that I'll become like Momma. And then there'll be no one left supporting us. ‘Cause it feels like I'm facing this problem alone, even though me and Momma need to work through this together. And I know for a fact that Momma won’t start getting better on her own. She's in her own bubble, a bubble of despair, grief, regret, and pain. Momma don’t trust me with needles, so I can’t burst her bubble like that, but I have my own, intangible needle. And it’s the only thing I can use to bring Momma back to life. “So, Momma, what do you feel like having for dinner?”
(from a fictional interview transcribed by Resha Shukla)
By “Maleeka Madison”
Momma’s mouth does not take anything
Her head won’t rest onto her pillow
Her lips are motionless
Like a hand
snatched the spirit she used to have
It ain’t fair at all,
And momma’s been useless,
For almost two years now,
I wonder every day,
If the hand will return her spirit the next day,
But I know the hand ain’t ever gonna hear my voice begging,
A hand don’t got ears anyways.
“Momma open your mouth, please…”
Her eyes are remote, her thoughts are, too
She gazes past my spoon of oatmeal,
Her mouth muttering.
Occasionally a tear drops down into her lap;
I turn my back to her naturally.
At times, I want to sob with her,
Or shake her violently,
And scream at her to come back.
I never do though,
Because there is a heavy blanket I cannot see
that wraps around me,
and reminds me of daddy’s arms,
And telling me to stay strong.
(Maleeka’s words channeled by Ryan Hu)
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
As a poet myself, I teach poetry with the aim of imprinting admirable poems in my writing students' memories. I imagine my now young students (ages 8-17), as adults, looking through their old writing exercises from "the good old days in Mrs. Lipson's writing class," recalling vividly the poems we discussed and marveling at their old writings prompted by those deeply studied poems. The depth of most lessons depends upon a balance of theoretical analysis and practical application; and the more modalities of learning that we engage, the more memorable each lesson will be. I apply those educational strategies as I teach writing and poetry, hand-in-hand, to develop critical thinking, an appreciation of the power of words, academic writing skills, and creative writing abilities in a variety of genres.
My teenage writing students recently studied a thought-provoking, metaphorical poem, “Tuesday 9 AM,” by Denver Butson, which I found in an anthology of contemporary poems titled Poetry 180. (I highly recommend that book, full of excellent poems that I regularly use as prompts--just click on the title to go buy it at Barnes & Noble online). The poem takes place at a bus stop, where three people stand together, yet poignantly alone due to their self-isolating emotional states, depicted by rich metaphorical imagery.
My students wrote academic-style analyses of Butson's poem, based on my guidelines to: a) establish a theme, b) illustrate that theme with quotations, c) explain how the quotations support the theme, d) interpret the implications “between the lines,” and e) offer an overall “take-away” message from this poem. The quotations had to be set up in context, for a reader—like you—who might never have read Butson’s poem, and each line had to build upon the one preceding it. Below is an exemplary analysis by an insightful eighth-grader named Christopher.
In the poem “Tuesday 9:00 AM,” by Denver Butson, the author describes three different people at a bus station, engulfed in their own worries and emotions. He begins by describing a man who is on fire, “Flames are peeking out from beneath his collar and cuffs.” The flames represent an intense feeling of anger or annoyance, rather than literal flames which could kill someone. The author continues by describing a woman who “wants to mention...that he is burning,” but does not because “she is drowning.” The second woman’s “drowning” is not in water, but rather in sorrow. By not commenting on the man’s flames, it shows that she is too worried about her own emotions, despite having the “water” to put out his “fire.” Moreover, whereas the first man’s anger was just “peeking out,” the woman’s sorrow is uncontrollable, “in her mouth and ears, in her eyes.” The last person waiting at the bus stop is another woman who is “freezing to death.” This person is frozen by self-consciousness and unsure of what to do. While she tries to melt her ice from the fiery man, her shy nature causes her to not seek help for herself. Furthermore, even though she wants to talk to the woman who is drowning, she is scared of potential judgment or retaliation, dissuading her from helping others. Overall, the author conveys the message that sometimes the help we need is right next to us, and it simply requires leaving one’s comfort zone.
The next part of my lesson required a creative response, in the form of either their own metaphorical poem about social interactions, or a fictional story that turned Butson’s poem into a short story, bringing each character to life and showing the reluctant or thwarted interactions between them. The students could change the outcome of Butson’s bus stop scene, if they chose to empower the self-limiting characters. Here is Christopher’s imaginative, moving story:
Before the Bus Arrives
by Christopher W.
As he was waiting at the bus stop, skimming the newspaper, he saw something that caught his eye. The headline read, “Man Arrested For Animal Abuse.” It began, “Florida man, age 27, was arrested for beating two stray dogs to death. On Monday, April 6th, Mr. Frank live streamed himself using a large stick to strike two stray dogs.” The man reading the newspaper was the owner of a dog, and upon reading these sentences, his blood began to boil. He would never dream of hurting his dog, but he still had nightmares of the time he left his favorite chocolate lying around.
Now the woman waiting beside him wouldn’t stop crying. The occasional whimper and moan escaped from her mouth, but she hastily swallowed them down. In fact, she was just fine mere minutes ago when she first sat down. She didn’t start until she checked a text message on her phone.
And to his further dismay, the girl sitting on the other side of him kept looking like she wanted to ask him something, only to look away when he turned toward her. Finally, tired of getting her sideways glances, he said, “Did you need something?”
The girl, surprised at first, responded, “Well actually, I wanted a look at your newspaper. You see, I wrote a piece for that publisher and I wanted to see if they had published it yet.”
Intrigued, he asked, “What did you write about?”
Eagerly, she began to talk about her studies, and as she was talking, it was almost as if she “melted” her frozen shell, a shell keeping her from speaking up. In fact, she was talking so fast, he didn’t know if she was breathing. After he handed the newspaper to the girl, she whispered, “The woman over there looks awfully sorrowful. I wonder what happened.”
Although he was still angry, he felt keen to help. He turned to the crying woman beside him and asked, “Excuse me miss, I couldn’t help but notice you were in distress. Is there anything I could do to help you?”
“I’m so sorry to bother you. My gran was in critical condition and I was just sent the news that she has passed. Thanks for asking.” As she finished speaking, she reached into her backpack and pulled out a bar of chocolate and passed it to him. “Here, I’m sure I must have been a nuisance crying so loud. Take this as an apology.”
Surprised, but grateful, he accepted the token of apology. And as the bus arrived, all three of them boarded, feeling significantly better.
I have shared this prompt and this student's writings to show, not tell, how teachers and students can explore literature not just by reacting to the words on the page, but also by using those words as a springboard for creating. Have you noticed that "reacting" and "creating" are almost the same words, slightly scrambled? The profound poems that some of the students wrote for this assignment will certainly find their way into another of my blog posts. I believe that this lesson upheld my long-time motto: “Inspiring awe for words and awesome writing.”
Monday, May 11, 2020
May 7, 2020
The following poem, by my student William MacLeod, uses a metaphor to make a statement about people. Write an E-IEI-O analysis of his poem. Then write your own metaphorical poem to represent a personality.
by William MacLeod
“I won’t leave my garden,”
Says a worm.
“There is plenty of dirt here.
Out there are birds.
Out there are moles.
Everything is alright in my garden.
Why would I leave?”
In response to the prompt above, two of my fifth-grade private writing students, Ethan and Lino, wrote these essay-style paragraphs, using my E-IEI-O format, to analyze William’s poem:
The poem “The Worm,” by William MacLeod, uses the worm to describe a person who loves to stay at home. The worm says, “Why should I leave?” because he is an insect who likes to stay out of danger, in a safe place, which in this case is his home, the garden. In today’s situation, the moles and the birds could be the coronavirus who comes to hunt us down, and the only place where we are safe is in our homes. In conclusion, the poem “The Worm” teaches us that we should stay home during this time of danger, so we can be safe and healthy.
* * * * * *
The poem “THE WORM,” by William MacLeod uses the metaphorical image of a complacent worm to show the idea of someone who does not want to leave their comfort zone. The last line of this poem is “‘Why would I leave?’” These words show the reader that the worm is happy with what he has and does not want to explore the unknown. The reason William MacLeod used a worm to explain the behavior of staying in your comfort zone is because worms are known to stay underground, safe from all of the danger around them. The worm represents people who do not like to take risks and suggests that staying safe is more important than adventure.
Using students’ works to prompt writing by other students has served as a very effective motivational tool in my extracurricular writing program. My students see admirable and relatable writing by peers, as role models, and they immediately want to display their own understanding of those words. They also aim to be the next featured young author to inspire fellow students. Maybe once the fifth-grade literary analysts do the second part of the original prompt, which asks them to write their own poems as homework, I will have more excellent poems to motivate other young writers!
Monday, March 9, 2020
Using NOTES FROM THE MIDNIGHT DRIVER, by Jordan Sonnenblick, for a writing lesson on how to convey a distinctive narrative voice, I challenged two middle school boys to write their own fictional scenes in response to the novel. We had read aloud and discussed the opening pages of Sonnenblick's novel, just past the point when the self-deprecating narrator, who is hospitalized after an embarrassing drunk-driving accident, discovers that he now bears a scar on his forehead as a reminder of his recklessness. I asked the students, Oliver and Ryan (8th and 7th graders, respectively), to write a future scene about the protagonist, Alex, having to explain his scar to someone he has a crush on, without revealing the mortifying truth about his uncharacteristically irrational behavior. The aim of the lesson was to maintain the humorous voice of the narrator while flexing their own creative muscles. Here are the outstanding results. I hope that Jordan Sonnenblick will read and enjoy these scenes!
1) By Oliver T.:
I wipe my tears with my sleeve, realizing the severity of my scar. My finger rubs against the bumpy patchwork on my forehead. What will Alyssa think? I can’t get the thought out of my mind. I start thinking about cover-up stories: "My dad was driving when a drunk driver hit us head-on;” or “I was jogging and a car ran a red light and hit me." Probably not the last one, since I would likely be dead if that happened. I’m not sure what excuse to use; all I know is that I can’t tell her the truth.
Surprisingly, I kind of want to go back to the hospital. That way, no one will know what I did. Yet for some reason, one small part of me believes that the truth will reveal itself.
I almost forget that Dad is driving me home. He is lecturing me about responsibility for the third time this week. I drowsily listen, trying not to fall asleep, or, at least make it look like I’m not asleep.
"You need to be more careful, always ask yourself before you do something if it is beneficial. Use that brain of yours. If you really are my child you should have at least some part of my intelligent brain," my dad lectures.
He drops me off at Mom’s place, where my mother takes me up in a loving embrace. "I am so glad my boy is home," Mom says, squeezing me in a hug. "I hope you are alright."
I know exactly what will happen next. Oh no, here it comes. I brace myself for my mother to change her tone and slap me on the cheek. She always does that when I mess up, but instead, Mother releases me from the hug and takes a good look at me. She looks at my tired, disappointed self and hugs me. "Go to sleep now. You still have school tomorrow," Mom says as she lets go of me.
"Alright, Mom, Goodnight," I say, trying to have a cheery tone. I limp over to my room and collapse on my bed, exhausted from the hospital, but dreading tomorrow.
In the morning, I walk to school, my head feeling much better than yesterday, and my confidence is better as well. After all, I spent the majority of yesterday thinking about what to say. Today, I finally decide to listen to the angel inside of me … sort of. Bending the truth ain’t so bad right? My plan is to tell Alyssa …
Thud! My shoulder rams straight into a pillar. I fall on my butt, wincing in pain.
“You alright?” says a familiar voice.
I look up to see none other than Alyssa Stone. My palms start to sweat and my legs are trembling. I awkwardly get up and wipe my hands on my shirt.
“Where’ve you been? You were missing for the past week.”
“I was in the hospital,” I reply. “I was in an accident.”
“What kind of accident?”
“I was in a car crash,” I answer. Concern fills Alyssa’s expression. “But definitely not like too severe, but … well, like really bad but … I didn’t get injured too much cuz I was lucky but, like … Yeah.”
I wince, cringing at my weirdness. My heart starts thumping.
Alyssa raises her light eyebrows. “Uhh … well, alright, see you later. I gotta get to class.” Alyssa walks away, biting her lip.
“Umm, see ya later … Alligator.”
Oh my gosh, what am I doing? I quickly walk away and take a detour to my first-period class. That was really bad; I don’t know what happened.
A class period passes and the accident is still on my mind. I’m pretty sure Alyssa’s not looking for a guy that wrecks cars and murders garden gnomes. All I had to do was make a normal story and avoid the truth. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?
Three periods pass, and before I know it, it is my lunch period. Time flies when you can’t get something out of your mind. I make my way through the lunch courtyards. My friends motion me to sit with them, but I ignore their invitation. I look through the crowded courtyard and meet eyes with Alyssa. I briskly walk through the sea of students toward her lunch line.
“Hey,” I start, “sorry about earlier.”
“Hello,” Alyssa replies, adding lettuce to her sandwich. “What happened when you ‘got injured really bad, but not too severe, but definitely not, yeah,’” Alyssa teases.
I laugh nervously and start to blush. “It was a car accident.”
“Oh my gosh, what did you do? Drive drunk or something?” Allysa jokes.
“Yeah,” I respond.
“What?!” Allysa jumps.
“Only joking,” I quickly correct myself, with an awkward chuckle. “I was driving … erm, my dad was driving me home when a drunk driver ran a red light and went 50 miles per hour into our car.”
“So that’s what happened to your forehead.” Alyssa points to my forehead. “It’s a miracle that you are alright. Is your dad alright?” I quickly smooth my hair down.
“Yeah, I just had a concussion and some alcohol pois—I mean food poisoning … and an upset stomach. My dad is fine.”
“What does food poisoning have to do with this?” Alyssa implores.
“We were at a party, and … umm, their microwaved taquitos weren’t very good for my stomach.” I gulp.
“So, you were coming home from a party and your dad was not drunk?” Alyssa replies with shock.
“Umm, yeah, he doesn’t drink at all.”
“Oh, sorry to assume. But I am just used to my old man getting really drunk at parties, and still wanting to drive home.”
I look to the side. My mind is overflowing with questions and shock. That was pretty personal. She trusts me enough to say that? Does she like me, too? Should I say something personal back? What do I say back? If I just respectfully leave, it won’t be awkward anymore, right? I slowly back away.
“Well, my friends are waiting for me right now. I’ll see you in English,” I awkwardly break the silence.
“Me, too,” Alyssa blushes.
2) By Ryan H.
A Truth Too Hard To Reveal
I pick up some hot, crusty bread, placing it in a little bag that has the words ‘‘Bake ‘n’ Flake’’ across the center. I smile at a customer as I quickly pull out the receipt, handing both items to him.
Pit-a-Pat, Pit-a-Pat, footsteps of employees and customers echo into the pleasant morning air as the aroma of sweet bread drifts under my nose.
Finger-combing the long strands of hair that cover my forehead, I glance around. My eyes stop like an eagle spotting something interesting. Amelia, I look at her, feeling a mixture of enthusiasm and eagerness as I steadily walk towards the table where she’s sitting at.
“Ahem, hi… Ummm... everything’s alright here?” I ask.
She always arrives in the campus bakery in the morning for coffee and mini-croissants, and I’m satisfied I have the morning shift. I really can’t keep my eyes off her.
“Yeah, everything’s fine.”
I gesture towards her shirt that says “Class of “2020,” saying, “Hey, I think you’re in one of my classes.”
I stupidly grin and push my hair back. Suddenly, her eyes change, they looked a little wide, maybe even concerned. I swallow, pulling down a few strands of hair.
“Where did you…” She paused. “...get that huge scar over your forehead?”
I gaze down, feeling her eyes dig into my forehead. “Ummmm… when I was young… I actually fell off a tree… and got a couple of scratches here and there.”
“Oh, I’m sorry….my brother loved to climb trees as well. He always fell off, too, but didn’t get too many gashes.”
I quickly look away, realizing I have been staring at her light blue eyes so intently. “Yeah, cool!” I blurt. “I mean...” Amelia looks at me, confused. “You know… I mean…uhhhh…It was nice talking to you, Amelia…”
“You too—” she glances at my nametag—“Alex.” She quickly sits up and walks out as if in a hurry.
Soon, my shift ends, and I see the bright yellow sun glistening in the warm afternoon through the windows of the bakery. I scratch my head, as I head toward my sedan, looking back toward the table where Amelia had sat. Where l had lied to her. I rub my hand along the long, jagged, scar. I let out a sigh as I step into my little car, taking my apron off and placing it on my bulging backpack.
Screeeeeech!! I slam the brake as my car jolts to a sudden stop. The student who was crossing the street backs away, shouting, “Man, are you drunk!? You could have killed me!” He raises his hand, sticking up a nasty finger, baring his teeth, and cursing all the profanity I’ve ever heard in my life.
I mumble under my breath, “No, I only kill garden gnomes.” I realize I’m not breathing. I take a deep breath, feeling a throb on my forehead.
The memory ripples over me like a vast wave, the time I had driven drunk and crashed, leaving behind a pile of crumbled gnomes and the zig-zag on my forehead. I look down at my white knuckles, as I grip onto the leather wheel. How in the world would I have gotten a scar from falling off a tree? And if I did, it wouldn’t be on my forehead, since that would mean I would fall on my head, and I’d probably be dead....
Monday, February 3, 2020
Wednesday, January 22, 2020
Evoking introspection by sharing thought-provoking poems enables me to catalyze growth for young writers, in terms of both their writing skills and their self-understanding. Evidence of such growth often arrives in the form of poetic responses to my own poetry prompts, as illustrated below:
THE PROMPT: Write a similar poem about unfair assumptions you've made.
by Susan L. Lipson
I read your scowl as a snide comment
and prepared to throw the book at you,
but then you revealed the grief between your lines,
and I reread that scowl as a grimace of pain,
Guiltily, I snapped shut the book of judgment,
which wasn't mine to read.
ANOTHER PROMPT: Use the bold-lettered words as a framework for
your own poem on the same theme, or reverse the objects and subjects,
changing "you" to "I/me" to show the opposite view.
by Susan L. Lipson
To you, I was an old blanket,
Covered in teddy bears and hearts,
Warmth from younger days.
But now you see me as threadbare,
Unappealing, too babyish,
Something for the storage chest.
To me, you were my best childhood friend.
But now I know you as the one who
Discarded me for a new comforter.