Thursday, November 21, 2013

Art Gives Birth to Art: Poetry Born of Photo Prompts

My students, when writing fiction, have heard me coach them with a lot of film references:

  • "Your words are the cables that connect the DVD playing in your mind with the DVD player in your reader's mind." (I used to say "video" and "VHS player," so you know how long I've been using this metaphor!)
  • "When you write dialogue, think of yourself as a film or TV director, and make your characters do interesting actions while they talk, actions that show us who they are. Like the old saying goes, 'Actions speak louder than words' sometimes."
  • "Be sure to add description and action to a dialogue to bring it to life like a movie in the reader's mind; otherwise, if you use only dialogue, it's like listening to a radio show, not a movie."
  • "Movies don't start with 'once upon a time'; they pull you right into a scene, and then allow you to figure out what's going on. Write that way, starting with a scene."
  • "When you switch speakers in a scene with a lot of dialogue, you indent to help the reader follow who's speaking; it's like a close-up shot in a movie, alternating from one person to another, during a conversation."
  • "You can show a character with greater depth, sometimes, via the reactions of other supporting characters. Like in a movie, when an actor says a line, and the others raise their eyebrows and nudge each other, the viewers question their first impression of the main character, which makes that character more interesting."
  • "If you rely on adverbs, rather than vivid verbs, to show how an action is done, you're not showing a scene."

My students also hear me comparing the editing process to sculpting or painting:
  • "Your first draft is like a piece of wood or stone that you've carved with a basic shape. Then you start editing, or sanding your sculpture, adding texture and changing the form in certain spots. You might chip off certain pieces and then smooth them over again. That's what I call 'editing for substance.' Finally, you polish the sculpture with shellac, or whatever polish you use--and that's the proofreading stage, where you fix the spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes and make the whole piece shine."
  • "Start your scenes like a painter starts filling a canvas. Add color with descriptions and actions. Add texture with words that convey a certain mood."
  • "When you overuse figurative language, it's like filling a wall with beautiful paintings that all compete with each other so you don't know where to look or what to focus on. One well-placed painting, like a strong metaphor or simile, will draw your eye and make you think, but too many will overwhelm you."

And when I teach poetry, I often give musical references:
  • "A poem is a song without music; its rhythm can evoke mood as much as its words."
  • "You can rap a couplet poem!"
  • "Repetitive phrases act like a song chorus, to make the reader remember the point of the poem."
In short, what I'm writing about today is this:

The appreciation of art prompts the creation of art--and vice versa.

That is why I not only talk about other art forms to teach writing, but also use those art forms as prompts. Today's exemplary student work was prompted by a photo of a boy blowing bubbles while sitting in a wheelchair. The poem, by P.K., age 11, reflects extraordinary empathy from the able-bodied poet. 

Popped Bubble

have courage
whereas I
have fear.
They have courage to fly away,
but I have a fear of standing up.
They have the courage
to face danger in the world,
but I have a fear
of confronting life.
can fly
as high as they like,
but nobody
will get in their way.
always get in my way.
They push me till I can no longer stand.
If I try, they will push me again.
They do this until
I am powerless,
I am a popped bubble
in a wheelchair.

Enough said!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Poem Prompt To Elicit Introspection about Friendship

I asked students to read a poem titled "Pen Pal," about a best friend whose identity is revealed at the end to be paper itself. We discussed the traits of an ideal friend, and how to show these traits via examples, not mere labels. (The full lesson is available on One of the exercises calls for students to write a mock “Wanted” advertisement, describing in as few specific words as possible, the best friend they seek. I told them not to use trait words, such as “compassionate,” but rather, to SHOW the traits they seek with examples (such as, “She always makes room for me when I need to express my feelings”). I also told them to make every word count, practicing the “economy of words” in their ads or poems. This was one of my favorites:

By K.E., age 12

*A person with an open mind, open heart, and open arms
*A person able to pick me up in my most shattered state
*A person who can glue me back together with kind, reassuring words
*A person who can accept any and all of my differences and can love them
*A person who will support me when doing the right thing, but argue against me when doing wrong
*A person who can see the worst part of me and never tell a soul
*A person who can sit down with me when I’m crying and weep next to me, even without knowing what’s happened
*A person who would be able to put everything down to rush to my side

If found, please contact me at 1-800-Find-Plz

Please tell K.E. which of her lines moved you most by leaving a comment below.

Friday, November 8, 2013

An Eleven Year Old's Passionate Response to an Equally Passionate Essay in TEEN INK magazine

This essay response made my eyes teary as my student read it aloud, not only because it is extraordinarily well written for a 6th grader, but also--and even more importantly--because of the heartfelt connection between a preteen and a teen via passionate words.

In the informal essay, “Of My Generation,” [TeenInk author] Amal Oladuja talks about the lives of today’s generation. The tone of this essay is very unique. It is sarcastic to most parents who might be reading, but something kids can relate to their own lives. A sentence says, “I am expected to thrive academically, eat healthily, sleep regularly, exercise frequently, socialize freely, converse openly—al the while managing my time efficiently.” When an adult reads this, he/she may have a reaction like: “This is really what our children think of their lives when we try so hard for them?!” But that is exactly what parents are doing wrong. They try too hard to make their children meet the perfect expectations of society. Instead of thinking of the child as a person, they think of them as a tool.

The tone of Oladuja’s essay suggests that life is something he has no say in. Almost every paragraph starts with a commanding verb: “I am expected to, I’m supposed to, I’ve got to, I belong to…,” and so on. Also, the way the writer puts everything in an extreme compare/contrast situation hits every reader hard with different emotions. Personally, I can relate to this essay. It’s true, being a perfectionist, trying to be someone I’m not, being social, and getting straight A+’s is sometimes nearly impossible in our constricted time. Reading this essay made me realize that the “Stillborn Generation,” as Amal Oladuja calls it, may never be able to think for themselves or “breathe a suggestion.”

If you are a parent or teacher reading this, what have you learned from this young writer?

If you are a kid yourself, can you relate to this pressure, and how would you like to see our attitudes toward education change in the U.S.A?

I highly recommend the publication TeenInk for thoughtful kids ages 11 and up.