Saturday / June 22

Teach Poetry to Check for Clichés!

Cliché Check

by Sara Holbrook

You don’t have to be a lioness

to evidence some fierce

a Chihuahua bouncing barking backwards

has the heart, the mind, the grrrrrr.

You don’t have to be a cheetah to

chase and catch some fast.

A toddler streaking for the toilet,

an OH NO pounding past is an

image rich and clear

as fear trying to catch the bus.

While wild is something out there,

true metaphor’s familiar

and simply looks

a lot like us.

© 2014 Sara Holbrook

Clichés will never make your reader laugh like a hyena or cry like a river. Clichés are words and comparisons that have been around the block so many times, most of us don’t even take notice as they drift by. Clichés are stumbling blocks in a water hazard for classroom poetry lessons, hyperbolic as…oh, forget it. You know what I mean.

Assigning poetry in a classroom comes with the expectation that the piece will have to be graded. Teachers ask, “How do I grade how a kid feels about something?” When my partner-in-rhyme, Michael Salinger, and I are asked this, we always reply, “You don’t!” Instead, establish a goal for the poetry-writing lesson, just the same as you would for a lesson on any other writing genre. Let the writers know the goal in advance, and build your rubric around that. Examples may sound like this:

  • Write a poem to evidence understanding of reptiles.
  • Write a poem from the point of view of someone other than yourself.
  • Write a poem about (insert unit of study) using simile comparisons.

Searching for similes in a world drenched in media can be a challenge for emerging writers. And yet, it is one of the true measures of a good writer, being able to say, “I saw what I saw and it looked like this.” Connecting images with words often comes with a story. Writing using similes is usually not a quiet experience; people begin sharing stories. Like this:

I was walking my dog one night by the middle school and heard the flagpole clanking in the wind. I walked home thinking, a flagpole is a simile for what? Patriotic as? Strong as? Straight as? And, due to a confluence of events in my life at the time, I hit on this: lonely as a flagpole.

The Loneliest

by Sara Holbrook

I’m not going steady.

I’m nobody’s best friend.

I guess I’m ’bout the loneliest

that anybody’s been.

There’s no one waiting at the door

at three for me to meet.

And if I’m late for lunch,

no one’s saving me a seat.

My love life’s not the topic

of hot homeroom conversation.

Like some old empty locker,

no one wants my combination.

This school’s made up of partners,

two halves to every whole,

‘cept me,

left on the outside,

like that clankin’ old flagpole.

© 1996 Sara Holbrook, I Never Said I Wasn’t Difficult, Boyds Mills Press

And that’s how an itty-bitty personal observation points the way to common experience. It works like an upside down funnel; we begin with little droplets to widen the audience reach. Precise and personal. This is why I like to label clichés as not mistakes, but stepping-stones we trip along to reach our own ideas.

“Here’s the deal about clichés, most of them are true,” we like to tell students. “Poets tell the truth, but in a surprising way.”

Although (let me tell you) it gets frustrating to hear fast as a cheetah and brave as a lion raise their weary heads in EVERY SINGLE POETRY WORKSHOP EVER, we never come down hard on kids for using clichés. We let them know these are natural steps along the path to finding our own voices. But we are not shy about helping students identify clichés for what they are: first draft words.

Poetry is the perfect place to help writers identify and clarify clichés. Why? Because poems are short and give kids an opportunity to show their understanding of how figurative language works. In our book, High-Impact Writing Clinics, we scaffold into figurative language, beginning with a workshop (Simile of Me) in building similes that are visual and unique.

After we have shared a poem or two using similes, we establish a theme for co-creating a poem. We start with a topic everyone knows about: ourselves. Co-creating is how we keep the learning visual as we write, encouraging risk taking, making mistakes, and keeping the literacy learning visual. In the example below, our theme was: Sixth Grade is Me.


We build and craft like architects

Hang out like bees in a hive

We are vacuums sucking food into a black hole

We cycle, legs moving like water wheels

Shooting basketballs like rocket launchers

We are movie stars taking selfies

We play table tennis like an octopus

We are bears in hibernating caves on weekends

Sixth Grade is me

In this picture, you can see that we have already begun a revision, turning some of the similes into metaphors. “We” still need to get some of the “we-s” out of this co-created poem. Work in progress!

After we have co-created a poem challenging ourselves to make more surprising similes, the students write on their own, choosing a personal theme: Creative, an athlete, a musician, silly, a gamer (etc.) is me. After the students come up with five or six similes, using the mentor text we co-created as a model, Michael and I circulate about the room doing a cliché check.

We tell kids, “If someone else can finish the sentence for you, as in a deer in the… it is a cliché. Don’t have a friend to ask at 10:00PM on Sunday night as you are drafting that must-finish five-paragraph essay? Type the phrase into Google, we advise. If the search line is finished for you, it’s probably a cliché.

Cliché Free!

Once after talking a boy through three or four drafts of his Simile of Me poem, Michael declared him good to go. The boy jumped up and shouted, “Cliché Free!” giving a fist pump as an explanation point on his happy proclamation. Yea! We all celebrated. No one felt embarrassed or shamed as we worked together to clarify our images in a personal, surprising way. It was simply part of the process of getting it just right.

This lesson is not designed to create Nobel Prize winning poetry. However, if a student is destined to become a Nobel Laureate, the poet needs to learn to recognize a cliché when one presents itself. This workshop helps. Plus, this lesson also provides a touchstone for teachers coaching students through the writing of fiction and non-fiction.

Clichés are not just something to talk about in the rearview mirror as part of revision. We want to recognize them along the way as we draft and craft our ways to better communication skills using (what else?) the language of poetry.

Written by

Sara Holbrook is a full-time educator, author/poet and consultant, who has been teaching in classrooms acrpss the U.S. and abroad for more than twenty years. She is the author of over a dozen books for children, adults, and teachers as well as an award-winning performance poet. A frequent keynote speaker, Sara shows teachers how to use writing and oral presentation exercises to help raise vocabulary and other literacy skills, along with how to teacher comprehension through collaboration, writing, and classroom performance across all grade levels and content areas.

Sara is the co-author of High-Impact Writing Labs.

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