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Tuesday / April 23

Four Ways to Elevate Student Writing With a Single Poem

In my new book, Poetry Pauses: Teaching With Poems to Elevate Student Writing in All Genres, I examine how poems can be easy to tuck into our practice and enhance the work we are already doing as we helps student writers to grow.

For the past ten years, I have explored a lot of poems with students, since I start class every day with a  Poem of the Day routine. One of my discoveries through this practice is that a single poem can lift writers in a variety of ways and therefore fit into a variety of writing lessons.

Let’s explore one poem that is not mentioned in my book but nonetheless illustrates this point well. It’s a spoken-word poem, “Seventeen,” by Rudy Francisco. Take three minutes to watch Rudy Francisco’s performance of this poem, on Button Poetry’s YouTube channel.

Then consider four different ways you might apply details in this poem to your existing writing lessons.

  1. Narrative writing with figurative language: This poem drips with figurative language and provides particularly plentiful examples of hyperbole. When crafting their own narratives, whether personal or fictional, students can improve their work through revision, weaving in images with figurative meaning that takes their storytelling to the next level. Invite students to list which figurative language rings in their minds when this poem has ended, gather a list on the whiteboard, and then immediately work on transfer, using these lines as mini-mentors to guide their own use of figurative language in a narrative draft.
  2. Analysis writing: Close reading skills require that our students notice patterns, and this poem, like so many poems, is built on a foundation of patterns. Start by asking students: What patterns do you notice in this poem? Students may notice repetition of the line openers “we are” and “I was” in rapid succession, the pattern of giving advice or commands, the pattern of humor followed by pause, the imagery of awkwardness. After this, ask students to write some brief analysis: Choose one of the patterns we discussed in class. What effect does this pattern have on the message of the poem? What might be the poet’s purpose in using this pattern?
  3. Reflective writing: Francisco is writing to his younger self in this poem. What a powerful reflective writing prompt this offers! What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were younger? How are you maturing in your viewpoint? What wisdom can you offer to a younger version of yourself?
  4. Poetry writing: Living poets, and particularly spoken-word poets like Rudy Francisco, remind our students that poetry is a vibrant, living artform that shifts, grows, and changes with each generation. Humans are still discovering new approaches to writing a poem. It can be helpful to watch a performance poem like this twice: The first time, just enjoy it. The second time, capture favorite lines you hear on a blank page in your writer’s notebook, the lines you feel in your bones. Then, students can write a spin-off poem, using one of Francisco’s lines as the first line of an original poem, crediting the poet with an “after Rudy Francisco” in their title. When borrowing single thread like this, it’s fascinating to see how many different directions our students can take it.

“A single poem can lift writers in a variety of ways and therefore fit into a variety of writing lessons.”

Brief, creative pauses deserve some time in EVERY English class, even when teachers do not feel they are particularly good at creative writing or that the class will roll their eyes at poetry. Let them amaze you. A relatively tiny investment of time in a poetry pause English class pays rich dividends and reminds us why English class exists in the first place: to explore the complexities of language, to dive deeply into the human experience, to build skills that make our students bold and clear communicators, artists with words no matter the scenario.

Written by

Brett Vogelsinger has been teaching English for twenty years and currently teaches ninth-grade students at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, PA.  He is a regular contributor at the Moving Writers blog (www.movingwriters.org) and has written about teaching and learning for EdutopiaNCTE Verse, and The New York Times Learning Network. When not teaching, grading, or writing about such things, you will likely find him spending time with his family, his garden, or his Jenga tower of books he plans to read. You can find him on Twitter @theVogelman or at his website, www.brettvogelsinger.com.

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