Fiction writer Emily works with Tyler, Logan, and Willy to discuss a poem.
If your town is a university town, like mine is, there are guaranteed to be some amazing writing mentors right under your nose. Have you taken advantage of them?
Our university’s MFA program offers courses in writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and I was lucky enough to connect with these fine folks through the Bolton Writing Workshops, which were a fantastic challenge for me to participate in. And my students were lucky enough that several of the program’s MFA students were willing to come into our classroom and write beside them.
Our writers came to visit one of my least-poetically-inclined classes, bearing many mentor texts, three poem prompts, and two revision exercises. They wrote beside my students and their seriousness inspired earnest effort from my kiddoes–I was so impressed. Rarely have I seen fourth period so calm, engaged, or thoughtful. Their method consisted of three steps–read, write, revise.
Nonfiction writer Whit works with Dylan, Scott, Mariana, and Hailey to analyze a poem.
Read poetry. The Bolton writers brought over 20 poems for my students to study. A pro read the poem aloud, my students following along on their own copies at their desks. We absorbed the language, the tone, the emotions of the poem. The Bolton poets asked questions like:
- “Why is the poem called this?”
- “Do you believe this speaker?”
- “Did you like this poem? Why?”
- “How many characters do we see in this poem?”
- “What do we think of this (image, line)?”
Their language was important to me, as it created a community of writers by using the word “we,” focused on responsiveness to the poems rather than the extraction of meaning, and encouraged a variety of responses. My students engaged with this kind of talk fully–I loved the quiet murmurings I heard as teens worked to construct meaning and understand these poems.
We read closely a variety of poems that did what we wanted to try–prose poems like “Instructions on How to Cry” by Julio Cortazar, or free verse like “The Instruction Manual” by John Ashbery, for a poem about instructions on how to do something. Then we wrote.
Logan’s poem about how to hunt
Write poetry. Next came the writing–very low stakes, line-by-line, three times. We wrote a poem where each line corresponded to a month in the year, one from the point of view of an animal, and one list of instructions on how to do something we felt expert at.
In poems with eight to twelve lines, my students wrote about hunting, death, school, love, welding, graduation, trust, and a wide variety of other topics. Each poetic prompt allowed for a student to write about whatever was meaningful to him or her. I loved the lovely images they produced, no matter the topics–like Logan’s “soft brass shells” in his hunting poem.
We wrote three drafts, then revised.
Dylan’s poem about how to weld
Revise, revise, revise. The revision process, like the writing process, was low stakes. The Bolton writers advised my students to:
- “Cross out your two worst lines.”
- “Repeat your best image or line somewhere else in the poem.”
- “Circle a line you love so we can share it.”
- “Think about where you might add some alliteration.”
Language was celebrated, no matter how fancy or plain. Dylan’s use of similes, metaphors, and alliteration in his poem about welding received lots of snaps. I believe he felt comfortable sharing it because of the authentic atmosphere the professional writers created–he knew he’d be taken seriously, and his words were met with thoughtful responses from both the Bolton poets and his fellow students.
The two-day workshop was a fantastic reminder of how simple it is to celebrate poetry in any classroom, within any timeframe, as part of any unit. Simply read beautiful poetry, try your hand at a few drafts, then revise as much as you need to. I loved participating in this workshop and watching my students blossom, acting and thinking and talking like serious poets.
Have you brought any writers into your classroom or school? Please share how it went in the comments!