Tag Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

Lyric Mashup Poetry: Synthesis & Reflection on Beautiful Words

Billy Joel at the piano with his daughter Alexa Ray

One thing I know about teenagers is that music is a universal love language for them.

As writing workshop teachers, one of the ways that we can speak this language is by inviting our students to write lyric mashup poetry. As the name suggests, this kind of poetry invites students into practicing several skills that elevate our students’ writing craft. Among them:

  • Immersion in beautiful words. As students dive into well-known lyrics, they’re empowered to love words and reflect on their meanings.
  • Listening and speaking: Students are invited to listen to the words of favorite songs, and talk with other writers about why the songs are meaningful, and how they plan to “mash them up” with other songs. 
  • Synthesis: Perhaps the most powerful invitation for our students in writing lyric mashups is synthesizing–looking at the lyrics of three songs, and intentionally selecting lines from each to “mashup” and create a new song.
  • Thanks to Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle for introducing me to lyric mashups during their daily videos for teachers during the COVID-19 lockdown!

Billy Joel’s music was the soundtrack of my adolescence, and I still love his haunting melodies and the way that so many of his songs are narrative poems that invite listeners into redemptive tales, breakup stories, or litanies of historic events. Following is a description of how I implement lyric mashup poetry with eighth grade poets, with my job sheets and student examples linked.

Step One: I share my favorite artist, Billy Joel with students, by playing one of the three songs that I use for my mashup with them, “The Downeaster Alexa,” a piece that tells the story of New England fishermen struggling for survival. 

Step Two: After listening to the song together, I give students my mashup and we use different colored highlighters to take a look at how lyrics from “The Downeaster Alexa” are mashed up with words from the other two songs I selected, and lines I wrote myself to preserve the flow of the mashup poem. My job sheet for students is linked here.

The mashup poem that I wrote is called “Cathedral,” and I use it to illustrate how powerful it can be to mashup songs that are dissimilar at first glance, but on closer examination have common threads thematically. To write “Cathedral,” I used “The Downeaster Alexa,” and a song that Joel wrote about Victor, a dear friend he met while on tour in what at the time was still the USSR, called “Leningrad.” My third and final song is his famous breakup song and the tenth track on his 1989 album Storm Front, And So it Goes.” All three of these songs are about loss in different ways: Loss of innocence, loss of a lifestyle, a parent, and the death of a relationship. When joined together, the lyrics from these three songs can create a compelling new poem.

 My students’ lyric mashups were a joy to read and showed the depth of their dive into music, and the breadth of their appreciation for different musical genres. I asked them to include a brief rationale for why they chose the artist that they did at the beginning of their mashup poems. 

     Karis and Carly mashed up four different Beatles’ songs, and wrote about the lasting impact that the Beatles have had on the world. Shaun and Isaiah collaborated on a mashup using the music of NF. Another beautiful aspect of writing mashups is that it invites students to collaborate around their similar musical tastes to create something meaningful.

     Lyric mashups were one way to invite my students back into composing poetry before we spend time writing beside living poets this December during our Ten Days of Spoken Word Poetry. What are your favorite ways to invite students into poetic exploration? Share your ideas in the comments below.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Pixie Dust: Or Life Among Fairies

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

PETER: Wendy, get better quickly, and I will take you to see a mermaid. She is awfully anxious to see a mermaid…J.M Barrie–Peter Pan

“Mom, I’m so thirsty…” 

Those aren’t strange words to hear in July and August, are they? I didn’t think much of them in the lazy heat of late summer. I was more focused on soaking in every last drop of Michigan sunlight, and answering the call of the lake, a voice that is more insistent every year. “Join us…we are your memories. Don’t get too old to go back to your childhood…”

It seems fitting to me that every summer I bring my children to all of the places I loved as a child, hoping to awaken the same magic that captivated me. Wind, waves, and an unending shoreline.. I admit that I was preoccupied during our trip. I was writing a play called Crown of Roses and the words were criminals, trying to escape capture every night when I desperately wanted them to live on the pages. 

We had been home from our vacation for a few weeks when I began noticing how thirsty my daughter Summer was. A bottle of Gatorade or a glass of chocolate milk vanished in seconds, leaving her begging for more. At first I blamed the heat, but when August turned to September and the temperatures surrendered to fall, Fear’s cold fingers gripped my heart. I knew there were only a few things that would cause constant thirst, none of them good. “It’s nothing. She’s growing and eating more, too. Everything was fine at her checkup in June.” That was the voice in my head that I entertained when I dared to think about the situation at all.

Friday night football…a sure sign of autumn in countless cities across the country. Summer, a pixie who loves flying around the stands under those stadium lights, went to an Eagles game and returned home reporting that she had thrown up during the game. Again, I heard that voice in my head: “It’s the flu. A little rest, some fluids, and everything will be back to normal.” I offered her 7-Up,  Popsicles, Cookie Dough ice cream, anything to ignore the chill overtaking my heart. 

A few days passed. Summer was worse. Much worse. Wednesday, September 18th…

****OOSTERHEERT THEATRE PRODUCTIONS PROUDLY PRESENTS…A ONE-SIDED CONVERSATION****

ME: How are you feeling? I think you should try to go to school today.

SUMMER: My stomach hurts. 

ME:  I’m starting to think you just don’t want to go to school. You need to try to eat something. Dry Cheerios. Toast. A banana. ANYTHING!

SUMMER:—(TEARS)

ME: I’ll call at noon to see how you’re doing. 

SUMMER:—

:—

SEPTEMBER 18TH, 6PM: I arrived home from school to find Summer pale and unmoving on the couch. Immediately, I called our local hospital and was told to bring Summer to the ER. 

My husband carried her out to my Ford Excursion because she was too weak to walk. I could see every bone in her legs and wondered how she had gotten so thin in a matter of days. After she was safely in the back seat, I turned to my husband. “They’re going to tell me she’s a diabetic,” I said. 

9PM: Summer and I have been in the emergency room for three hours. A doctor confirmed what I suspected for weeks. My daughter’s sugar levels were six times the normal level, and she was diagnosed with Type One diabetes. I prayed Psalm 23: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” 

When I wasn’t praying, I was worrying. Worrying about Summer’s future. Worrying about my other children. Worrying about the Crown of Roses rehearsal I was going to miss the next day, and how much work we still needed to do on choreography. I allowed myself the luxury of tears when Summer was sleeping, and then I decided to call Tyler, my student director. He was the only one who would be able to keep a rehearsal afloat if I couldn’t be at school.

A Late Night Cell Phone Conversation

Hello?

Hey-Tyler. It’s Mrs. O. Sorry to call so late. I’m at the emergency room and I’m about to get in an ambulance with my daughter to go to Blank Children’s Hospital.

Wow. I’m sorry. Is she going to be okay?

I think so. She was diagnosed with Type One diabetes. There’s a team of specialists that is going to teach us how to take care of her. It would be so reassuring for me if you would run the rehearsal tomorrow. Could you be there? I know you weren’t planning to come.

Anything. I would be glad to. Those kids are heroes.

I know. They’re amazing…and so are you. Thanks, Tyler….

Don’t worry, Mrs. O. I’ll be there.

It is no accident that Tyler played the role of Richard the Lion-Hearted when he was an eighth grader. He is royalty.

The ambulance was dark and calming, if a vehicle that is usually a trauma center can be peaceful. Summer was given her first insulin injection, and started feeling more like her light-filled, fairy self. I held her hand, and watched her heart’s gentle rhythm on the monitor.

I thought it was only flowers that die…J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Lines from Peter Pan flooded my mind all night, and I was grateful for the comfort of the familiar words, and the story of the Boy Who Would Never Be Old in the midst of a situation that was far from the shores of Never Land. When we arrived at Blank Children’s Hospital, one of the first things I saw was a mural featuring Peter Pan. I recalled that on the night my four babies who are now sophomores were born, and I thought I might bleed to death, God gifted me with an extremely compassionate nurse whose name was WENDY. The holiness of story has surrounded me in so many seasons…

Summer spent the rest of that night on a brick-hard triage bed. She tried to sleep, and I sat next to her with my MacBook, praying and planning lessons for all of the classes I would miss the next day. I didn’t know what the morning would bring, but I knew that we were in the company of angels.

For this month’s post, I wanted to tell you the story of my daughter’s diagnosis with Type One diabetes (with her permission), a story that I shared with my eighth grade students as we work on writing tributes and Note to Self narratives. My writing turned out to be a tribute to both my daughter and to one of my favorite stories, Peter Pan. My students and I are inspired by the following mentor texts:

“Go to the Ice” by Dorothy Hamill

Note to Self by Yonder Alonso

The Life of Reilly by Rick Reilly

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

CBS News Note to Self Videos. One of our favorites is this one featuring Will Reeve.

We’ve watched a different mentor video each day at the beginning of our workshop time , and then conferred about what we noticed in that visual text. The template that we’re using for recording our observations is linked below.

Our list of craft moves for our Note to Self/Tribute pieces is linked here. We’ve discussed elements such as incorporating multiple genres in one piece, using intentional sentence fragments, playing with figurative language and repetition, the importance of meaningful titles, and more.

After making this list together and practicing sentence imitation based on sentences we chose from our mentor texts using @Wakelet, and watching a series of Note to Self videos courtesy of CBS News for inspiration, we’re ready to begin drafting.

As students write their drafts, they have opportunities to confer with me AND other writers in our workshop. One of the most beautiful things about this writing is that it’s an opportunity not only to reflect on their younger selves. It’s also an invitation to thank someone who has mentored them, or to celebrate a good friend, an effective coach, or a close sibling relationship. It is one of my favorite ways to invite students into reflection and growth.

How do you invite students into reflective writing? Start a conversation in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Searching the Depths of Your Heart: Parallels Between Writing Workshop and Theatre

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Caleb & Garrett rehearse combat choreography for Arabian Nights.

One of the most magical things about directing middle school theatre…

is inviting students to unwrap the art of stage combat choreography. I love the beauty of the interaction, the sheer grace that is part of learning together, and the way that students use their imaginations to enter the world of the play and make decisions about how each scene, and each combat sequence will evolve as part of the larger story.

As I reflected on the fine art of stage combat, I realized that there are many parallels between spectacular swordplay, and being part of a writing workshop.

Since my students and I will be writing listicles this week, (thanks to @KellyGToGo and ESPN Magazine for the idea!) I thought I would share a listicle with you about the tandem hearts of theatre (combat choreography in particular) and writing workshop.

Six Things I Know About Writing Workshop & Stage Combat Choreography

  1. Both writing and combat choreography are matters of the heart. Excellent writing, AND masterful choreography begins in a restless heart that simply MUST write, or MUST take to the stage-to be complete.
  2. Whether one is wielding a pen or an epee (stage combat weapon) risk is involved. Authentic writers and actors embrace risk as part of the journey. What does risk look like for writers in our workshop? It’s everything from playing with mixing genres (last week we looked at mixing poetry and informational text as we studied stories of 9-11–See a list of mentor texts at the end of this post!) to working with a co-author for the first time. On stage, there is inherent risk in crafting a new combat sequence and in trusting one’s partner to memorize every move.
  3. Both writing and acting involve world building. Eighth grade writers construct worlds built of childhood recollections as we compose our autobiographies together, while 8th Grade Theatre Troupe members are invited to suspend their teenaged, central Iowan existence every day for an hour to become princes, or palace guards. 
  4. Writers and actors need inspiring mentors. Our favorite poetic mentors in writing workshop so far this year for crafting autobiographical texts have been “My Honest Poem” by Rudy Francisco, and “Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymborska. On stage, eighth grade actors are mentored by high school and college students who bring a wealth of stagecraft knowledge to us every day.
  5. Writing and acting are about surrendering the spotlight so that we can truly grow into the supporting roles we’re meant to play in a story that is larger than we are. I frequently tell students in our writing workshop that writing is about growth and grace, not grades. The same is true about learning the language of combat choreography. Students quickly discern that it takes countless hours of rehearsal to polish even five minutes of finished fight choreography. It is time and effort that elevates a performance (or a piece of writing) from good to great.
  6. One of the greatest gifts of both theatrical training AND writing workshop is the opportunity to be part of a thriving community that scales the mountains of a great performance and also weathers the valleys of those days when it feels like we’re not “good enough” to write anything of consequence or to tell a story on stage convincingly. Whether we’re in writing workshop or on stage, the invitation is open. Regardless of how discouraging today might have been, tomorrow we can return to the page, or the stage and begin again.
These epees are ready to go on stage. They’re waiting for a few eighth graders…

As writers and actors, we’ve been invited on a journey to a place of discovery, harmony and joy. What a privilege it is to write beside the students in our workshops–and in my story I am doubly blessed with opportunities to build worlds with words in notebooks and in auditoriums.

Last week, we were mentored by the heroes of September 11th.

Mentored by Heroes

I thought I would close by sharing links to a few deeply moving mentor texts in honor of the victims of 9-11 and their families. My students and I studied these written and visual texts last week, and used them in crafting narrative snapshots.

The Unusual Courage of Todd Beamer by Brandon Anderson

Anderson beautifully weaves the threads of the loss of his brother into a story that honors the extraordinary courage of Todd Beamer and the other passengers of Flight 93. My students and I noticed that looping is a powerful craft move, and that this is a multi-genre piece that blends narrative, poetry and commentary.

The Man in the Red Bandana courtesy of ESPN.com

This is the story of Welles Crowther, a volunteer firefighter who sacrificed his own life to save the lives of many others.

Beverly Eckert Remembers Sean Rooney courtesy of Storycorps.org

Eckert invites us to know her husband Sean by ushering us into her final conversation with him on September 11th. This is a story of searing loss and enduring love. Ironically, Eckert later died in a fiery crash as she traveled to award a scholarship in Sean’s honor.

The Photos of 9-11 courtesy of The New York Times Insider

This photo journal captures unforgettable images of September 11th and includes captions to draw us into the stories of each photo. My students used this piece as a mentor for constructing our own “Dear Photograph” captions. This piece illustrates not only the power of a photograph, but also the importance of word economy.

What are your deepest convictions about writing workshop?

Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Field of Dreams: Film Study in Writing Workshop

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Kevin Costner and Gabby Hoffmann in Field of Dreams.

If you build it, they will come…

For Iowans like me, last week the iconic line from 1989’s classic Field of Dreams came true  as our state hosted its first ever Major League Baseball game between the White Sox and the Yankees on a field adjacent to the Dyersville site used in the famous film. 

Eight thousand fans welcomed the teams, and Kevin Costner walked through a cornfield onto the new diamond, giving a sparkling speech referencing his love for baseball and the movie. Thirty years ago, on the other side of that corn, we filmed a movie that stood the test of time,” he said. “Tonight, thanks to that enduring impact that little movie had, it’s allowed us to come here again. But now we’re on a field that Major League Baseball made.

We’ve kept our promise, Major League Baseball has kept its promise, the dream is still alive. There is probably just one more question to answer – is this Heaven? Yes it is,” he added, a nod to one of the film’s famous quotes.

 (Speech excerpt courtesy of People.com.)

Reading the multitude of articles about the new field and the iconic movie reminds me of how films become woven into our cultural identity, and how vital it is for us as teachers  to invite our students into studying, interpreting and responding to visual text.

Field of Dreams is a perfect example of a sports themed movie that is about much more than a baseball game. It’s a story of regret, redemption, and relationships between fathers and sons.

For eighth graders, analyzing an entire film is a daunting task, so I’ve learned that one of the best ways to welcome them into film study is through analysis of ONE scene, giving attention to nonverbal elements such as the actors’ positioning, facial expressions, costumes, use of props, and more.

Film study also exemplifies how bias informs writing. When we read a film review with our writers’ eyes, we can infer within a sentence or two what the author intends to communicate. We can also use the reading of critical reviews to teach sophisticated craft moves.

My favorite mentor texts for film study include:

The New York Times Anatomy of a Scene Videos

How I Use This Mentor:

  • These videos are excellent tools for demonstrating how much thought goes into a movie. What’s even better is that directors narrate them, so students know this is expert analysis rather than another school “hoop.” One of my favorite videos is this one for Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live action Cinderella. Branagh explains that every detail of the first meeting between Cinderella and Prince Charming is critical, from the Shakespearean trees in the background to the horses’ genders. This video is also helpful if you have a student who chooses to write about the rash of live action remakes studios like Disney have released, from The Lion King to Mulan. And speaking of Mulan, there’s an Anatomy of a Scene video for that film as well! The Times continually updates this collection, recently adding videos for summer hits such as Black Widow and In the Heights.

Film Analysis and Prompts from Scott Myers (@GoIntoTheStory) on Medium.com

How I Use This Mentor:

  • Myers is a screenwriter, professor and blogger. His work is an outstanding mentor text since he leaves NO writing stone unturned. Whether your students are engaged in film study, writing narrative snapshots, or responding to their independent reading, studying Myers’ writing will inspire them to delve beneath the surface of setting, characterization and more to produce writing that is truly empathetic.  Recently, Myers wrote a piece for Medium.com called “The Writer as Psychologist.” In it, he discusses how often shame motivates fictional characters, and invites readers to explore Red’s development in The Shawshank Redemption. Myers concludes by saying that “it is our responsibility to understand each of our characters to the core of their emotional, spiritual, and psychological being. That process not only enables us to write complex, multilayered characters, it also informs us as to how each character ties into the overall narrative as well as the shape of the story’s structure.” It’s awesome to aspire to this analytical depth in writing workshop.

What evidence of learning do I ask students to share?

  • Students take notes with a partner on cinematic scenes and techniques.
  • Students view and comment on videos from the NYT Anatomy of a Scene series.
  • We discuss professional and student written mentor texts for writing about visual texts. 
  • Students write their own Anatomy of a Scene. This may be in response to a film OR an episode from a series.
  • Students compose an original scene individually or collaboratively.
  • Students read a variety of professional film reviews and we comment on craft moves such as writing a lead for a review and how those leads often show the writer’s bias. Discussion of bias is critical to future argumentative writing that we will do later in the year.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into writing critical commentary? Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

The Language of Flowers: Characters in Bloom

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Image courtesy of Posterspy.com

In an unparalleled school year…

One of the books that spoke profoundly to my students was Patrick Ness’ award winning story of love and loss, A Monster Calls. If you’ve never read it, this book would be an excellent addition to your summer reading list. I promise you’ll be moved by the story’s symmetry, truth, and Jim Kay’s breathtaking illustrations. In addition, the book is framed around four tales of life and death that are anything but average, all available on YouTube as short videos excerpted from the feature film starring Louis MacDougall, Liam Neeson and Felicity Jones.

One of the main characters in A Monster Calls is an ancient monster formed from a yew tree who comes to bring truth through stories and healing. Since much of the narrative is framed around a massive tree, it was natural to invite my students to analyze characters using the language of flowers or “floriography,” the Victorian era’s version of sending a snap or a text message. Thanks to Michael W. Smith & Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements for introducing me to this approach!

In Victorian society, one could express admiration or disdain for another person by sending a particular floral arrangement. Each flower had its own meaning, and in the context of our classrooms, this transfers seamlessly to literary studies. The beauty of this kind of response is that it works with any book study in which one of our goals is to challenge students to cultivate their knowledge of characterization and metaphorical thinking.

As Kate Roberts wisely suggests in her book A Novel Approach, one of the best things we can do as teachers of English language arts is give our students the books they need, and then use those books to teach them skills that can be applied to multiple texts, rather than teaching one book for weeks on end, plowing through every line and extracting all of the joy from the novel in the process.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Floriography is a creative way to invite students into analysis and inference. It begins by giving students access to charts (readily available online from a variety of sites) that link flowers with different meanings. For example, heliotrope means devotion, while a yellow carnation represents rejection. I use different charts to give students a guide for creating character “bouquets” composed of flowers that represent traits (both qualities and flaws) of principal or supporting characters in a whole class text, or a novel that a student has chosen to read independently or as part of a book club.

Usually, I will ask students to choose three flowers for a character, and then provide rationales for each of their choices. Often, students will end up choosing more than three flowers once they get into the “rhythm” of this type of response. Floriography also works well as a way of inviting students to compare and contrast characters.

While I was skeptical the first time I tried this approach, I learned that students appreciated having the tangible floral “frame” to explore metaphor and construct meaning. Soon, when we read together, they were asking if they could create character bouquets as a way of expressing important elements they noticed such as character motivation and relationships. 

A copy of the job sheet that I shared with students the first time we tried character bouquets with A Monster Calls is linked here.  Students enjoy creating character bouquets collaboratively as well as individually. My students Chloe and Josie wrote character bouquets linked here.

Character bouquets are also an excellent way to analyze character development in short stories when there is a particular character who changes dramatically in a short time, such as in Shirley Jackson’s “Louisa, Please Come Home,” a thriller that my eighth graders enjoy reading when we study Jackson’s iconic works.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into deeper thinking about story and characters?

Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She is currently writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

In Memoriam: Celebrating Memories in Writing Workshop

By Elizabeth Oosterheert: Contributing Writer

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Last week…

I attended a conference in my district for language arts teachers. One of the themes was the importance of sharing stories that tell the truth. I also have the privilege of working on a postgraduate study in adolescent literature this summer with a professor who has mentored me throughout my teaching career. I’ve had time and space to write and reflect, and to reconsider how vital it is to share true stories (including our own) with students in the context of our reading and writing workshops.

Come with me, and I will invite you into stories I’ve been reading that tell the truth, and collaborative, creative writing experiences for our students based on a variety of mentor texts.

Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue


Daniel Nayeri’s Printz Honor winning memoir Everything Sad is Untrue, defies classification. While it includes true tales from Nayeri’s youth in Iran and in refugee camps before his family finds asylum in Oklahoma, it is also a fictional nod to Scheherezade, the famed storyteller from Arabian Nights who uses story to preserve life. The writing is so riveting and arrestingly poetic that I often found myself moved to tears, folding pages and highlighting passages as I read so that I could quickly return to them later. The true hero of the story is Nayeri’s mother, whom he describes as a relentless force.

Nayeri writes, “I don’t know how my mom was so unstoppable…Maybe it’s anticipation. Hope. The anticipation that the God who listens in love will one day speak justice. The hope that some final fantasy will come to pass that will make everything sad untrue…Unpainful”(Nayeri 346). 

Photo Courtesy of Red Samurai on Zazzle

Paul Fleischman’s Whirligig

Fleischman, who is renowned for his Newbery medal winning book Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, also wrote Whirligig, the story of one teen’s transformation from a murderer riddled with guilt, to a prince of tides. 

After accidentally causing the death of Lea Zamora while attempting his own suicide, Brent Bishop’s penance, assigned by his victim’s family, is to create whirligigs and place them in each corner of the United States in their daughter’s memory. Though Brent doesn’t feel worthy of forgiveness, he considers that perhaps the decisions he made that led to Lea’s death don’t make him irredeemable. It’s possible that he is a beautiful mess just like everyone else. He also reflects on the longevity of the whirligigs he’s created, and the legacy he’s left behind.  “Maine summers, like dawn colors, were brief. Darkness and winter predominated…but his memorial would give off sound and color all year, holding back the tide of death…Lea would not be swallowed up”(Fleischman 125). Brent has morphed from a prisoner of his past to a prince of tides, free to roam and create a new life for himself from the ashes of his old one.

 Thornton Wilder’s Pullman Car Hiawatha, The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and the World War I Poets…

I’ve written previously for Three Teachers Talk about how much I enjoy sharing Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Our Town with students, but Wilder also wrote a plethora of shorter plays beginning when he was a teenager longing for distraction from the monotony of algebra. He composed a variety of what he called Three Minute Plays for Three Persons, and one-act plays including Pullman Car Hiawatha, a play that was in many ways a prototype for Our Town, and playlets like The Angel That Troubled the Waters. 

What’s fascinating about these plays is the way that they mirror human life by illustrating the miraculous in the mundane. They invite us to recall that even when we might feel like we’re in the gutter after an exhausting year of teaching, the stars are still shining. We only have to look up to see them. 

Reading Wilder’s plays, famous World War I poetry, and letters written by a relative of mine who died in the Battle of the Argonne inspired me to write my own short play recently (an excerpt is linked here).  

This year, during our study of stage and page poems, I would like to invite students to use a combination of World War I poetry and several of the poems that we read by living poets, to write their own scripts. This will give students an opportunity to write collaboratively from mentor texts, and to blend narrative, poetry, and maybe even pieces of their own life stories that might otherwise be lost to history and imagination.

World War I Poet Rupert Brooke

Poetry Foundation has excellent resources for delving into the work of World War I poets such as Rupert Brooke, whose movie star looks

 and ability to capture public sentiment in the early days of the war, gave him mythical status during his brief lifetime. Other poets whose work has endured include Edward Thomas, and Wilfred Owen. One of Owen’s most famous poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” has many different recordings on YouTube that are fantastic for classroom use. My favorite is this version performed by British actor Ben Wishaw. 

I hope that your summer is filled with opportunities for relaxation, and also with reading of stories and poetry that move you with their beauty and honesty, and will in turn move your students in their reading and writing journeys.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She is currently writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Tried and (Still) True: An Architectural Approach to Writing

Helen Becker

If you know me, you know that I am a Brene’ Brown fan. No, take that back. I’m a huge Brene’ Brown fan. Brown helps me make my life make sense, both personally and professionally. Brown’s work as an ethnographic researcher influenced my research in educational best practices. As I began my doctoral research in self-efficacy and perceptions of college and career readiness among high school students, I gravitated to Brown’s experiences in grounded theory. Grounded theory, she writes, evolves from people’s lived experiences rather than from experimentation to prove or disprove theories.

Brown adds, “In grounded theory, we don’t start with a problem or a hypothesis or a literature review, we start with a topic. We let the participants define the problem or their main concern about the topic, we develop a theory, and then we see how it fits in the literature.”

Reflecting on these statements, I had an “A ha!” moment: much the same happens in the writing process when a teacher allows students to authentically express their thoughts and ideas. We create opportunities for our students to start with a topic – maybe a person, place, or a moment – and see where the writing takes them. Then we add layers and layers of instruction to shape the first draft into new drafts and eventually, maybe, into various writing products. A poem? Perhaps. An essay? Form follows function.

We teach writers how to bend their writing into new and different forms rather than generating prompt after prompt after prompt for students to write in circles of nothingness.

So how does Brene’ Brown fit into this blog post? Brown’s May 4th Dare to Lead podcast features author and leadership expert, Douglas Conant, and his new book (with Amy Federman) The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights. Conant’s book, like many featured by Brown, has high priority on my “To Read Next” list. In the podcast, Conant discusses the importance of a strong foundation to guide us through times of uncertainty. Times like now. Our experiences, Conant states, are a blueprint for our future.

Brown and Conant’s discussion intersected my own thinking as I pondered the next installment of “Tried and (Still) True” for Three Teachers Talk. What came to mind? Blueprinting.

Blueprint writing from an equity stance means considering spaces other than the “traditional” blueprint layout.

Tried and (Still) True – June 2021

This month, I’m sharing The Blueprint, modified from a lesson learned by many Abydos teachers, with credit for the original lesson going to Dr. Joyce Armstrong Carroll in the first edition of Acts of Teaching and Peter Stillman in Families Writing. While the original lesson described in Acts of Teaching calls for a house-esque foldable, over the years, I modified the lesson to have students think about any dwelling space (a home, a basketball arena, a car) where they could envision a blueprint. Modifying the lesson in this way meets the needs of students who may not have a place to call home but rather a place where they feel at home.

Here’s a rough sketch of The Blueprint lesson cycle:

We begin with the concept of a blueprint: what is a blueprint, who uses it, what it communicates, and why it is important? We look at sample blueprints and engage in some inferential thinking based on what the blueprint communicates between and beyond the architect’s blue lines.

Then I invite students to think about a space that is important to them. We might draw on previous pre-writing activities such as “People, Places, Moments” or an A to Z list. I encourage students to think about spaces other than a house: one student drew the dashboard of his beloved vintage (beatup) Camaro while another chose the principal’s office because he spent a lot of time there. Before students land on a place to sketch, I model how I sketched the blueprint of my grandmother’s house in Longview, Texas. I tell them how the details you can’t remember don’t matter. What matters is what you remember. I also remind them this isn’t Art class. I’m not grading the accuracy of the drawing.

Once students get their own blueprint generated, I have them focus on one aspect of the blueprint where they can add more detail: what is on the walls? Is there furniture? Plants or trees? Photos? This line of inquiry generates more details to add to the blueprint.

For example, some student-writers feel more comfortable on the basketball court or soccer field.

Then I invite students to write about the connections they feel to this space or to one aspect of the space they just drew. These connections may turn into a narrative or an informative piece or a poem. Form follows function.

One year, a student blueprinted my classroom. He wrote, “In Mrs. Becker’s classroom, I can be myself. I can walk in the door, sit in my desk, look at the pictures of her family, and I feel like I am part of her family too.”

Carroll says in Acts of Teaching, blueprinting “allows students to recreate places that hold memories worth writing about” (18). It is in these memories that stories come back to life from the perspective of the writer, now a few years older and hopefully wiser. Collecting these stories on paper, what Brene’ Brown calls “storycatching,” becomes a means to understand our past and use our memories, both positive and negative, to guide our writing and shape our future selves.

About the author:

One time I blueprinted my Moscow kitchen and wrote about scorching quinoa and testing the bounds of international relations.

Dr. Helen Becker has used blueprint writing as a pre-writing vehicle in nearly every high school ELA course she has ever taught, accounting for roughly 16 years of her own blueprint stories! She has blueprinted about life in her tiny Moscow apartment (pictured here) with her husband as well as the layout of the #8 hole – her nemesis – at Leland Country Club. In her current role as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas, area, she is more likely to blueprint her two-screen Excel spreadsheet dashboard than the dashboard of her car.  Her newest blueprint story though? Designing the guest room of her new home to welcome her first grandson for a visit at the end of June. The library of children’s books continues to grow by the day.

Ode to Moving

The Beckers are on the move again, which means boxes. Lots of boxes.

I’m no stranger to moving boxes, having packed and unpacked thousands of them over my lifetime. I’ll never forget moving to Seattle, Washington, shortly after my college graduation. Seventeen boxes shipped via Greyhound Bus – yes, leave the driving to us Greyhound Bus – full of blazers with shoulder pads, photo albums, stuffed animals, and books. Lots of books.

It’s hard to believe now that my life fit into 17 boxes then. I’ve added a few more boxes of memories since that first big move to Seattle when boxy blazers were in. Very in.

According to my memory and Mapquest ®, the latter certainly more reliable than the former, I’ve made ten significant relocations, adding up to 20,083 miles moved. With each move comes the sober reminder that while our possessions can be put in boxes to arrive, hopefully unscathed, at our next destination, our memories fade over time, the photograph of what we left behind becoming a little less clear with each passing day, week, and year.

That’s where my writing finds me today – possessions in boxes and memories of the last 20,083 miles of my life still (thankfully) vivid and poignant.

Not calculated in my frequent mover statistics are the eleven miles I moved in Summer 2019 from Clear Creek to Clear Brook High School, and then a few months later, the seven miles I moved from high school teaching to an administrative position in the Learner Support Center of Clear Creek ISD.

When I left the classroom, I gave away most of my teaching books. But there’s a box labeled “Not ready to get rid of yet” still lurking in my garage, wondering if it will ever go back to a school, wondering why its owner can’t bear to get rid of the contents

Enter the brilliant, sweet, encouraging Amy Rasmussen.

When Amy Rasmussen approached me about writing regularly for Three Teachers Talk, I voiced some concern as to my relevancy, especially since I’m not in the classroom anymore. “Amy,” I emphasized, “I’m in the Assessment Office now.” As if that retort meant I wasn’t qualified to write about writing anymore. But that’s when I zeroed in on the boxes of my teaching life, the years and years of lessons that, even in a new paradigm of pandemic-era teaching, are tried and still true.

So that’s what I’m calling my segment: Tried and (Still) True. The first Monday of each month, I will recap a lesson from my teaching past that still has impact today, a timeless lesson available for teachers to adapt and make their own, much as I did many years ago with my own lessons.

Tried, and (Still) True, Monday, May 3, 2021

“When I Read, I Feel…” List Poem adapted from the brilliant mind of another mentor of mine, the late Shelly Childers.

When I taught Junior English at Deer Park High School – South Campus, many of my students rediscovered their love for reading. Some actually realized for the first time that they liked reading after dreading it throughout previous years of school. And, well, some still hated reading no matter how hard I tried. Regardless, at the end of the school year, instead of having students write a benign reflection paragraph, I had students compose a poem based off a list of adjectives describing their reading lives. Here’s a rough idea of how I paced the lesson:

I began by inviting students to list three (3) adjectives describing how they felt when they read. Of course, I modeled a few words of my own, but since we had previously done some writing with Ruth Gendler’s Book of Qualities, students already had a descriptive vocabulary. After waiting and conferring with students as they thought and wrote, I then invited students to think about the first word they recorded (we called it Word A) and then write three (3) statements that said more (I always referred to that step as say “s’more”) proving the range of their emotions, comparing their feelings to something else, and of course, modeling with my own example. I repeated the instruction for Word B and Word C. I next modeled how to take what we had just written and express it in poetic fashion. When I nudged students to do this next step on their own, the magic happened. Students had words to describe their feelings, and in the end, I got an honest, perhaps too honest, self-assessment of each student’s reading identity.

Teacher note: In most cases, students could generate some surface-level emotions for the first two describing words, Word A and Word B. It was when I asked students to come up with a third word, Word C, to describe their feelings for reading that I hit a core of emotions reflecting a student’s authentic experiences.

Teachers can easily adapt the “When I read, I feel _____” invitation to different tasks: reading, writing, researching,…even moving! Here’s my opening stanza from a work-in-progress:

When I move, I feel free.

I ride the bus in a foreign country,

            my new home,

            making new friends with my kind eyes and a smile.

            No language skills, just an open mind

            and open heart.

            Open to new adventures.

I bet you’d like to see some student samples, wouldn’t you? I have a few, but guess where I’ve kept them all these years?

You guessed it. They are in the box of things I just can’t bear to get rid of yet. If ever.

About the author, Dr. Helen Becker

Helen Becker currently serves the education community as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas area. Prior to being a numbers and stats girl, Dr. Becker taught all levels of high school English for Deer Park and Clear Creek ISDs. Maybe you’ve attended a workshop facilitated by Dr. Becker, or perhaps you’ve been in her Reading/Writing workshop sessions. Or maybe she was your high school English teacher. Regardless of your relationship, you probably know that Dr. Becker wants nothing more than for you to take her ideas, make them your own, and bring powerfully authentic writing experiences to your own classroom. If you want more information on this Tried and (Still) True lesson cycle, feel free to e-mail her at beckerhelenc@gmail.com. She hasn’t packed her computer yet, so it’s all good.

By the way, Dr. Becker really is on the move, this time to a house down the street more fitting for new grandparents!

If you enjoyed this post, read this one from Shana Karnes entitled Mini-Lesson Monday:  Imitating Poetry: https://threeteacherstalk.com/2015/10/26/mini-lesson-monday-imitating-poetry/

Shake the Dust: Writing an Epilogue Poem

Faith, Rhett and Deacon on stage in November for a production of Copperfield, now a favorite memory…

This is for the bus drivers driving a million broken hymns. This is for the men who have to hold down three jobs simply to hold their children. This is for the night schoolers, and the midnight bike riders who are trying to fly. 

Shake the dust….Anis Mojgani

Shake the dust. My students and I have been reflecting on what it means to be “dust shakers” during a year when we’ve all experienced “broken hymn” moments. This spring, as our time in writing workshop draws to a close, I’ve asked my students to cultivate their writing gardens by composing what I call an “Epilogue Poem,” a reflective piece about an element of their journeys as eighth graders. 

Our mentor poems for Epilogue Poetry are:

“The Golden Shovel” by Terrance Hayes:  (If you’re not familiar with Golden Shovel poetry, check out this New York Times article for suggestions on how to write a Golden Shovel Poem using a newspaper headline as a mentor text!)

“Remember” by Joy Harjo (Thanks to Oona Marie Abrams and Go Poems for suggesting this poem!)

“The Breath of Life” by Scott Myers: This poem is about the inestimable value of every breath.

“A Long and Happy Life” by Delta Rae (Thanks to Brett Vogelsinger for introducing me to this song!) In addition to playing the song, I like to share this behind the scenes video with my students because band members talk about using book titles as mentor texts, childhood artifacts,  and  discuss what having a “long and happy life” means to them. This inspires my students in their thinking about abundant life as they write their poetry.

“Shake the Dust” by Anis Mojgani: This beautifully written spoken word gem speaks to anyone who has ever felt marginalized.

After listening to the mentor poems, discussing craft moves, and making annotations throughout the week, we take the next step into writing a poetic reflection on any of the following:

  • A “watershed moment” in our lives. I define “watershed” as a moment that alters the trajectory of life such as a birth, death, divorce or separation, etc. While I would never obligate a student to write about a watershed, many choose to do so after a whole year of writing together.
  • Something we’ve learned during the pandemic
  •  A  favorite elementary or middle school memory
  •  A tribute to someone who has mentored us
  • What it means to have an abundant life
  • A reflection on our families

 We use Wakelet to curate golden lines from our favorite mentor poems and then try writing our own lines modeled after the mentor or simply publish an idea that we have for a poem.

My student Daiva posted:

 I chose this golden line from “Shake the Dust” :”So when the world knocks at your door, turn the knob and open it up, and run into its widespread, greeting arms.” I chose this line because the writer makes the world sound like a person. This line reminds me that the world will always welcome us, though we may hesitate at first. I liked all of our mentor poems, but this one spoke to me the most…

Natilia wrote a few of her own lines using “Remember” as a mentor text:

Remember the night sky.

Remember the look of it at 10’o’clock on a summer evening

With the breeze blowing in your face…

I wrote beside my students by posting on Wakelet, and then sharing a draft that I was composing using the Scott Myers piece as a mentor.  A portion of my poem, “Alive and Breathing,” is linked here.  Students will use the Wakelet posts as a springboard for their rough drafts.

April is the perfect time to shelter in poetry with our students, and to reflect on the joys and challenges of this “broken hymn” season in our learning lives.  Epilogue poetry compels eighth graders to capture their favorite memories, before they’re lost.

What are your favorite ways to shelter in poetry?


Elizabeth Oosterheert teaches 8th grade language and theatre arts in Iowa. She  loves writing beside students and sharing the stage with them.  Her favorite stories are Our Town, The Outsiders, and Peter Pan.  

Beyond Hillbilly Elegy: Books for Country Boys

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Bull with a few of his favorite books

I’ve been thinking about one of my former students recently, wondering how he’s doing.  His name was Logan, but everyone–his family included–called him Bull.

I’ve been thinking about him because I had him in class for two years, and it took me a long time to realize I’d been recommending all the wrong books for him.

With the recent popularity of a book like Hillbilly Elegy (which has caused quite a stir here in Appalachia) I’m reflecting on how it’s a book I probably would’ve recommended to Bull.  Like the many other “country” books I’d offered him, figuring the text had a character he could actually relate to, I think Bull would’ve hated it, as many of my friends here in West Virginia have.  I haven’t had a chance to read it, but my peers and students alike who have say it’s too much of a stereotype of Appalachian culture, that it paints Appalachia much too negatively, and that it in no way captures the beauty of our mountains, music, or lifestyle.

I had a hard time getting Bull interested in reading, but boy, he’d write.  He wrote beautifully about the country he lived in, the simplicity of his family life (he showed me videos of teaching his barefooted three-year-old brother how to operate a push plow on their farm), and his love of hunting.

I think no book can capture the kind of love that a kid like Bull has for his own heritage, and I didn’t realize that when I offered him book after book that I thought had a “similar” kind of character for a protagonist.

But, in his reading life, Bull was a different kid last year.  He was a senior, about to enter the real world and acutely aware of his need to be prepared for it.

When I talked to him at the end of last school year, he described his junior year reading life as “shitty.”  I asked him why, and he said, “cuz I was lazy.”  He read two books all year, and when I talked to him about this, he laughed sheepishly.

Last year, he’d read 13 books and was in the midst of his 14th–Monuments Men by Robert Edsel–when I went on maternity leave.  I think he read 17 books by the end of the school year.  Before I left, I talked with Bull about his reading life.  We’d discovered his love of war books with American Sniper.  “My great grand-pap was in Vietnam, and I want to read about what he went through,” Bull explained, gesturing to his stack of books.

I also asked him how he felt about reading.  “It calms me,” he told me.  “It gives me something to do.”

It calms me.  I still remember him saying that to me, sitting in my classroom with the back door open, where a spring breeze wafted in and the sounds of kids eating lunch outside could’ve been a huge distraction.  But as Bull reflected on what reading did to him, the act of thinking about books took him away from our classroom and into a place of relaxation.

I loved watching reading transform Bull.

From war biographies, Bull moved to war fiction, then to books in verse, then to graphic novels, then to a variety of nonfiction titles.  He eschewed books about country life, popular fiction, and YA novels all year.

I’m thinking about Bull now as I reflect on the mirrors, windows, and doors we ask students to walk through in their reading lives.  I’m thinking about him as I reflect on Pernille Ripp’s plea for us to stop grading independent reading.  I’m thinking about how I approached Bull first with books I thought of as mirrors, but he was craving windows and doorways all along.  I’m thinking about how his whole junior year, he got 2/10s on reading logs, and I’m thinking about what a colossal mistake that was on my part.

So, last spring, I asked Bull to compile a list of his favorite books, and the draft has been sitting in my WordPress sidebar ever since.  I share it with you now to remind you that this list, a list for “any country boy,” in Bull’s words, is a list of books set far beyond the mountains of Appalachia–and represents a story that can never be told with an independent reading grade.

  1. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell – “This was an amazing book.  It was a true story of a Navy SEAL, and his whole team got attacked in an ambush and he was the only one that lived.  Just the things that he gives you is like standing in war–it’s just amazing how something can give you so much detail that it seems to be real.”
  2. Article 5 by Kristen Simmons – “It was the end of the world basically, and there are a few kids running away from the people who were going to kill them.  It was also a really detailed book so I could imagine what the new world looked like.  I liked that book a lot.”
  3. Perfect by Ellen Hopkins – “This book was all about everything people give up to be perfect.  The whole time I was reading it, I just thought, nobody’s perfect–what is wrong with these people?  But it made me understand everybody else better.”
  4. The Auschwitz Escape by Joel Rosenberg – “Hitler ruled this book.  It was about war from a prisoner’s point of view, and it gave lots of detail about what he went through and what Hitler forced him into.  I would never have wanted to be part of World War II as a soldier or a prisoner.  That was some crazy shit.”
  5. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson – “This one was really hard to understand compared to the other WWII books I read.  I picked it for my challenge book, and it was about what happened in Russia during World War II.  It taught me more about writing than about war, honestly.”
  6. Watchmen by Alan Moore – “This was my first graphic novel and I liked that it was and was not about war, at the same time. It was kind of about the cold war, but through the fighters’ eyes and not the politicians or the history books.”
  7. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis – “Well this book was nothing like the movie, but I wanted to read the book after I saw the movie.  It’s about a football player that came right out of the Bronx, basically had no mom, and he just went from clear down to about nothing to making millions of dollars a year playing in the NFL.  I got inspired by him how you can come from nothing to the NFL and you can do anything you put your mind to.”

Bull now works for the water company here in West Virginia, still lives on a farm…and still reads.  And the song of his reading life is so much broader than a hillbilly elegy.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.

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