Tag Archives: workshop pedagogy

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.  

How Can I Create a Culture of Reading?

Guest Post by Alex Murphy. I’m sure Shana, Lisa, and I have a ton of ideas for this new teacher, but we’d like to know your ideas. Dear TTT Reader, please read Alex’s post and share your thinking:

We have a chant in my English I classroom.  Every class before we begin our day’s work, I summon my best Nick Saban bellow and ask my students, “What’s our theme?”

“Stories have power!” they respond, sometimes with gusto, other times a bit more sluggishly.

Regardless of the level of enthusiasm, I have taught the kids to respond this way because I believe it to be deeply, potently true.  Drawing on the teaching of my all-time favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe that stories indeed have more power to communicate truth and combat lies than even the best-structured arguments our expositors have to offer.  As Tolkien said in “Mythopoeia”:

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray

from gazing upon everlasting Day

to see the day-illumined, and renew

from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.

As Shana Peeples reminded us in her keynote speech at the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts Annual Conference [this weekend], stories—“mirrored truth,” as Tolkien calls them—indeed have power to combat the Doublespeak we hear so often from the halls of power.  “Stories are political tools,” she reminded us.  It is a lesson well worth remembering.

But dearly as I hold these principles about the unmatched power of stories, the Friday afternoon workshop hosted by Holly Genova and Amy Rasmussen convicted me that I have not yet created a culture of reading in my room—a community of readers in which students devour books with purpose and swap stories with joy.  As I listened to Holly and Amy discuss the power that reading choice has in their classrooms, the desire to cultivate a similar culture in my own classroom washed over me.  Indeed, I was inspired to start right away.

It took about seven seconds for my inspiration to dissolve into fear.  I froze, half-way through tossing Monday’s lesson plans off the balcony, as the scenarios hit me one after the other:  What if I can’t convince my students that reading is important?  What if I don’t have time to encourage independent reading and also teach the standards sufficiently?  What if my administrators don’t get on board? What if my own inadequacies as a reader start to show through?   What if I fail?

This is my first year teaching; I don’t even have a decent classroom library.  It feels like an awful risk to undertake a paradigm-shift from assigned reading and direct instruction to instructing through independent reading, especially when the English I STAAR test is seven instructional weeks away. However, if my mission is to convince my students that stories have power, nothing could be more important.  So, to the wonderful educators at Three Teachers Talk, I have several pressing questions:

  1. How should I start the work of creating a culture of reading in my classroom this deep into the year? What should be my first step in the transition?
  2. How can I undertake this shift and still ensure my scholars are equipped to perform well on the skills-based assessments they will take in so short a time?
  3. I want to show my administrators the benefits of this shift while also acknowledging the risks. How should I communicate this plan to them?

Amy and Holly put together a career-altering professional development session this weekend, and now it’s time to capitalize.  Any thoughts you have on the best way to do this will help me.


Alex M.G. Murphy

Alex M.G. Murphy teaches English I and U.S. History in the beautiful community of southeast Fort Worth, where he lives with his wife Rebekah and pit bull Sullivan. He is a graduate of Rice University.


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