On Friday, I shared just a few of the cool poems that 4th-8th graders came up with in my Young Authors Conference workshops. A few people asked about the process, so I thought I’d share the outline of what we did. Each session was only 50 minutes, which gave us 45 minutes tops for the whole thing.
1. Tell your neighbor one animal that you think is scary (and then take volunteers to share with the class)
2. Brainstorm verbs. We group-wrote some on a class list, I shared a verb Cloodle I had made. Then, on a handout, each kid quickly (they had 3 minutes) jotted down 30 verbs, 3 columns of 10 verbs each. They could use verbs off the list, the Cloodle, or just come up with their own–fast! It’s really important to do the verbs BEFORE they know exactly what they’ll be writing about. It’s the weird verbs that don’t match the topic at all that actually yield the most creative lines!
3. Share the poem “Night,” by C. Drew Lamm.
–C. Drew Lamm, all rights reserved
4) Ask the kids questions. What do you notice about this poem? Who likes it? Who doesn’t? What does it make you think of? Can Night really do all these things? Typically, kids notice the verbs starting each stanza, the length of each stanza and line, and sometimes the nouns ending each stanza.
5) Have a volunteer roll a die or pick a number from a hat (1, 2, or 3). Then write Fear at the top of that verb list on the handout.
6) Take one of the scary animals and write it on the board. Then ask for volunteers to share their first verb from list # whatever was chosen. Write five verbs on the board.
7) Explain you’re going to come up with a scary scene to inspire your poem about fear. Take that scary animal and, as a class, brainstorm a scene, one that makes your heart pound. Ask Are you alone or in a crowd? Is it day or night? What sounds do you hear? What might happen if this animals attacks you? What would it feel like? What’s the scariest looking part of the animal? Etc.
8) You, as the teacher, do your best to finish the lines started by the verbs on the board (though after you do 2–3, kids will start volunteering to finish lines, and that’s great!). You’re writing ABOUT fear, but you’re picturing that scary scene in your head and you’re using details from it. Emphasize to the kids that this is prewriting with no expectations. Some lines will rock. Some will stink. Just let your brain pour out details. You can decide if they work or not later. Here’s one example, where we brainstormed a scary scene with a snake in the night desert.
chases me over the sand
lunges with poisonous fangs
sees with eyes like diamonds
elopes with danger, slithering away
smells like horrid acid
9) Instruct the kids to come up with their OWN scary mental scene. It could be about that animal they came up with or about something totally different. I throw out some other scary things, some smaller (will Dad embarrass me by dancing at Taco Bell?), some medium (will this plane crash?), some huge (will my mom be able to beat cancer?) that other kids have shared. They can choose ANY fear they want, from something light-hearted, something make-believe, something really serious and overwhelming in their own lives…whatever they feel ready and inspired to use as inspiration. They quickly and quietly picture a specific scene. What do you see? Hear? Etc.
10) Then I give them 4 minutes to try to finish all 10 of their verb lines. It’s hard to do in 4 minutes. But the time pressure is good, too. Even if I had longer and could spread this lesson over two sessions, I would only give them 6 minutes max. It takes the pressure off of them a little. If I’ve only got 4 minutes, how good can she expect it to be, right? I remind them that some lines will come out great; others won’t. Don’t worry about it. Just spill it out!
11) I let volunteers share a single line they came up with.
12) They go through and pick their 3–4 favorite lines and circle them. This is fluid. A few kids picked more, a few picked less. Since they’re the poets, it’s their choice. But 3–4 generally works well. They’re looking for their strongest lines as well as lines that go nicely together.
13) They recopy these lines onto the outside of a small white envelope. They can change the order of the lines, change the lines themselves, and check spelling as they copy these lines. It’s kind of revision on the fly. They don’t have to change anything, but if something strikes them, they definitely can. They get 3–4 minutes for this.
14) Then we do the whole process all over again with Hope instead of Fear. They copy their Hope poems onto a neon-colored small index card, which goes inside the white envelope. I briefly say I chose this way to save the poems because Fear is easy to find, right there on the surface, and sometimes hard to get away from. But Hope is more beautiful, and we need to keep it tucked inside all the time.
15) At the end, I let kids who want to share one of their poems.
And that’s it. It’s a lot to pack into 45 minutes. If I were a classroom teacher, I’d definitely spread it over two sessions! But they do really well with those tight time constraints, too, and it makes it kind of gamelike, which relieves some of the pressure to produce something perfect. Throughout the whole workshop, I remind them that 1) they don’t have to share anything they don’t want to; 2) they are the poets and can decide on the words, the form, the line breaks, etc.; 3) this is a fun way to see what your brain comes up with, and you have to let the stuff you think is dumb come on out. If you write lots of stuff, even if you don’t like 90% of it, you’ll be pretty amazed by the 10% you DO like.