As I mentioned yesterday, I led biopoem sessions at a Young Authors Conference all last week. The students wrote and shared amazing poems: a silly poem about brussel sprouts, a thoughtful poem about creativity, a heartbreaking poem about gender identity and fitting in, a scary poem about rats, a celebratory poem about soccer, and SO many more. Here, briefly, is the lesson plan I used.
First, I talked about how when you create, you fail. It’s inevitable. Even more than that, it’s necessary. Failure is necessary to the act of creation. You will write words and lines you decide you don’t like. That is totally fine. I shared with them pictures of some of my own creative failures (mutant mittens and a sketch of a raccoon that came out looking like Darth Vader bloated after an unfortunate dinner) and talked about how many of my poem first drafts do not lead anywhere. But they remain necessary. I think it’s really important for kids to hear this!
Then, we moved on to biopoems. I read a sample biopoem of mine (see yesterday’s post) and, in some sessions, some lines from student work. We chose a topic for a group biopoem–I offered up several images for prompts: firework, alligator, rocket, sailing ship, bunny, etc.
Before we started brainstorming for our group poem, I asked each student to write down 3 words to describe a baseball. Then I asked for a show of hands of how many people wrote the word “round.” And “white.” Usually, half or more of the group raised their hands. I explained that these common words are fine. They spill out of our brains first. They’re our gut reaction to a topic. We write them down to clear the way for more creative words to follow. There’s nothing wrong with common words, and we might use some in our poem. But if we use mostly common words, our work can start to sound all alike. So write the common words, but then push yourself to think of some more unique, specific words, too. Words that you think of but maybe the person next to you would not think of.
Then, I projected our padlet plus the photo prompt, and we brainstormed a list of 10–20 words, just to get our brains working.
Then, we looked at the structure of a biopoem (which I had briefly shown them earlier when I read my example):
Then, as a group, we wrote a quick, complete biopoem draft. I called one one or more students for each line, and I shortened some lines (only listing 1 or 2 rather than 3) because of time. Our actual time to complete this lesson plan, after intros and welcomes and before clean-up and dismissal, was only about 40 minutes, so we moved pretty fast.
I emphasized not judging our first draft and not worrying at this point about whether you’ve chosen the perfect word. That is for the revision process! The poems don’t always hang together, because so many people have input. One of our alligator poems, for instance, was mostly dark and dangerous, but it began and ended with the alligator’s name–Jeff Smith. I don’t worry about cohesion in these first drafts.
Once we finished the group poem, I asked students to choose individual topics. We focused on choosing something you have SOME opinion about. You might love it, hate it, fear it, desire it…any of those is fine. You just can’t be meh about it. I also assured them that all sharing would be voluntary, so they could write about whatever they chose.
Then students chose where to write their poems (journal, scratch paper, or some art paper/index cards I had brought in.
We did 2 minutes of brainstorming. They scribbled, and for people who were having trouble coming up with words, I tossed out prompts from this list:
One thing NOT on this list that the students really responded to was when I asked, “What detail or secret do YOU know about your topic that most people don’t know?” That got their hands moving!
Then we wrote shortened versions (because of time) of biopoems. They came up with their first and last lines first. There were several possibilities. 1) Take a word or phrase and break it up (fire-/bursting, The Night Sky’s/Lamp, Soaring/Tower). 2) Give it an actual name (S.S./Ruscoe, Jeff/Smith). 3) Use a pair of adjectives or synonyms or related words that you think make a strong opening and ending (Big/Strong, Bunnicula/Carrot). You never know what you might get!
Then, we wrote three middle lines. I had ping pong balls with numbers on them, and I randomly asked students to choose a ping pong ball and read the number out loud. They then wrote that corresponding line from the biopoem form. When we got to the final choice of line, that third one, just before the last name line, I told kids if they had been hoping a certain number was drawn, and it wasn’t, they could either do the one that was drawn or the one they were hoping for. So if they had strong thoughts about what their topic feared or loved or gave, they could for sure work those into the poem.
Line 3 from the biopoem form Son or daughter or child of X and Y was almost always my favorite line. Something about that, where they name two things essential for their topic to exist, almost always resulted in terrific, poetic-sounding lines!
Then students who volunteered could read their poems to the rest of the group. The kids did an awesome job all week of listening respectfully, sharing, and writing. I’ll share more of our group work and perhaps some student poems on Friday!