Praising Everything at Young Authors Conferences

Week before last, I spent Tuesday through Friday at Young Authors Conferences here in the Twin Cities. I’ve been doing this for four or five years now, and I always enjoy it. The 4th-8th graders are, in general, very smart, enthusiastic, and excited to be college students for the day.

My poetry workshop was on praise poems this year.

Here’s what I did:

First, we read excerpts from several praise poems. I wanted to choose great poems with kid appeal that 1) didn’t rhyme, 2) used metaphor and simile, 3) in some cases, praised unusual subjects, and 4) in some cases, used really exaggerated, over-the-top language.

So, I shared and had students read aloud excerpts from:

“Hello, Moon,” by Patricia Hubbel
“Letter Poem to a Mailbox,” by Marjorie Maddox
“Ode to Mi Gato,” by Gary Soto
“Hymn to the Comb-Over,” by Wesley McNair

Students found what these poems have in common (no rhyme, lots of comparisons and other rich figurative language, lots of sensory language, praise something), and I explained we would write a group poem and then individual poems using those same features.

Then we brainstormed topics, just to give them ideas of how to come up with their own topics. So I wrote on the board (as students shouted them out) some examples of different categories of possible things to praise: favorite foods, favorite board/video/sports games, useful objects we don’t often praise but that make life easier (toothbrushes, dishwashers, pencils, etc.), things one particular student likes but maybe friends and family think they’re not so great (unmatched socks, funky hats, shrimp and peanut butter sandwiches), everyday things we see all the time but pay little attention to (grass, air, school buses), and things that really matter to us–that are important to us (dance, music, my family, grandmoms, books). They loved having this input!

Then I chose one topic of the board and we wrote a short group poem. I’d ask for a first line about how the object looked. If it was a flip flop, I borrowed a kid’s flip flop and wandered around the room with it. I asked them to exaggerate or use sensory language. So the line might be, “You are as silver as the sea at midnight.” And the next line, about texture, might be, “You squish under my feet like dependable tires, taking me anywhere I want to go.” Etc.

After a few lines of that, I set them to work on their own poems. First, I gave them a minute (yes, one minute) to brainstorm 8topics of their own. Most only come up with 4–5, but that’s great! Then they picked their topic.

We went through writing lines, one minute per line. I love using the timer and discussed with the kids why I do it. It forces them to just use what their brain spits out instead of judging their ideas on the spot. With unlimited time and white paper, so many kids just stare at it, with too many choices to choose from. This method gets kids writing stuff down fast, and THEN they can judge it and choose which lines to keep.

So we did that for 6 or 7 minutes. Time allowing, I would call on volunteers to share one line after every couple of minutes.

At the end, the kids read through their lines and decided which to keep and which just didn’t work as well.

Then they recopied their poems, keeping only the parts they wanted, onto an Ode reproducible I brought in or a blank piece of colored paper.

And then volunteers who wanted to shared their entire poems in front of the room.

The kids did a fabulous job! Amazing to see what they came up with in such a short time!

Friday I shared an Ode to Pho written by 6th-grader Elijah. I wanted to share more samples today, but my laptop won’t connect with my network, where the images are stored. Maybe I can do that Friday, instead.

If you’re interested in seeing what I’ve done in years past, click on the Young Authors Conferences (and its variations–gotta get my tags cleaned up!) tag in the list in the right sidebar.

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