What I Did at the Young Authors Conference

I’m sharing this not because it’s some stellar presentation, but because it’s always so helpful to me when people share the activities they do at school visits. I wouldn’t copy anything exactly, but it gives me good ideas and let’s me know what’s realistic.

At the Young Authors Conference, I taught 3 sessions per day, 50 minutes per session, to kids from 4th-8th grade. And never knew exactly which age I’d have (or mix of ages, usually) at any given time.

The theme of the conference was Writing: A Passport to New Horizons. I decided back in March, when I was invited to participate, that I’d do something based on my Scotland trip, which would happen between then and the YAC. The only rule, really, was to tie into the theme and get kids participating.

I wanted the kids to have something to take home, some finished (or at least started) piece of writing. And I wanted to incorporate something from Scotland itself, which I kept in mind on our trip. Here’s what I ended up doing:

After a 30-second intro of me, I read 3 poems (which I varied depending on mood and apparent age range of kids in room) and asked them to listen for what the three poems had in common.

The answer was that they were all told from a first-person pov from objects. They were mask poems. I briefly tied this into the theme, pointing out that creative writing allows you to imagine yourself as anything and anyone around the entire world, which helps you feel connected and understand other people’s points of view.

Then I told a little bit about my trip to Scotland. I talked a bit about its brutal history and castle life and sieges. During this, I shared about 5 pictures from my trip.

I told the kids to shut their eyes and “Picture yourself as this castle. It’s grey, misty. Your stone walls are damp and cold. There are rumors that an attacking army is headed your way to overtake you. Guards are watching. The army is preparing. The prisoner is moaning. You hear the screams of the attackers.”

Then we broke into pairs. Pairs in the front row brainstormed seeing words. Next row hearing words, etc. We spent just a couple of minutes brainstorming vivid, specific words to possibly use in our group poem.

We made a list on the board of some of their favorite words. 

Then we left that for a moment, and I asked, “Now, what’s the number one rule of writing a good poem?”

Talked about various answers and then shared that it was a trick question, because there is NO number one rule. Poetry doesn’t have hard and fast rules. This is wonderful. But also terrifying.

I told them that sometimes I like to write in poetic forms (and I gave them a handout summarizing 4 forms I like to write in). We worked on a cinquain, which I briefly explained, and then shared a couple of examples of. A cinquain is five lines long. Each line has a certain number of syllables: 2 4 6 8 2
We were going to combine two things: mask poem and cinquain. And we were going to do it fast!

On the board, I wrote down the group poem the class wrote, letting a different kid write each line. Sometimes we had wrong syllable counts and did a little on-the-spot revising. 

Here’s one group poem:

I see
weapons clashing,
men running everywhere,
the blood of vicious soldiers

No peace

Then the kids wrote their own individual poems. They had two choices. They could write a completely different poem from the castle’s point of view.

Or they could write from the point of view of the Loch Ness Monster.

I shared a little about the Loch Ness Monster, my cruise on Loch Ness, showed about 5 pictures again.

I had them think about: You are the Loch Ness Monster, which I unfortunately don’t have a picture of! How do you feel in the water? Are you quick or slow? Smooth or rough? How does the water feel against your skin? What does the loch water taste like (it’s fresh water)? Who has seen you? How do you feel about it? How do you feel about those boats going by overhead, all day long, filled with people looking for you.

On their handouts, I had kids write down their narrator (castle or Loch Ness Monster) and the mood or personality of their narrator. Then they brainstormed words for a couple of minutes, and then they started writing their poems.

They only had about 5 minutes to write their poems. I emphasized throughout that we were doing speed poetry just to try something new and have a complete project, but usually it takes lots longer to write a poem!

Then I called them up a row at a time to prep their paper. I had a blue sheet with a white masking tape X on it to represent the Scottish flag. They wrote Scotland in the top quadrant, licked and stuck a stamp from Scotland in one quadrant, and taped a miniature playing card from Scotland into a third quadrant.

While their row was NOT up at the front, they had a few minutes to check their poem, change a few words, ask me for spelling help, etc. When they were ready, they used a black felt-tip pen to write their poem in the bottom quadrant.

That’s what 95% of the kids did. I had a few kids who were dying to write rhyming poems, and though I encouraged them to try a cinquain and explained why it was good to stretch and try new kinds of poems, I also told them if they had a poem of any kind other than a cinquain that wanted to come out, that was fine. I also let them know they could wait and copy their poem onto the page later if they wanted to work on it more.

Kids who wanted to read their poems out loud had the chance to do so the last few minutes of class. Then I rounded up supplies, handed out pencils with Poem-Maker on them, and shooed them out the door!

The kids did a great job!

Overall, this workshop worked really well. If I use it again, I will simplify it a bit. No one segment was too hard for the kids, but it was a lot of info to get into 50 minutes.

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