Wordplay Poems in Your Classroom

Last week, I taught all week at Success Beyond the Classroom’s Young Authors Conference in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. I love this event every year. It’s an opportunity for me to lead the same writing workshop 12 times in a row with 4th-8th graders, mostly kids who are strong, enthusiastic writers. This year, I ended up with two different lesson plans, because the project I attempted Tuesday and Wednesday just needed more time than we had in our sessions. Even with tweaking and shortening, I was not quite satisfied. (I’ll share that project next week, though, because it is still a great classroom project–it just needs more than 30 minutes of writing time!) But here’s what I did on Thursday and Friday. I loved it! I’m going to share the process here, with a few samples, and then I’ll post pictures of all the student work from Thursday and Friday over the next two days.

First, of course, I introduced myself, we did an ice breaker (most of the kids in each session are strangers to each other and me). Then I shared a little about my philosophy about writing, rough drafts, etc. Low pressure. No wrong answers. Playing with words. No judgment.

Then we got into the Wordplay Poetry Project. This was based on Nikki Grimes’ challenge at Michelle Heidenrich Barnes’ Today’s Little Ditty blog. Here are the steps. Mine was sort of based on my trip to Ireland in March, and I softly played traditional Irish music in the background the whole time:>)

  1. Pick a topic for our group exercise based on an image. I used three Ireland photos: wolfhound, stalactite, and rock wall.
  2. Write a collaborative paragraph (using doc cam), with volunteers contributing a sentence at a time. About 5–6 sentences.
  3. Group paragraph
  4. This was a longer paragraph. Some were only 3 sentences.
  5. Hand out candy of different flavors. Each kid chose his or her topic based on the flavor of candy. Each flavor represented two words, and they could choose either ONE of those two words.
  6. I gave each student two choices.
  7. Give students a few minutes to write a quick paragraph about their chosen word. As they wrote, I called out optional prompts, like: What does it look like? How would you describe it to someone who’s never seen it? If you touched it, what would it feel like? What does it physically do? Or what do you do with it? What sounds do you associate with it? Any particular season or time of day/night that goes with it? What mood does this word put you in? Look at the word itself–what do you notice? (Maybe the “o“s in wolfhound remind you of a mouth open to howl, for example.)
  8. Read a few sample poems. I read a couple from Michelle’s blog (here’s a roundup of all the poems from the month) or a couple of group poems from previous sessions.
  9. As a group, create a rough draft poem from the paragraph we had written. We started our poem with: “A wolfhound is a ________________ word.” And I asked for a volunteer to fill in the blank. Then I asked for volunteers to give me a line, picking out a favorite bit from the paragraph or it could be something totally new. Reminded them that lines of poetry didn’t have to be complete sentences. Sometimes gave a prompt like, “It speaks of _____________.” We made short poems, usually just 4–5 lines. We started every poem with “A ___________ is a ____________ word.”
  10. Turn them loose to write their rough draft poems. I asked them to start with “A shadow (bell, baseball, etc.) is a _________________ word.” I just gave them maybe 3 minutes, as time was short!
  11. Now the real fun begins. Show them various mentor text poems (or parts of poems) based on a word from Michelle’s websites. Some of the poems I shared were these about sun, siren, lemon, ice, blanket, and scissors.
  12. Point out a poetic technique you like in each poem. As a class, we’d see if we could add that technique to our class rough draft (which I transferred to a whiteboard while they wrote their rough drafts). From the sun poem, we added alliteration; from icicle, personification and wordplay; from siren, internal rhyme; from lemon, a line about what the word would be an expert in, what it would know; from scissors, sound effects and those wonderful hyphenated phrases. We didn’t do every technique in each session. I picked and chose whatever I felt like and we usually did 2 or 3 mentor poems, depending on time. With each technique, after I called on a volunteer to add it to the group poem, I invited students to look at their own poems and try adding that technique there. I assured them that if they didn’t like what that technique added to their poem, they could cross it out later.
  13. The magic really happened when we started using the mentor text poems to find ways to add pizzazz to our own.
  14. Students make a nice copy of their revised poem on special paper. We recopied our poems onto blocks of patterned/colored cardstock, and they licked and stuck their Irish stamp on it. The theme of the conference was Writer’s Block and how to beat it. I had been in Ireland a couple of months previous, and we visited the Burren, a national park that is rocky and stark and barren-looking. An alien landscape. But in spring, it explodes with colorful wildflowers. I thought it was a great metaphor for what your brain feels like sometimes if you have writer’s block: barren, empty. But there are roots underground, waiting for you to tease them upward and be seen. I gave each kid an Irish postage stamp that features a Burren wildflower as a reminder to themselves.
  15. Invite students to share. Many, many students shared their work, and you could tell even some of the really shy and/or low-confidence writers were so proud of what they wrote. The variety of their poems, and the way their poems showed who they were by how they explored their word–this was one of the best group writing activities I’ve ever led. Thank you, Michelle and Nikki! I will definitely be doing this poetry activity again.

Over the next two days, I’ll share a LOT of student poems. Most of the kids who shared didn’t have time to do their nice copies in class because they were up front waiting for their turn, so some of them are a bit hard to read. But they are worth the effort:>)

26 Responses

  1. Laura,
    What a busy lady you have been. Thanks for sharing a terrific classroom lesson with us! So glad you had such a great time!

    1. Hoping June will be slightly less hectic:>) But the Young Authors Conference is always inspiring for me!

  2. Laura,
    What a busy lady you have been. Thanks for sharing a terrific classroom lesson with us! So glad you had such a great time!

    1. Hoping June will be slightly less hectic:>) But the Young Authors Conference is always inspiring for me!

  3. Thorough and fabulous! Terrific experience for the students and lucky us (teachers/writers/poets) who get to see how you implemented this. Thanks you, Laura. I love seeing the process and look forward to seeing more of the student poems.

    1. Thanks, Janet. I kind of felt like a sorcerer Thursday and Friday. When I switched to this lesson–poof! The magic began.

  4. Thorough and fabulous! Terrific experience for the students and lucky us (teachers/writers/poets) who get to see how you implemented this. Thanks you, Laura. I love seeing the process and look forward to seeing more of the student poems.

    1. Thanks, Janet. I kind of felt like a sorcerer Thursday and Friday. When I switched to this lesson–poof! The magic began.

  5. This is a great lesson. I am teaching a writing camp this summer and was planning on using the word play of Nikki and Michelle and now I have a great lesson to go with it. Thanks!

    1. Margaret–your campers will love it. You’re so amazing at encouraging poetry in your students, and this form/prompt just really works magic.

  6. This is a great lesson. I am teaching a writing camp this summer and was planning on using the word play of Nikki and Michelle and now I have a great lesson to go with it. Thanks!

    1. Margaret–your campers will love it. You’re so amazing at encouraging poetry in your students, and this form/prompt just really works magic.

  7. This is fabulous, Laura! Thank you for showing us how effective this exercise can be in the classroom. I’m honored to have played a part in these students’ creative journey and look forward to reading more of their work.

  8. This is fabulous, Laura! Thank you for showing us how effective this exercise can be in the classroom. I’m honored to have played a part in these students’ creative journey and look forward to reading more of their work.

    1. Thanks, Matt. It was awesome to play with words, but in a directed manner so that students came up with poems that surprised them:>)

    1. Thanks, Matt. It was awesome to play with words, but in a directed manner so that students came up with poems that surprised them:>)

  9. Terrific way to use a form and mentor texts–and so great that you did a group project as a lead-in to their own poems. I’m going to bookmark your plan and come back to it for certain!

    1. Awesome, Buffy! I always find the group poem key. Sometimes I try to demonstrate by writing a poem on my own, just to show them my thought process as I write, but usually the hands are shooting up and flailing as soon as I pause because they’re bursting with ideas:>)

  10. Terrific way to use a form and mentor texts–and so great that you did a group project as a lead-in to their own poems. I’m going to bookmark your plan and come back to it for certain!

    1. Awesome, Buffy! I always find the group poem key. Sometimes I try to demonstrate by writing a poem on my own, just to show them my thought process as I write, but usually the hands are shooting up and flailing as soon as I pause because they’re bursting with ideas:>)

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