“First I had cooked, but then I changed it to sauteed because it is more descriptive.” I smile to overhear this comment as I circulate among groups of students sharing the poem draft they wrote last night and one thing they learned about poetry or writing while doing it.
I’m excited because students are writing, are sharing their writing, and are talking about words and word choices. Earlier this week, as I discussed with several other faculty members Michael F. Graves’ The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction, I realized the chapter we were discussing--“Providing Rich and Varied Language Experiences”--was one of the things I was doing with my students in their current poetry unit. Then I wanted to capture exactly what it was that was working so well so I can do it again. I think this is it:
- Require (and give time for) students to pay attention to words. I’m helping my students focus better on word choice by asking them every so often to look back over the last several poems we read and record their favorite word, phrase, or image, along with a brief explanation of why they picked it. Initially, it was in class. Later, I sometimes asked them to do it at home.
- Design assignments where students use professional writers as models. In the anecdote in the first paragraph, we had read and discussed the poem “Mushrooms” by Margaret Atwood. Then I asked the students to pick a vegetable that they have some connection with--some special feeling, memory, or meaning--and explore that connection by writing a poem similar to Atwood’s that uses at least 2 literal, sensory images, at least 2 figurative images, and ending with what it is that the vegetable symbolizes to them.
- Give repeated, low-stakes opportunities to write and talk about writing. Students do a similar model draft poem 4 times throughout the poetry unit. The first time some were reluctant to share. By the third time a pattern had been established. No one complained or tried to wriggle out of reading their poem. In fact, students were anticipating sharing their poems and gave each other very positive reinforcement. All I did for marking was circulate while they shared, check that each had a draft, and give a completion grade.
- Model my own writing process. When I shared my vegetable poem draft, which contrasts canned and fresh asparagus, I told them one of my favorite words in it was slipped. I had first written “tasting like the can it came from,” and then switched it to “the can it slipped from” because while can and came had alliteration, came was really colorless as a verb, but slipped both sounded like and connoted the sliminess I was trying to communicate. Moments later I heard the student explaining why she’d changed cooked to sauteed. A connection?
I used to talk about paying attention to words, reading as a writer, and practicing writing, but seldom actually require and give time for students to do those things. I used to tell students that I wrote, but seldom showed them my process and choices. Of course it works better to do it than to talk about it. Athletic coaches and musical directors know it. The rest of us are slowly catching on.