INSPIRING WRITING THAT MAKES YOU STAND UP AND CHEER

By Dawna Proudman

Reading strong poems, full of metaphor, imagery and feeling, will automatically trigger deep responses and inspire stronger writing.

I read Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” to a grade two class in downtown Toronto. After class, a boy waited patiently to speak with me. He spoke so softly I had to bend close to hear him. He smelled of unbrushed teeth and unwashed clothes. He solemnly told me he liked the poems I read, especially the one about the bird.

Read Pablo Neruda’s “Horses” in the winter months. “All at once, led out by a single man,/ten horses were stepping, stepping into the mist.” “Their necks were towers/carved from the stone of pride,/and in their furious eyes, sheer energy/showed itself, a prisoner inside them.”

There is a growing body of work by Spoken Word poets which often resonates with teenagers. Try Shane Koyczan’s “Inside the Lines” from Visiting Hours: “She had/bad hair/the worst I’ve ever seen/and bad hair was a disease/that affected mainly/grade eight girls/with a need to be accepted.” (This book comes with a CD.)

Read Helen Humphreys’ marvellously poetic prose, “1809″ from The Frozen Thames. This is a good example of how poetic writing can improve prose.

Invite poets into your classrooms. Our love of words is infectious.

Word Tickets

We all tend to use the words and phrases we’re most comfortable with over and over. Word tickets help us jump out of word ruts. Buy a box of word tickets at a scrapbook store or make your own by cutting words and phrases out of magazines and taping them onto “tickets” (I cut up paint strips from hardware stores).

Let each student pick one or two word tickets (without looking). Tell them to use these words at any point in their poems without worrying too much about it. In this way, you can introduce word tickets into any exercise.

A grade six boy in Thunder Bay wrote a haiku about sunset at the lake where he goes camping. After he read his poem, everyone including the teacher did a double take, then applauded wildly. Later his teacher told me he’d expected a poem about hockey. What made the difference was the word ticket this student had chosen randomly. The ticket said “beauty.”

Today My Name Is

(From Susan Wooldridge Goldsmith’s Poemcrazy)

This is a surprisingly effective way to help students relax and have fun with words. Use it to help students overcome feeling self-conscious. Students are more willing to read these poems out loud which makes it easier for them to read again later, after they’ve written something more personal.

Even though this exercise focuses on fun, the results are often profound.

Hand out the outline so the students only have to fill in the blanks. Give every student a generous handful of word tickets and tell them to choose phrases or words to fill in the blanks. Demonstrate by taking a ticket without looking. Insert the phrase into each blank, reading the sentence out loud, until you find a spot where it “feels right” (I describe this feeling as a little lift in my body’s energy).

“Today my name is Sensible Reasons.
Yesterday my name was Take It Away.
Tomorrow my name will be Freedom.”

Most students will catch onto this readily. With those who are struggling, ask them to pick up a word ticket from their pile and then read each line quietly to themselves, filling in the blank with the word ticket. “Which one feels right to you?” It doesn’t have to make sense.

TODAY MY NAME IS________________________________________
YESTERDAY MY NAME WAS_____________________________
TOMORROW MY NAME WILL BE______________________________
IN MY DREAM MY NAME WAS__________________________________
MY MOTHER THINKS MY NAME IS_______________________________
MY FATHER THINKS MY NAME IS_______________________________
WHEN I DIE MY NAME WILL BE__________________________________

HOME/COMFORT VERSUS CRAZY/UNCOMFORTABLE

Once students are comfortable with practice writing, write “Home/Comfort” at the top of one board and “Crazy/Uncomfortable” at the top of another board. Ask them to call out words that come to mind when they think about these topics. Write the words on the board, creating two word pools. Be careful to write words which could apply to either side in the middle, for instance, when someone says family, I tell them that my family more often than not made me uncomfortable but other people have families where they feel safe. The more honest I am with the students, the more I give them permission to be honest with me, and the truth has tremendous power. By writing the word “family” in the middle of the board, you can give the students permission to be honest in their writing.

Tell them about a place where you feel comfortable and write that on the board: your family’s cabin, your brown leather lazy-boy chair, or the Mountain Ash tree you used to sit in as a child. Tell them what you hate: brussel sprouts. Lies. Telemarketing.

Keep cuing them by asking what foods they love/hate. Sounds they love/hate. Weather they love/hate. Remind them to be specific. pronájem sídla . Don’t write down birds: ask what kind of bird they like.

Read Gregory Scofield’s “Heart Food.” Then “She’s Lived.” Or read “How Slow-Hand Lizard Died” and “Ode to Slow-Hand”from Joyce Sidman’s This is Just to Say, Poems of apology and Forgiveness.

Once there are two large word pools, invite everyone to write two free verse poems, one about something/someone/someplace where they feel most comfortable or at home and one about the place/things/people that make them the most uncomfortable. Encourage students to use the five senses, to be specific, to create a picture with their words, tell a story with their words, tell us how they feel.

Students sometimes write about losing a loved one or fear or pain. They write about siblings who pester them or how much they hate homework or school. It is important to validate their thoughts, feelings and experiences and that neither the form nor content of their poem is judged.

A grade six student in Thunder Bay wrote that her garage burned down. Another student wrote about her grandmother who had recently died. Good poems often trigger intense emotions. This is a good time to prompt empathy and build community by asking students: “Have you ever had an experience like that?” “Have you ever felt like that?”

Other Resources:

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Susan Wooldridge Goldsmith, Poemcrazy

Shane L. Koyczan, Visiting Hours

Pablo Neruda, Intimacies

Maya Angelou, Poetry for Young People

Paul B. Janeczko, A Kick in the Head, An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms

Gregory Scofield, I Knew Two Metis Women

Barbara Juster Esbensen, Dance With Me

Joyce Sidman, This is Just to Say, Poems of Apology and Forgiveness

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write

Helen Humphreys, The Frozen Thames

Dawna Proudman settled in rural Grey County, Ontario after enjoying various adventures, escapades and exploits in Ottawa, Kitchener/Waterloo, Dawson City and Toronto. She now enjoys the space and pace of rural life and the artist friendly community where she co-founded the Words Aloud Spoken Word Festival and the Highway 4 Writers’ Group. In addition to poetry, her writing includes scripts for stage and video, magazine articles, short stories, children’s stories and an as-yet-unpublished novel. Elements of Grace, a collection of her poetry, was published in 2005 . She is the editor of Saugeen Stories and Strong in My Skin. Dawna also creates whimsical papier mache sculptures. Her workshops for adults, teachers and children stimulate and encourage word play. Dawna is a student and practitioner of Aboriginal medicine and Transformative Mindfulness.