Monday, April 12, 2010

Student poetry conferences

"Mrs. Kissner, look at my poem!"

Me: "Uhhh...."

For a long time, I was tongue-tied when students brought me their poems. I just didn't know what to say. Like many teachers, I was worried that my comments would somehow stifle their creativity. I didn't want to be the mean teacher who ruined a student's love of poetry.

But a lame, non-specific "Great job!" doesn't work very well, either. What about the poem is great? The fact that the child was able to put some words on the page? The fact that the student spent five minutes engaged on a task? If I don't know what was "good" about a student's piece of writing, chances are the student doesn't know either.

The fact is, I know that the students in my room are capable of writing poetry--pretty good poetry, in fact. In order to improve my commenting, I needed to think about what I like about poetry. I've found that the textbook Sound and Sense is a great reference. When I am about to teach poetry, I pull this book down from the shelf and reread snatches of it here and there. (As a matter of fact, my original copy bears the stains of many meals, as I will often prop it on the counter and read it while I cook.)

As I read students' poems and talk about them, I usually keep these questions in mind.

What is the main point of the poem?
Often, some kids will start out by writing poems with nonsensical rhymes: "Bubbles, bubbles, like to fly,/ Bubbles, bubbles, in the sky./Now I pop./Goodbye!" These writers think that the rhyming is the essence of poetry. For these writers, lots of hands-on, concrete experiences will help them attune their senses and get them writing about what they really see, instead of what they think they should write. In the past few weeks, I've had good luck with writing about tadpoles and bubbles.

Often, the conversation about an empty rhyming poem will include these questions:
-Tell me about your rhyming words. Why did you choose them?
-What are you telling the reader?
-What are you saying that the reader doesn't already know?
-Try observing ______ again. Write down all of the words that come to mind.

How does the poem look?
Young writers often jump into writing poetry by writing every idea that comes to mind. Their poems go from margin to margin, looking more like a paragraph than a poem. For these writers, it helps to have some copies of poems in different forms reproduced and readily at hand. (I really like the poems in Pieces by Anna Grossnickle Hines.)

-How is your poem different from this one?
-What can you do to make this look more like a poem?
-Which words should go on lines together? Which ones should be apart?

Which parts are the strongest?
Many poems are of varying quality--there are parts that are strong, and there are parts that are not as strong. I've taken to circling the really great parts. "I love this image/idea/personification," I tell the student. "How could you make the rest of the poem just as strong?"

Today, one student was writing about a bubble popping. She ended her poem, "I pop. Goodbye!!:)"

I said, "Do you think the bubble would be so happy about popping?"
She went back to her seat, thought for awhile, and added a word: "I pop. Sigh. Goodbye."
I said, "What a great change! Just one little word gave the whole line a different feeling."

-Which part of the poem do you like best? What do you think your readers will like best?
-How can you make the middle part stronger?

Often, it's the ending that trails off into nothingness. Students have an idea of how long the poem needs to be, and they write empty words to fill up space. For these students, I'll say, "I think that there's a place where the poem needs to end. Can you find it?" I said this twice today, and each time the student knew exactly where the poem should have ended.

-Do you think there is a better ending?
-How can you leave the reader with a really strong thought?
-I think your ending needs work. What can you do to make it better?

Is it consistent?
I love that my students are playing around with speaker. They are using different speakers in their poems, adding dialogue, showing different points of view. But sometimes they are so excited that they lose their focus. Today, I read several poems that abruptly changed speaker midway through. These changes were distracting and confusing to the reader.
-Who is the speaker in your poem? Is it the same the whole way through?
-How can you show the different voices in your poem? (One student cleverly thought to use different colors of marker--it worked! What a great solution.)
-How is the first part different from the second part?
-Where do you think a writer might get confused?

Well, it was a rushed morning, filled with lots of ideas and writing (and bubbles!), but it was productive. With some strong comments, I could guide my students toward writing even better poems.

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