I believe in modeling writing for my students, as I have stated emphatically before; but let me just say how hard this is. And how embarrassing it can become.
My Creative Writing class had been working on poetry for a few weeks. On this particular day I was trying to create a phrase poem with my students, an exercise that I found in a book by Geof Hewitt called Today You Are My Favorite Poet: Writing Poems with Teenagers.
I asked each student to create a list of phrases in their writer’s notebooks. These could not be words; nor could they be complete sentences—therefore, I delivered a short grammar minilesson on the meaning of the term “phrase.” The phrases could be anything they had heard, said, or experienced from the time they woke up that morning until they came into the classroom.
After a few minutes of brainstorming, I went around the room, asking for each student to provide a phrase. We compiled this list:
So far, so good.
Enter my not-newfound but newly-declared-on-the-internet conviction that I should model writing for my students. Because I had recently written a blog post about this, I knew that I couldn’t chicken out.
I thought I had this down. I had the chart paper, the markers, a cup of coffee running through my system. What could go wrong?
I wanted the students to use the phrases to create a poem. This is not as restrictive as the found poem I demonstrated. Students can add words, change the order, manipulate the phrases, etc.
I stood in front of a blank piece of chart paper and looked at the list. The 10 pairs of eyes stared at me as I stared at the list.
My mind had left the building. I wrote the first phrase and tried to manipulate it. I worked through the rest of the phrases. I tried talking through the phrases as I wrote them on the paper.
I worked excruciatingly slowly as the students continued to stare at me.
This is what came out:
It’s okay to laugh. Or shake your head. Or sneer in disgust.
This is one terrible poem.
Did I mention they were staring?
What did I learn from this experience? I’m still working on that. Am I going to quit modeling writing for my students? Absolutely not.
Do I have a greater understanding of how frustrating the writing process can be? Do I have a greater humility at my own writing prowess? Do I have greater awe for poets? Do I have greater empathy for student writers?
So, do any of you have stories of lessons that just bombed? Share them, please, if you dare.
Hewitt, G. (1998). Today You Are My Favorite Poet: Writing Poems with Teenagers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
If someone sneers at you for this, you should pinch them on the nose. Hard. I have notebooks full of dead ends that are no better than this, though I probably didn’t stick with it as long as you did. 🙂 The lesson I’d take from this as a writer isn’t that I can’t write a poem, or I can’t write a poem when people are watching. But that the phrases that came out of that prompt didn’t find a very clear or interesting idea to form on.
This is often the kind of experience that encourages us to wait for inspiration. I tried and got nothing. But pushing deeper into the deeper in the direction people went can find a better start. Since people wrote about mornings, write some phrases about a very good or very bad morning you remember. What do you dread about mornings? What do you look forward to? This poem, while not great on its own, is great because it can lead to the next question, the next thing to try. It’s definitely not a dead end.
Thank you for the encouragement, Nathan! I think I learned from this that I 1. can’t multitask (ie. write and talk about what I’m doing at the same time) and 2. need a lot of time to think because most of my writing process is actually in my head.
I really would like to come back to this exercise and try it again. I could feel a few moments or a few phrases pulling at me; I need to sit down in a quiet atmosphere and try again.