Sunday, May 3, 2015

Art and Word Mingle

One of my many celebrations this week came as an unexpected surprise. 

Last week was our first week of state testing, making our schedule way more topsy-turvy than it usually is (even for me). In between the test sessions, my goal was to keep our classroom activities easy-going, but to use time well. Like my colleagues across the country, I am trying to slow time down as I run out of days!

I accepted an invitation for my class to Skype with another group of fourth graders at Michele Knott's school in Illinois. Michele was incredibly well-organized and had a plan in place, leaving me to prepare my kids and fall in: we would read a few poems for two voices together with the Maine kids and the Illinois kids alternating, and then each group could share some of their poems with others. 

Uh, hold up. Share their poems? This was the onset of small panic attack. What did my students have to share?

My students had done a little bit of poetry writing in their weekly library special before vacation, but those haiku were mostly first-draft poems. You know, the kind you write when you're just trying out this new-ish, uncomfortable thing and, for the most part, any show of effort is close enough for now? I hadn't facilitated this learning. Did I think the students had haiku ready to share?

No, I knew. I wouldn't want to put them in a position of sharing first-draft work on the spot. I needed to give them time to practice writing, and they should know that the purpose of their writing will be to share with an audience.

Though this was in the back of my mind on Monday morning, it was purely happenstance that I lifted the screen of my computer and found myself looking at photo of a snake...and a three-line poem with the hashtag author Loree Griffin Burns. During our Monday morning class meeting to look at the week ahead, I shared the photo and Loree's haiku with my students. They applauded and expressed words of praise, and then someone said, "Isn't Loree the one who wrote Beetle Busters?" (And someone else chimed in, "And Handle with Care!")

Just like that a conversation spawned about writers who try different kinds of writing, and that yes, the same Loree Griffin Burns who they knew from the informational books in our classroom library also writes poetry. And, she's probably not the only writer who likes to write different types of writing.

The next day, when Loree posted another haiku accompanied by another photo, I was struck by the way the two -art and words- complimented one another. And that's where an idea that electrified my students' haiku writing struck.

In their previous haiku experience, my students had been asked to pull poetic language from wherever they had stored encounters with nature in their minds--in fact, their library assignment was strictly an animal haiku. For many of my learners, poetry writing was too open-ended and abstract, and many lines of their haiku contained phrases like, " awesome" or "I like..." or "...are cool." What if, I wondered, I could hand them visual inspiration from which to write? What if I could give them a choice of photos to get them started?

As quickly as the idea had come, I was revamping our poetry workshop for the day. When I shared my wonder, Loree generously offered her own photos for our use. Before they even put a syllable to the page, the students felt important and empowered by her offer. There was a swell of positive energy hovering in the room as I came to the last of Loree's photos, and students told a partner which photos inspired them to write. They needed no reminders or redirection. Notebooks flipped open, pencils scratched, and hands clapped out syllables.

I wrote, too--for a while. But mostly I listened. Voices came from tables around the room. 

"Ugh, that's too many!"
"What if you try..."
"Could you say 'pond' instead of 'ocean'?"
"Oh, I really love that line!"
"Could you pick a better word than 'awesome'?"
"Read that one again."

They were writing partners and poets, on a mission to give Loree's photos haiku, and in the writing process, no one was going to be left behind. Some students wrote many haiku and selected their favorite, sometimes polling their friends. Others created from images in their heads, and when it was time to format their poem on a slide, we were able to find photos in my own personal collection that they felt matched. 

The students are so proud of themselves and their poetry. On Friday, the project became something of a team effort as we pressed to finish before the week ran out--students were rallying behind other students to make suggestions about replacing words or dropping syllables. Every student has a finished haiku slide in the classroom collection. Many of their finished haiku slides are below. It has been so interesting to see which images spoke to which students and to catch them counting syllables in their spare time, too. 

What started as a frantic response on my part became a memorable workshop in our classroom. Productive talk and writing conversations, freedom to create and express punctuated the broken up days of our testing week. What a gift. Someday (if time allows!), I would like to take the students outside to the wooded edge of the playground, equipped with their notebooks AND iPads, to give them a chance to create poems with art and words again.

Art and Word mingle--
inspired poets result.
This teacher gives thanks.

(Oh! And several students did confidently share their poems with the students in Illinois while the others cheered them on. Phew.)


  1. These are wonderful! I love every syllable! Thank you ALL for sharing your talents with the world, and with me.

    Did you know that haiku poets often take walks "outside to the wooded edge of the playground, equipped with their notebooks" ... with the express intention of catching moments to write about? These are called ginko walks, and I take them whenever I am in need of inspiration for my writing. I wish you all many happy ginkos!


  2. Bravo, your students are to be applauded for their interested in becoming poets while observing the world around them. Would you and your class be interested in creating a couple of poems for my upcoming online gallery, Winter Wanderings? The invitation to create can be found at I have invited Lorree Griffin Burns as well. I welcome #stuvoice. Tori's digital composition may be one you would consider sending. You can write back to me at cvarsalona at gmail.