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As the days ticked down to the start of Spring Break and units were wrapped up for the end of the grading period, I decided to try something with my classes, both in reading and language arts.  I always do a writing on demand journal prompt with them for 5 minutes daily.  It is usually something that has them thinking out of the box.

My reading classes are working on their multi-genre research project and poetry is a choice of genre.  Weaving the poetry standards in with the research ones, we have focused a few days on poetry and the ways that poets can bring attention to the minutia of life.  (Of course, there were some clips from Dead Poets Society thrown in for good measure to inspire them.)

Let’s face it.  Poetry can be daunting to most of us.  We doubt ourselves and beat ourselves up over our pedantic rhythms or inability to master slant rhyme.  My students watched with wrapt attention the scene where Mr. Keating pulls brilliant poetry out of his reluctant student and it gave me an idea.

Like Mr. Keating, I put before the students a picture with no explanation as to who it was and issued my throw down:

“When I say ‘go,’ you will have 10 minutes to write a poem about what you see here.  You are the poet.  You see what you see.  Don’t worry about what others see.  It can rhyme or not, it can have rhythm or not.  What matters is that you write in the moment.”

Photo from National Geographic

Photo from National Geographic

With that, I put the picture of the National Geographic magazine cover on the board.  I had it zoomed in to cut off the headline that would give it away as a photo of an Afghan girl so as not to influence the students’ perception of the photo in any way.  As I predicted, there was a gasp and a low murmur when they saw the striking image.  I put a finger over my lips to hush them and signal them to write.  For a few minutes, many stared in silence at the picture.  Some instantly started writing.  Before long, poetry was spilling onto the pages around the room.  Every now and then, they would stop writing, stare some more, and more lines would appear on the pages.

Reluctant poets, every one of them.  Reluctant no more.  Eighth graders are not ones to walk away from a challenge.  They met me head on with some amazing results.  Some saw in her a tragic Red Riding Hood, others a fierce survivor, some speculated at what had caught her intense gaze.  Some focused only on her eyes, but fewer than I expected.  Her eyes almost jump out of the picture, but I was amazed that many students chose to focus on the moment in time when the picture was taken  They were all captivated by her as I remember being when I first saw this cover years ago.  It first appeared before any of my students were born and most had never seen the image.

Giving them the photo to draw from gave them a starting point, and the time limit forced them to put self-doubt to the side and focus on the task at hand without second guessing themselves.  What poured out of them was genuine and honest.  I asked them what they thought of the activity when it was over and the response was overwhelmingly positive.  Many asked for another picture so they could do it again.

This time, I issued the throw down to them and watched the results play out.  I told them that we would do it again and that the next time we did, I would join them in the challenge.  Poetry is something I love, but have never been one to write.  The throw down exercise would do me some good as well.

I have collected images of more Nat Geo covers, famous and lesser-known paintings, Normal Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers, and others that I hope to use in the future with my students.  Some will be poetry, others could be stories, news articles, diary entries, etc..  The point is to create in my students a sense of trust in themselves as writers.  Write in the moment without second-guessing what is flowing out.  You can always tidy the writing up later, but don’t edit the flow of ideas and end up with a dam of self-doubt.