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Poetry Writing 1 – Symbolism

Getting kids to write poetry is often difficult. Some teachers, me included, think of that oasis of poetry writing as one of the only times when we can let students be totally free and expressive. However, the key to creating the best lessons on poetry is structure – if students get activities broken into bite sized chunks then they will be much more open and willing to put pen to paper. I am trying hard to avoid the ‘staring at blank page’ horror we all know, by doing just that; breaking things down. This lesson, or series of mini activities, is the first of many I hope to post over the next few months. They are all tried and tested with my own guinea pigs and mostly stolen from talented writers’ workshops…

SYMBOLISM

1. I ask students to make a list of 5 people who mean something to them (e.g. family member, friend, role model – works best if it someone they know personally, but a celebrity is a good idea for a student who doesn’t want to reveal anything too personal).

2. I get them to choose ONE of these people and come up with an object which they associate with this person (e.g. I might choose my Nana and her prized Prada handbag or my friend Lesley and the embarrassing comfort blanket she has carried around since she was 2…).

3. I ask them to describe the object in as much detail as possible (they are not writing a poem here, just s straight forward description in prose, e.g. “The handbag is made of white leather with silvery studs which reflect the light of the 60 watt bulb in the living room. It is in mint condition and the zippers and buttons all scream ‘bling’.”)

I would normally circulate and help students to expand their descriptions, the longer the better. I introduce literary devices as appropriate depending on the ability levels in the group.

4. Once they have their description, I ask them to explain how the person is connected to the object. They could comment on emotional connection with the object, physical similarities, experiences they have had which relate to it or anything else they can think of (again, the more detail the better e.g. “My Nana has a special relationship with the Prada bag; she is so proud to own one that she won’t use it for fear of ruining it. She would rather have it on display in her front room to impress visitors than use it herself. In many ways, it reflects the ways he presents herself; always pristine, proud and covered in bling!”).

They should now have two short pieces of writing, one is a description of the object, and one is an explanation of how the object is linked to the person.

NOW WE TURN IT INTO A POEM

They are going to write a two stanza poem using the text they have already created. I use these terms and explain them to the kids: Cut, Compress, Condense.

Cut: take out any unnecessary words which you don’t need – poems do NOT have to be grammatically correct…

Compress: move words or phrases around to make the meaning clearer and the piece more dynamic…

Condense: a poem is essentially a series of powerful images and ideas in close harmony. Take out anything unnecessary and stick interesting ideas together to really enhance the impact of the poem…

E.g. The handbag is made of white leather with silvery studs which reflect the light of the 60 watt bulb in the living room. It is in mint condition and the zippers and buttons all scream ‘bling’

Becomes…

The handbag, white leather
Silvery studs reflect 60 watts
Mint condition
Zippers scream
Bling

NEXT we think about some other easy ways of making the poem more sophisticated, such as putting similar words closer together…

E.g. The handbag, white leather
silvery studs reflect 60 watts

Becomes

Leather handbag, white
Silvery
studs reflect 60 watts

…so ‘white’ and ‘silvery’ are together, creating a more interesting image.

NEXT we think about how to format the poem, putting words alone or together, using enjambement is an easy way of placing emphasis on ideas…

E.g. Putting ‘scream’ on a line of its own might change the way we read the poem.

NEXT we think carefully about the first and last words/ images of the poem as these will establish a tone…

E.g. Starting with the word ‘handbag’ would add realism to the piece, whereas starting with ‘silvery’ creates more of an ethereal tone and might easily link to my Nana’s silver grey hair.

FINAL STRUCTURING: Students could begin with the stanza on the object, creating a nice twist when the reader realises it is actually about a person OR they could intersperse lines from both.

This activity works well at all ages and ability levels, but I always think carefully about how I approach it with some groups. In the past I have started the activity without mentioning the dreaded word ‘poetry’ at all until half way through – this avoids any problems with those students who have already decided they ‘can’t do’ poetry. Teachers must be prepared to model the activities throughout so that students are completely on board.

Variations on this could include writing about places, important issues/ ideas or even a literary character as part of the wider study of a novel.

I honestly believe that having a successful poetry lesson (or lessons… the editing part of this activity could potentially take a while, depending on how much time one chooses to devote to it) is a sure way to get to know a class better and to gain some trust and credibility. It’s a chance to share something of yourself with them through your own modelling, and you are creating a safe, easy platform for them to share with you and with each other.

Enjoy! I’d love to hear feedback and will happily provide clarification if anything is a little vague…

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