Category Archives: Poetry

Teaching Writing: A Real Love Story

This post is written by NCTE member Caroline Brewer. 

CarolineHeadshot122011“I can’t.”

“I won’t.”

“I got … nothing!”

“I hate myself.”

“I wanna jump out this window.”

“Kill. Me. Now …  Aaarrrgh!”

Reading over these quotes now makes me laugh, and yet they are the serious protests that recently had become too loud too often from too many of my students.

When the children were challenged to learn—especially when they were challenged to write—the shouts, cries, and refusals spewed like blood from a fresh wound.

I diagnosed a crisis in self-love.

So, just in time for Mother’s Day, I invited my students—who are in grades 3–6—to explore love in poems. I began by sharing interactively a poem I had written about things I love. After each stanza, they had to respond: “Love.”

They were inspired! Pelted me with all kinds of flattery. So I asked them to write a poem for their mothers.

They did so well and enjoyed it so much, I was inspired! I paid them back with heaps of praise, and the next day I offered the chance to write about self-love. Gasps, growls, and howls of protest smacked me like an angry god. Then came the meltdowns. One child flooded her desk with tears, jumped up and stamped her feet, and yelled that she just couldn’t do it. It was “stupid!” she concluded. She sulked for a good 20 minutes.

And then an angel appeared in the presence of a student who technically has the lowest writing skills. In recent weeks, she has welcomed every opportunity to learn. And for the second day in a row, she offered to model a poem about love. Once she opened herself to scrutiny—and succeeded wildly because of her honesty! —the other students quickly followed. The last student to surrender was a student who had for an hour insisted that she loved herself only when she was “fighting,” as in “punching and kicking people.” She, too, has very low skills technically but a vivid imagination.

We used an excellent prompt by poet Bruce Lansky that I tweaked a bit (for this post). It requires students to complete these statements: “I feel love for myself when . . . .” “I feel love for myself because . . . .” ”It feels . . .  to love myself.”

The first writer wrote:

I feel love for myself when I read books at home.
I feel love for myself because I’m reading a book by myself with no help.
It feels wonderful to love myself.

Without my nudging, the fighter eventually erased her paean to pugilism and wrote:

I feel love for myself when I dance.

I feel love for myself when I dance because it makes me feel happy and mad. It also helps me get all my anger out.

It makes me feel confident to love myself.

Last week we wrote wacky rhyming stories, and the love continues to flow—for writing and for self.  The results are improvements in spelling and punctuation, invitations to be edited (as opposed to howls of dread), and a lot less resistance from the get-go.  Our experience is proof that, like love, writing is a power.

That my students are discovering this truth is most of all is what I love.

 Caroline Brewer is a children’s book author, literacy and education consultant, and author of books on education, including Parent Power: How to Raise a Reading Superstar (now on CD), Why I Teach: A Guide to Re-Discovering the Love of Teaching, and The Happy Teacher. Follow her on Twitter @BrewerCaroline and Facebook at

Metaphor as a Game of Chance

This is a guest post written by poet, Taylor Mali

TaylorMaliDuring National Poetry Month of this year, as a way of procrastinating writing my daily poem, I came up with an idea for creating a set of dice that could be used to roll different prompts for writing poems. The first die would have an action word written on each side like “Itemize,” “Confess,” or “Forgive.” The second die would get more specific with nouns like “the petty sins,” “the shortcomings,” and “the shameful secrets.” And the last die would bring it all together with phrases like “of your father,” “that live inside you,” and “you live by.” I figured each of my students could roll the dice and then—in 10 minutes of journaling—attempt to, for example, “Itemize the petty sins of your father” or “Confess the shameful secrets you live by.” As each die has six sides, there are 216 different possibilities.

TaylorMaliMetaphorMakerOf course, the prompts were a little weird, which is fine for some people but not all. So I decided to rethink the project. The dice became a way to generate just metaphors. Rolling a noun, an adjective, and another noun might produce “Love is an uncontested guitar,” or the “deadly spider of envy.” I found online a two-dimensional diagram for a six-sided cube that could be cut out, folded, and taped together like a cardboard gift box. I fit three diagrams together on one piece of paper and posted it as my poem for the day.

And then, as usual, I went a little overboard. I found a diagram online of a shape that could be folded and taped together into a 12-sided dodecahedron. It was a great improvement, and it allowed me to leave some blanks for the students to fill in on their own, which made this game much more fun. And with 12 sides on each “die,” the total number of metaphors one could roll was 1,728! The only real problem was this: because each side of a regular, convex dodecahedron is a pentagon, all the two-dimensional diagrams looked like squished starfish with legs of different lengths. I couldn’t figure out how to put them all on one page and keep each individual pentagon big enough to write in without a magnifying glass.

TaylorMaliIcosahedronThen, late one night, I stumbled on a diagram for a 20-sided figure, called an icosahedron. There are several ways you can fit an icosahedron together, but each of its 20 sides is a perfect equilateral triangle! This made it very easy to fit three of them together, one each for the nouns and the adjectives. And with 20 sides on each die, I could give five examples for each part of speech and still leave plenty of work for the students to do.

But the real learning happens when students realize that a metaphor is really nothing more than a proclamation that one thing is actually another thing, that THIS is actually THAT (at least on a figurative level). And with 20 sides for each die, the total number of unique metaphors one can roll is 8,000!

Taylor Mali is one of the most well-known poets to have emerged from the poetry slam movement and one of the original poets to appear on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam. A four-time National Poetry Slam champion, he is the author of three collections of poetry and a book of essays, What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World. In April of 2012, Mali donated 12 inches of his hair to the American Cancer Society after convincing 1,000 people to become teachers. 

A Gift of Student Writing During Poetry Month


In a recent survey, 71.4% of the NCTE Affiliates responding reported sponsoring programs, contests, or awards for student writing. Of those, 55.2% publish the students’ writing—in anthologies, in their journals and newsletters, and/or on their websites. Our students are writing!


The following poem, a gift to all of us who teach writing, was the winner of the California Association of Teachers of English 2013-2014 Creative Writing Contest for Grades 9-10 and you can find it published in the April 2014 issue of California English.

Promise in the Chicken Coop
–Kseniya Belysheva

A memory slides through the water
My hands struggling to grasp its elusive entity
And as I catch a glimpse of its contents
I remember Grandpa’s chicken coop
As an old promise that never fades

The end of March was waning
Into the flowers of May
When Grandpa took my hand
And led me through the morning fog
To his chicken coop
Whistling a tune to a Russian folk song
And occasionally pointing at something
“See the sunset, the way it rises just above the pine trees?”
I would look and be mesmerized
“That’s magic for you,” he’d laugh
And we’d continue onward
Him sharing all his deep thoughts with me
And my eyes compiling every word
When we finally got there
He locked the fearsome rooster up
Before he set me free
To waddle around the pen
Reaching out for just a touch
Of the golden fur of a baby chick
But the chickens would herd their babies
To the space behind the coop
Where my pudgy fingers could never reach
And then when it seemed all hope was gone
Grandpa would chuckle and lift one chick into my hands
Saying, “You watch over this guy, he’s a special one.”
And I remember being very careful with him
It was the same chick everytime
The same tuft of yellow fuzz every misty morning
Those days I never noticed that the chick had a limp
I only felt his yellow fur and saw his ebony eyes
I only saw what I wanted to see, what I needed to see
The same way I never noticed
That Grandpa started smoking lots of cigars
That my arms could reach all around his waist when I hugged him
And when we left Russia I waved good-bye to the same Grandpa

I lost him in the winter
I wasn’t old enough to understand what that meant
But I was old enough to remember
So when years had fallen behind
The memories started coming back
One by one
Chick by chick
Egg by egg
Word by word

I made a promise then
It was not a promise made in a minute
But rather one building up on itself over many moments of realization
I promised Grandpa
That I would try my hardest
To never see the negative things
And to instead love because of the wonderful things
I promised to try my hardest in everything
Because the sun never took a day off from shining
I promised to never let
The river steer my boat
Or the constellations determine my path
Or evil to harden my heart
I promised this all for Grandpa
Because it had been Grandpa who did not care
If I was three or thirty
And spoke his thoughts either way
And for Grandpa I promised
That I could carry his legacy
Started in a chicken coop so many years before
Although it seemed
That as I burned these words into the core of my heart
These things I had already promised to Grandpa
Years ago
During the days he woke me up to see the sun
And placed hope into the palms of my hands.

About the Author: Kseniya Belysheva is in the ninth grade at Del Norte High School (Poway Unified School District). Her teacher is Robin Christopher.

A Community Literacy Narrative for National Poetry Month

This post is written by NCTE member, Steven Alvarez. 

Steven AlvarezEleven-year-old Felipe created a poem portfolio fashioned as pages stapled into a small, self-published book for a fifth-grade English language arts literacy unit which incorporated student poetry and creative wordplay exercises. Felipe wrote thirty poems as homework for his project. Among Felipe’s poems, expressive verbal and typographical play appeared as stylistic nuances, reminding me of avant-garde poets experimenting with the visual shapes of poems. Felipe’s poems directly intuited the sounds of growing up in New York City, one of the most heterogeneous multilingual cities on earth, and writing became an opportunity to cultivate his translingual gifts.

Felipe conducted his daily experiences bilingually, but in literacy assignments he was English dominant thanks to the monolingualized orientation of his schooling. Felipe told me during an interview that he read and wrote exclusively in English, and that reading and writing in Spanish were “very difficult”: “I don’t use that much Spanish for writing. Or for reading. Only when talking.” Felipe’s remembered bilingual pre-school classes that transitioned him into “regular” English-only classrooms. “When I started doing more English, my mom and dad helped me less. But my older sister helped me more.”

Felipe brought the book to the after-school program where I tutored him. During a homework help session, I invited him read aloud some of his work to me. Felipe showed me his portfolio. Elaborately, he decorated the covers with various designs and figures that included a Batman sticker, and the word “poems” with his name “Felipe” in different shades of blue marker. He earned an A for the unit and his energy and enthusiasm found audience with me. I expressed my joy and encouragement with a high five. “Let’s check some of them out,” I said. “Show me one of your favorite ones.”

“Okay,” Felipe said. “Read this one. I like this one. I just wrote it.” Felipe opened his book to a specific unnumbered page.

Felipe handed me the page, to the following poem,

Felipe's Poem


I read the page aloud with an English professor’s accent (the best I could effect with several semesters of graduate student elbow grease) performed at a relatively quick pace:

My community / is quiet / and / peaceful / tóo. They care about / every ońe / and friendly tóo / it is / clean / as / Manhattan’s / skíes and / néw / people / say what’s / néw / around / here / fólks

With some awareness of meter, I stressed the vowels on the words “too,” “one,” “too,” “skies,” “new” twice, and “folks.” There was a steady rhythm in the first lines and the clever alliterative clicking Felipe adopted for his poem’s language. Felipe asked me to read it aloud one more time, and I did. I noticed how Felipe’s attentive expression configured differently both times I read the poem. Felipe raised his eyebrows when I sped up reading “Manhattan’s skies.”

“It sounds different when you read it,” he said.

I invited Felipe to read the poem in his own voice. As Felipe read aloud, his voice sounded the qualitative meter slower, at a much softer pace. Felipe articulated steady syllable weight in multiple metric variations, which I accent below for emphasis:

My cómmunity / is qúiet / and / péaceful / tóo. They cáre abóut / évery óne / and fríendly tóo / it is / cléan / as / Manháttan’s / Skíes and / néw / péople / say whát’s / néw / aróund / hére / fólks

The poem’s initial steady iambs led to a subtle trotting rhythm by the poem’s end. Though we stressed the same words, Felipe added an extra foot between each stress. I overlooked this musical element of the poem in my first two readings because of my tempo. I needed to slow down, to listen to the poem, but more importantly, to listen to Felipe read his poem at his pace.

“Your reading slowed it down so I could hear it better now,” I said to Felipe.

“Because it’s my poem,” he responded. “I know how it sounds.”

Felipe’s literal enactment of ownership was grounds for me to smile. He shut his book, and I noted his name across the cover.

“Why did you use Manhattan for your community?” I asked.

“Because Manhattan . . . everyone knows that’s America. . . . Because America is my community, and it is a good place.”

“America” was Felipe’s nation, though he would sometimes identify himself with being what he called “both,” that is, Mexican and American, but, he said, “more American.” Without doubt, though, he said he was “all New York.”

The American Felipe identified in himself was not only nationality, but also the part of his identity that permitted him to claim for himself patriotic values associated with the popular political discourse of U.S. citizenship, like liberty and opportunity, which he did not readily associate with Mexico. Felipe acknowledged his Mexican roots and spoke Spanish as a cultural affirmation, though he read and wrote only in English. When it came to the nation he identified with, its customs and culture, Felipe imagined his local New York City skyline.

The community in which Felipe lived, a Mexican ethnic enclave in New York City, was best understood by how identity and language interact in the U.S. and Mexico, and the rhetorics of power behind English-only acculturation, generational loss of Spanish, and claiming community space. Perhaps Felipe identified as “more American” because of his U.S. citizenship status, which—thankfully for him—he shared with his parents, but which wasn’t the bargain for some of immigrant families, as he and others typically knew. In circumstances relating to legal status, Felipe was quick to distinguish himself as mostly American and less Mexican than some. With regards to literacy and language ideology, I recognized that Felipe composed all the poems in his book in English. I also recognized that none of his poems addressed his Mexican identity, neighborhood, or family. Part of my duty as a poet and writing tutor was to encourage Felipe to explore these aspects of his identity, and to offer readings in voices he could recognize for models and study, such as Mexican American poets like Juan Felipe Herrera, Pat Mora, Eduardo Corral, and Nuyorican writers like Tato Laviera and  Nicholasa Mohr. For budding writers like Felipe, it’s important to be exposed to voices of writers who speak to diverse lived experiences, to devote resources for ethnic studies that promote and engage students of all races about the home cultures of our nation’s rich diversity. After-school programs are positioned well to do this, but after-school programs should not be substitutes for ethnic studies curricula in K-12 schools.

As the NCTE Position Statement in Support of Ethnic Studies Initiatives in K-12 Curricula states, “more work remains to be done if both teachers and students are to recognize the beneficial contributions of various ethnic backgrounds to crucial curricular components of K–12 institutions nationwide.” I applaud the creativity behind Felipe’s poetry assignment, and also how the project literally sparked Felipe’s creative and critical ownership of his words. There is so much potential in encouraging more language arts assignments that engage poetic explorations, but I propose that such explorations grounded in using poetry to explore the histories, languages, and cultural practices of local communities, including their own, address expressive aspects of literacy practices and knowledges students bring to classrooms as gifts from their communities that are relevant to their lives. Indeed, there is always much work to do, but recognizing the dignity and plurality of our students’ voices, their poetic voices, is where we begin to learn to teach with care. Schools and after-school programs share in this work and love for sustaining plurality in educational spaces and encouraging critical and creative reflection—beyond National Poetry Month. Understanding students writing about their communities is always the priority, and, for me, the aspect of teaching writing that makes the biggest impact.

Steven Alvarez is assistant professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. His research explores the languages and literacies of Latino immigrants in New York City and Kentucky.

To read more of Steven Alvarez’s works, please visit Translanguaging Literacies and Community Ethnographies


Finding the Poems that Hide: Why Students Should Write Poetry

blog-poetry-Macaluso-Kati-11_face0This text by Kati Macaluso appeared on Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care, a blog organized and maintained by members of the Commission on Writing Teacher Education, a working group of the Conference on English Education.

So I’ll tell a secret instead:

poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,

they are sleeping. They are the shadows

drifting across our ceilings the moment

before we wake up. What we have to do

is live in a way that lets us find them.

—from Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Valentine for Ernest Mann”

400px-Naomi_shihab_nye_2014Naomi Shihab Nye is right: “Poems hide.” One was certainly hiding one Saturday morning in the health and beauty aisles of a local superstore. My poetry seminar professor had invited us to listen for a poem, instructing us to attend to the conversations and noises that surrounded us in public places, and to use those as our weekly writing inspiration. So I listened—in coffee shops, in my son’s childcare center, in restaurants, and finally, at a large shopping center. It was there that I found myself in the same aisle with an elderly couple whose conversation I overheard and soon became a part of.

Several drafts and weeks later, I had written the following poem:

Forgotten Items

Navigating the health and beauty aisles

of their local superstore,

an elderly couple moves methodically

through their grocery list:

Skim milk, white bread, Vitamin A, orange juice . . .

But they have forgotten the orange juice.

The wife turns toward the grocery aisles,

several states over in this vast territory of merchandise.

And the old man, sensing his wife’s weariness,

offers to go in search of it himself.

Ok, she sighs. But don’t forget to come back.

Turning to me, the only other person

amid the rows of vitamins and aspirin,

she explains:

I always worry

he’ll forget he brought me with him—

that I’ll be left all alone, in this great big store.

So I linger.

Somewhat in search of vitamins,

but mostly because I can’t have this woman

standing all alone,

in this great big store

because she has been forgotten—like a gallon

of orange juice—

by the one she loves most.

As I wrote my way through this poem, I was also pursuing a degree in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education, thinking long and hard about the K–12 English language arts curriculum. I thought about curricular documents like the Common Core State Standards that make no mention of writing poetry. This blog entry is my response to the relative dearth of poetry writing in the K–12 English language arts curriculum.

While some might rightly make the case that writing poetry sharpens students’ linguistic awareness or knowledge of genre, I’d like to reflect on how writing poetry, like the listening poem above, might serve as an invitation to students to “live,” as Nye says, in a particular way—to be more finely attuned to the seemingly ordinary experiences they encounter on an everyday basis.

Here’s how:

220px-Charles_simic_6693Poems Defy Explanation: Poet Charles Simic has said of poetry, “The labor of poetry is finding ways through language to point to what cannot be put into words.”

Another way of saying this might be to claim that one can never fully explain a poem. As I reflect on my own poem above, I realize I could have returned home and explained to my husband what I had encountered: “I was shopping in Aisle 30, when this elderly couple realized they had forgotten to grab orange juice. The wife was too tired to walk all the way back to Aisle 6, so her husband offered to go get it. But the wife—poor thing—was afraid her husband might forget to come back.”

This explanation would have been accurate, but it would not have done justice to this experience. It needed a poem. A poem—because it defies explanation—requires that the writer be keenly present to an experience, and all its characters, sights, sounds, and senses.

In order to engage in the labor of finding language “for that which cannot be put into words,” a writer of poetry must work in the spaces between experience and language.

kooser_si-303x335Poems Can Alter the Way We See the World: Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser makes this argument in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual.

And, indeed, once a writer begins to work in the spaces between language and experience, the way she sees the world is forever altered. Several drafts into my poem, I knew I needed a metaphor to show how the expansive store accentuated the frailty of human beings. I dare say, I’ve never again set foot in a superstore without seeing the “vast territory” of merchandise stretch before me, nor have I felt the weight of a full gallon of orange juice without feeling the weight of being forgotten.


Photo “Orange Juice” by Mike Mozart

My hope is that more K-12 students write poetry. I have tremendous faith in what poetry writing can and will do for these students’ linguistic dexterity, knowledge of form, and other technical knowledge.

But I also wholeheartedly believe that the opportunity to work in the gaps between language and experience, like my own experience listening for and writing “Forgotten Items,” will serve as an invitation to live in a particular way: to seek out poems by becoming more fully present to the details and people that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Kati Macaluso is a doctoral candidate in the Ph.D. Program in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education at Michigan State University. She can be reached via email at