“I’m a Poet”: Motivating Students the Write Way

When I first began teaching 48 years ago, I believed that the right type of motivation could encourage middle level learners to respond to any reasonable task. I didn’t wish to be insincere because students in middle school do not respect a teacher who uses the bad-tasting prescription medicine approach to addressing curriculum: “It’s really not that bad.” “You’ll get used to it after a while.” “Someday you’ll actually thank me for this experience.”

I have avoided using these phrases because they never worked for me when I was a middle school student. Instead, as an educator, I decided that I would try to find a way to motivate my students so they would be less anxious about and more receptive to these parts of the curriculum that may have traditionally been thought of as less inviting. I base this reasoning on my own reluctance to delve into the field of science. Areas such as biology and chemistry can be a bit daunting for me. However, a great motivator and teacher such as Bill Nye, the Science Guy can make even the most complex formulae seem manageable and interesting. My Bill Nye was my high school biology teacher, Mr. Guthrie. He brought energy and excitement to every lesson as he took the complex and made it simpler so that we all looked forward to our science lessons, regardless of interest or ability level. My fellow students and I felt respected and thereby motivated because Mr. Guthrie demystified biology class for us. 

Setting the Stage for Motivation

The proper motivation delivered enthusiastically can gain both the interest and the favor of even the most reluctant learners, whether the task involves learning about chromosomes in science, playing volleyball in gym, taking photos in yearbook club, or even writing poetry in English. 

Fortunately, I realized early in my career that prioritizing creating an inviting and engaging classroom climate pays big dividends. When I lead with positive feedback and follow with constructive criticism, my students typically have been willing to take reasonable risks with their writing and accept well-intentioned, positive feedback. My students find that their mistakes can be managed and actually converted into learning opportunities that build grit and resilience. These risks do not end in disasters if the risks are supported by encouragement. As is stated in The Successful Middle School: This We Believe, it is an “engaging” curriculum that fosters “a learning atmosphere that is relevant, participatory, and motivating for all learners.” Furthermore, we “Educators must respect and value young adolescents” as we “provide a “Curriculum (that) is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and diverse.” 

Easing into Poetry

My students begin the year writing poetry. We study the traditional minimalist poets as well as modern poets whose works take a more minimalistic form so that students are not being intimidated by some of the more daunting and cryptic classic poets. This approach of easing into poetry through welcoming voices takes the stigma off poetry since the works we study are easy to decipher and fun to read. This is not to say that classic poets don’t have a place in my classroom. Rather, they will be introduced once a general appreciation of poetry has been cultivated in an inviting and dynamic manner.  

We study poetry for the impact of that which Laurence Perrine (1977) identifies as “sound and sense” of language. When this splendid transformation occurs, my students readily use their poetic tools to create not only poetry but also prose that is infused with the sounds of poetry. Thus, my students and I are inspired by poetry as we write to enhance the description of those items and ideas that are being featured in our compositions. Along with our study of literary devices including metaphor, simile, personification, allusion, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and so many more, we read and write both prose and poetry that incorporates these devices. 

We enhance vocabulary using a daily “Word of the Day” activity. Students write sentences containing ten or more words, and I encourage them to begin to incorporate one or more of the poetic devices that we are studying. A reasonable amount of silliness is evident and often encouraged since as they become more relaxed their creativity flows more readily. From the suggested length of ten words or more, we graduate to fifteen and then twenty or more words. Recently, I challenged the students to expand even more into the thirty or more word range. This process is gradual since all learners feel more comfortable and are more apt to take risks when they feel that those risks will be rewarded and at times refocused rather than squashed for the inappropriateness of fun during a lesson. We understand that the fun must be supported by, but never separated from the fundamentals.  

As one example, with the Word of the Day bolded below, student Paulina P began the year writing fundamental sentences such as: 

“The federal government initiated litigation against the major corporation for polluting the local streams.” 

With encouragement and a sense of playfulness and comfort, she wrote later in the year the following piece that’s filled with description and a strong voice. Paulina observed: 

“As I slowly glued the vase piece by piece back together I realized that the vase would never look the same, just like our friendship would never be the same again. When we broke that vase we broke our friendship as well. We could always try to conceal the damage to the vase, but the truth is that the vase will always be askew. In similarity as we conceal our friendship, it may look the same to outsiders, but we will always know that between us there will always be something in our friendship out of line. Our friendship may never be the same, but I’ll always know that Marissa Smith was my first best friend.” 

Notice the expertise being shown through a strong personal voice, a definite point of view, and the metaphor of the broken vase connecting to the change in the substance of a friendship. 

When Poetry Defines their Prose

The result of this approach is that the poetry my students produce is sublime. Their use of poetic devices isn’t lost throughout the year since their poetry defines their prose while their prose does the same for their poetry. 

Notice how student Victoria B in “Hear Me” addresses personal identity. The use of repetition for effect and magic 3s is uncanny. Notice the use of this technique from the opening verse (“I hear you, / understand you, and accept you.”) until the next to the last verse (“Give me my own identity. / Give me my own voice. / Give me my own strengths.”):

Hear Me

I hear you,

understand you,

and accept you.

You don’t hear me,

You don’t understand me,

You don’t accept me.

I can speak,

I can hear,

I can teach.

So let me speak.

Let me hear.

Let me teach you something.

Give me something more valuable than what I have now.

Give me my own identity.

Give me my own voice.

Give me my own strengths.

Let me be

Me.

Similar to Victoria B, Mia T artfully uses the magic 3s to create a haunting rhythm in her piece. Mia feels empowered as she seeks equity by engaging in reflection on a theme common to most middle level learners. In 18 lines, she delivers a message filled with questions that every middle level learner has pondered:  

 

Keep Your Voice

they take your voice

control your thoughts

take over your movements

you’ve lost yourself

struggling to pull back

the little bit you remember

about who you truly are

what’s my personality?

what’s my culture?

what do I like?

perfection is key they say

but who are they

to say what perfection truly is

they teach you the language

the actions

the thoughts and words

they speak to you

tell you to act this way

say things that way

but you can’t speak

no no no

foolish of you to think

you’re allowed to have a voice

their controls are strong

stronger than you ever wish to imagine

and they may try and try

to take what makes you

away

but let yourself keep your voice

and tell them

who you are

not them

or anyone else

you

and when you do that

oh how you flourish

oh

how

you

Flourish.

There is power in these words that are designed to deliver a message with a definite rhythmic pattern often found in rap music. In fact, this similarity is common to the rhythms found in Amanda Gorman’s works. Feel the rhythm in Gorman’s “New Day’s Lyric” (2021) when she states: This hope is our door, our portal. / Even if we never get back to normal, / Someday we can venture beyond it, / To leave the known and take the first steps. / So let us not return to what was normal, / But reach toward what is next.” Notice how Mia incorporates a similar comfort when developing rhythmic patterns and both intentional and internal rhymes in these words: “no no no / foolish of you to think / you’re allowed to have a voice / their controls are strong / stronger than you ever wish to imagine / and they may try and try / to take what makes you / away / but let yourself keep your voice / and tell them / who you are”

Next, consider the impact of the statement being made by Margot H in this poem. 

 

They say it doesn’t matter

About

What I think

But they’ve never met

Me

They’ve seen

Stereotypes

They’ve seen

Others

But they’ve never met

Me

If only for my looks

You’re blonde, you’re stupid.

I know I’m blonde

Who cares?

You play basketball, that’s cliche.

Who cares?

You play soccer, you’re a wimp.

Who cares?

Ballerina, hah, what a girly girl.

Who cares?

You look like a ghost.

Who cares?

I try to ignore

I try to face the pain

But all I do is

Drop

Down

To a lower level

And beat myself up

With those words

Clear skies and sun

For today

And wind and storms

The next day

And nothing can take

Your words

Out of my head

I’m like a crumpled piece of paper

It can never be a new sheet again

Because of your words

I reach

For confidence

I reach

For the truth

But I don’t know what the truth is

Maybe I am dumb

Maybe I am a wimp

Maybe I am just a girly girl

I don’t know

You beat me up with only

A sentence

And it hurts

More

Than getting punched

In the stomach

Maybe I’ll be okay

I

Say

Maybe

But

You’ll

Never know

Because all you

Think about

Is my looks

And

My first impressions

Margot adds a haunting repetition to this poem that deals with adolescent angst. This is evident in the first verse of the poem: I know I’m blonde / Who cares? / You play basketball, / that’s cliche. / Who cares? / You play soccer, you’re a wimp. / Who cares? Ballerina, hah, what a girly girl. / Who cares? / You look like a ghost. / Who cares? Mix in a simile (I’m like a crumpled piece of paper / It can never be a new sheet again / Because of your words) and the power of this poem is electrified as a result of the synergy resulting from the poet’s wordsmithing. 

It is easy to see that poetry for my students is not simply a study of rhyme schemes and a couple of literary devices. Rather, it is a bridge that is constructed cooperatively to foster reflection and the development of a strong personal voice filled with passionate observation. Inner voices are given a platform in my classroom as we seek to practice AMLE’s “essential attributes” of responsiveness, challenge, empowerment, equity, and engagement. By doing so, my students are developing a strong, personal voice that reflects their individual and collective personalities as they continue to use language to discover themselves and the world around them. As the National Council of Teachers of English so eloquently states in their position statement Understanding and Teaching Writing: Guiding Principles (2018), “Everyone has the capacity to write. Writers are not static. They develop skills and enhance their writing skills throughout their writing lives; thus, writers grow continually. Becoming a better writer requires practice. The more writers write, the more familiar it becomes. As writers, sometimes they feel confident; at other times, they may feel afraid and insecure. Therefore, students learn to write by writing.” 

My students and I follow this guideline daily. Won’t you join us?

References

  • Albrecht, J. R., & Karabenick, S. A. (2017). Relevance for learning and motivation in education. The Journal of Experimental Education, 86, 8. Academic Search Premier.
  • Bishop, P. A., & Harrison, L. M. (2021). The successful middle school: This we believe, 8-9. Association for Middle Level Education.
  • Gorman, A. (2021). New day’s lyric. Retrieved 4 5 2022, from https://abc7.com/poem-amanda-gorman-poetry-new-days-lyric-2022/11407593/
  • NCTE. (2018, November 14). Understanding and teaching writing: Guiding principles [NCTE Position Statement]. NCTE. Retrieved 3 23, 2022, from https://ncte.org/statement/teachingcomposition
  • Perrine, L. (1977). Sound and sense: An introduction to poetry (L. Perrine, Ed.; 5th ed.), Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Comments

  1. I really like the idea of easing students into poetry with works that are deemed more “fun”. Students are often exposed to the classics without having any idea of how to decode them, so they do not know how to appreciate them. There is such a stigma that poetry is boring, so I can’t wait to use things like this to help my students enjoy it!

  2. The beginning of this article was very impactful. I feel that as educators, telling students, “Let’s get through this” or “it isn’t that bad” revokes all levels of motivation that we want in our classroom. When we use those statements, it tells students that what we are learning is not important, and to rush through. Enthusiasm goes a long way with students, and we should be enthusiastic about what we are teaching students. I love your poetry idea, as it connects back to their own lives. They can connect poetry to their own lives, encouraging them to maybe look into reading or writing different poetry in the future.

  3. This article offers an important means by which educators can help students honor their feelings and uplift their voices. I love the compassion and gentleness Joe Pizzo uses to invite middle level learners to express their often conflicted but always important self-reflections.