Providing Lifelines for Writers Who Are Struggling

Let’s face it. Helping our writers who are struggling is challenging work. Many times, we try one strategy after another only to end up just as exhausted and frustrated as our students. We know how essential it is to help our students feel successful, but creating a pathway for them to thrive as writers isn’t always clear. Some days, we simply don’t meet our goals despite all of our best efforts. These are the heavy days; the days that cause us to question our talents as teachers. But one of the best things about teaching is, as Dana says, “We get a redo” each time we return to our classrooms. Each stumble can bring us closer to achieving our goal.

My 7th graders contribute to and create a literary magazine each quarter. The stakes are high, as they understand that the strength of the magazine hinges on their ability to create unique works of art. Last week, one of my students approached me for help. Mark couldn’t generate any ideas to write about. The minilessons and instruction I’d provided just wasn’t working. So I did what I’ve done so often in the past when I’m in this situation. I turned to poetry; and poetry saved us!

Just within reach was Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Common Things. I turned to Ode to a Cluster of Violets and read it aloud to my anxious student. He listened quietly and then remarked, “You mean, I could really just write a lot about anything I love?” There was a spark. “Yes!” I exclaimed. “You could write about anything you love a lot. Your writing can pay tribute to what you love just like Pablo Neruda does.” Then there was a flame. A hint of a smile appeared on Mark’s face. “Okay,” he said quietly. For the first time, I could detect a small sense of confidence within him as he returned to his desk with Neruda’s book of odes in hand. Here’s what he wrote:

Ode to R2D2

Beep Boop

simple sounds

but a stream of consciousness

for a droid

not yet capable

of resorting to English


Beep Fweep

Off on an adventure

sliding swiftly through the sand

legs whirring under the pressure

too far

to go


Wvoop Woo

held back

by what you are

pushed forward

by what you have to do

you must


Bweep Doo


by those,


they don’t


Poetry can be a lifeline for our writers who are struggling. But on this day, Mark felt successful as a writer. He generated an idea he felt passionate about and developed it. But Mark’s ode is more than just an ode to me. It is a message. Similar to R2D2, Mark lives in a world where he feels pressure to communicate. How often does Mark feel “held back” in writing workshop or “underestimated” and misunderstood?

I’d like to invite you to join Dana and I on our Facebook Group to participate in a discussion about ways to help our writers who experience struggles in the writing workshop. Let’s share some of the obstacles we’re facing in our classrooms and some of the breakthroughs we’ve experienced. Because our students, like Mark, are counting on us.



Sonja Cherry-Paul has been an educator for the past 17 years. She is a middle school English teacher and co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning and Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach. Sonja is a Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards committee member who is committed to celebrating authors and illustrators who address issues related to social justice.




Imagery – Movement with Verbs


As my students continue to write poetry, I continue to look for strategies that can help get them going. In Writing Poetry by Shelly Tucker, there’s a great strategy that always works with middle school students, especially those for whom writing can be challenging. The strategy involves leading lines of a poem with verbs. Begin by reading a poem such as this one by Lisa Stuebing.

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Students will notice how each line begins with an action. Tucker explains, “ Verbs that start lines provide direction and momentum. Each one gives a snapshot of the action named” (p. 57). This is the perfect opportunity to discuss the role of imagery in poetry. I ask my students to make a list of their favorite activities and places. Selecting one of the ideas on their list, they brainstorm a list of actions that capture the activity or place in a way that sets it apart from any other. Then, it’s time to write! Here’s some of their great work.

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Whenever my students are stuck, I find them returning to this strategy again and again. And each time, they experience success!


Sonja Cherry-Paul has been an educator for the past 17 years. She is a middle school English teacher and co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning. Sonja is a Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards committee member and a part-time instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University where she is also a doctoral student.

What Do Poets Do? Launching A Poetry Unit

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My intention in this post is simply to share some of the approaches I’ve used when launching a unit of poetry. I’ve spoken to so many teachers who are intimidated by the process of teaching poetry. What I always say is, there is no one process. Jump in and enjoy the ride! However, there are a plethora of resources available to assist us along the journey. Recently, @JoyKirr tweeted this wonderful list of poetry resources. And my go to book is Georgia Heard’s Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School. If you know about this, it’s probably your go to book, too. If not, hurry to get it! Heard’s work is inspiring and practical. You can immediately implement these ideas in your teaching. Later, I share one of the strategies she includes and how it helps my students write poetry right away.

One of the first things I do to launch an official poetry unit, is to create a poetry-reading calendar with my students. Each day, one or two students sign-up to read a poem out loud to the class. Where do the poems come from? Students are invited to select a book of poetry to read individually or with a peer. They read for 15 to 20 minutes at the beginning of every class. When the reading time winds down, I give each student one sticky. I ask them to select one of the poems they’ve read that has “stuck” with them and to respond to the following question: “What do poets do?”
sticky notesThen they flag the page with the sticky note. Many of the poems students read out loud on their calendar day are from the books they’ve read and flagged. This immersion phase of the unit lasts about two-weeks and is multi-fold: to encourage reading and enjoying poetry; to expose students to a wide variety of poetry; to get students thinking about the tools and strategies poets use; to help students see themselves as poets and to imagine the type of poetry they will write. Within a week, the poetry books in our classroom library boasts a sea of colorful sticky notes. What a beautiful sight!

On my whiteboard, I create a running list of students’ responses to the question: “What do poets do?” By day three of this, they are excited to share out something they’ve noticed and we marvel at our growing list.White boardThis simple, open-ended question gives each student opportunities each day to contribute an idea about the work of poets. Again, I’m looking to invite ALL of my students into this unit; even those who may at first be reluctant to reading and writing poetry. It is important for these students especially to feel successful.

The other suggestion I’d like to share is to get students writing poetry right away. This may feel daunting to some students. So, I often begin by asking students to write a quick group poem. Borrowing a strategy from Georgia Heard, I ask students to label a page of their writer’s notebooks “tree” and to create at-chart. The left side of the t-chart is labeled “ordinary.” Then, students brainstorm “ordinary” words that can be used to describe a tree. Next, students label the right side of the t-chart “poetic” and for each ordinary word on their list, they work cooperatively to brainstorm poetic words and phrases to use instead.

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Students spend about 10-15 minutes brainstorming and then we create a class community list on the Smartboard. That way, students can “borrow” great ideas they hear from peers around the room. Then it’s time to write! Again, the assignment is Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 6.50.42 PMopen-ended. Write a poem titled “tree.” Some students decide to focus on a specific type of tree. Others don’t. They use some of the ideas from their t-chart and add others. And within minutes, poems are written! Groups type them up and create a drawing of their tree. We proudly display them around the room with the poems and admire each work of art.

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We all have a diverse group of learners in our classes. Some students LOVE poetry and it seems all they need are opportunities to write. They just seem to naturally have a flare for writing poetry and they amaze us with their work. But for many students, in addition to developing a strong understanding of literary devices such as personification, imagery, and line breaks, a strategy is needed to help them conquer the blank page. Next week, I’ll share another strategy that has helped my students feel successful writing poetry.


Sonja Cherry-Paul has been an educator for the past 17 years. She is a middle school English teacher and co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning. Sonja is a Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards committee member and a part-time instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University where she is also a doctoral student.

Let Poetry Chip Away The Armor

Each year I anticipate that some of my students will inevitably declare, “I hate poetry!” Indeed, I’ve encountered many teachers who feel similarly and dread teaching it. I am NOT one of those teachers. I LOVE poetry and make it a personal challenge to help each of my students, particularly those naysayers, fall in love with poetry, too.


I begin by acknowledging how my students feel. Those who cry “Down with poetry!” explain that their disenchantment stems from a variety of experiences. For some, the only poetry they’ve been exposed to falls into the Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky realm. While I pride myself on not being a literary snob who instead cheers enthusiastically about whatever my students enjoy reading, to ignite the love of poetry flame will require exposure to a wider range of poems and poets. For others, interpreting the meaning behind poems feels laborious and pointless. I get that. As teachers, sometimes we can belabor a text so much that just mentioning the title results in a chorus of sighs and eye-rolling. And if you teach middle school students like I do, add outward groans and teeth sucking! These experiences and feelings are embedded within our students so deeply, that for those of us who LOVE poetry, it can seem like fighting a losing battle. So how do we overcome this obstacle?

First, although April is National Poetry Month, please DO NOT wait until April to try to foster a love of poetry within your students. If you have fallen into this trap, don’t worry. I did the same thing for the first several years of teaching. You’ll have another chance next year to fall out of it! I flood my classroom with books of poetry of all types. They are available to students all year and I don’t wait until a formal “poetry unit” to begin using them. In fact, on the first day of school I leave a poem on every student’s desk. It’s one of my favorites: Quilt by Janet Wong. The poem is also taped to the front of the classroom door. I ask students to read it with the following question in mind. “How might this poem serve as a symbol for the type of classroom community I hope we’ll create this year?”

Quilt by Janet Wong

Our family

is a quilt

of odd remnants

patched together

in a strange


threads fraying,

fabric wearing thin –-

but made to keep

its warmth

even in bitter


After providing time for students to read and discuss the poem and talk about their responses to my question, they’re ready to share out and their ideas are always priceless. The poem just naturally lends itself to thinking about diversity; the ways in which we’re all wonderfully different and together, incredibly powerful and beautiful. My students get this right away. So on day one, they are already successful interpreters of poetry! The image of a quilt becomes a symbol for our classroom all year no matter what we’re doing, and it all stems from a poem they’ve read and loved.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of reading poetry all throughout the year for fun and to capture the mood of something profound that students have been particularly moved by. By doing so, students begin to see the pure genius of poets who are able to capture the humorous and heartfelt moments of our lives often in just a few short lines. By waiting until an official poetry unit to begin, we’re almost guaranteed to fail at persuading those students who have strong feelings against poetry to feel otherwise. They need to be wooed gradually, thoughtfully, and continually!

If you’re looking to start a collection of poetry books in your classroom, the Poetry For Young People series is a great place to begin.

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The series includes the works of Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Maya Angleou, Carl Sandburg and more terrific poets to introduce to students. Here are several poets whose work I’ve found 5th, 6th, and 7th graders to be particularly drawn to:

Billy CollinsBilly Collins – Collins writes in ways that speak to the more serious minded middle schooler who is looking to explore the full range of emotions we experience as human beings. On Turning Ten is a particular favorite with my 6th graders.

Paul Fleischman – Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems For Two Voices is a hit each year. With poems like Honeybees, Fireflies, Cicadas, and other cool insects, my middle schoolers leap out of their seats to perform these with their peers.

Eloise Greenfield – Greenfield’s work is filled with fun and family. Honey, I Love and Way Down In The Music are fun to do as choral reads.

Hughes-DreamKeeperLangston Hughes – When my students read The Dream Keeper and Other Poems by Langston Hughes, they know they are experiencing the work of true genius. Hughes continually inspires my students to keep writing and to see themselves as poets.

Pablo Neruda – What would we do without Neruda and his odes? Ode to French Fries makes our stomaches growl, especially when read right before lunch time! Odes are fun to read and fun to write. Every student feels like they can write one and that’s because they

Naomi Shihab Nye – For those sit back and sigh moments, my students and I turn to Nye who helps us to contemplate the complexities of life and of the world.

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Mary Oliver – Oliver’s work speaks to the nature lovers in my classroom. Her work is rich with beautiful imagery and poetic devices.

Charles R. Smith, Jr. – If your middle schoolers love basketball, they’ll love Smith’s work! Pair Rimshots and Short Takes with the Kwame Alexander’s short takes RimshotsNewbury Winner, The CrossOver for a sure slam dunk!

Mattie Stepanek – Stepanek’s work resonates with my students each year. They are moved by his words and inspired by his bravery and peace advocacy work during his struggles with muscular dystrophy.

Valerie Worth – We just love Worth’s All The Small Poems and Fourteen More. These short masterpieces makes my students feel like they too can accomplish great work as poets!

Jane Yolen – Yolen has teamed up with Jason Stemple, her son and talented photographer, to create gorgeous books of poetry about nature. The photographs inspire my students to write poems of their own.

Rather than potentially alienating students who may feel uncomfortable or resistant, these approaches draws them in and chips away at the armored coat they sometimes wear in response to poetry.

Sonja Cherry-Paul has been an educator for the past 17 years. She is a middle school English teacher and co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning. Sonja is a Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards committee member and a part-time instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University where she is also a doctoral student.