How I set the stage before sharing the mentor text (one of the Seven Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson): As said above, I use this poetry lesson as one of two culminating writing projects we complete after reading Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck. You can easily do this poetry assignment using Barack Obama's picture book as your only mentor text, and the poetry format can be used with topics other than heroes. If you happen to be linking this lesson to a Travels with Charley unit , I have to say that having all the whole-class discussions about "How would Steinbeck define America?" in the weeks before we read the Obama poem and I asked "How does President Obama define America?", well, that really helped my students embed some really smart thinking into their poems.
Two weeks before I introduced the poetry lesson on this page (while we were nearing the conclusion of Travels with Charley, which ends famously with John Steinbeck watching that terrible group of lady "Cheerleaders" who--in 1960--gather outside a recently desegregated Louisiana elementary school daily to scream obscenities at young Ruby Bridges), I began our novel discussion that day by showing Nickelback's music video for "If Everyone Cared." It's pretty easy to find this video for free on You-Tube, but I purchased it on I-Tunes and show it on the Smartboard through my iPad because it looks so much better in high definition. The video celebrates four worldwide heroes who changed the globe, ending with the voice of one of them--Betty Williams--who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976. Her sound byte says, "We just walked right through, all the stones, all the bottles, whatever they threw. We have won a major victory." We compare Betty Williams' march for peace in Ireland to the daily march young Ruby Bridges made towards her elementary school surrounded by four U.S. Marshals. After our discussion of the "Cheerleaders," we analyzed (using our best "art critics' eyes") Norman Rockwell's painting of Ruby Bridges, and we watched a 6-minute You-Tube video made by some students and their teacher. We talk about what heroic qualities we see in Ruby Bridges' (and her parents') actions. We end the class by re-examining this quote which is shown at the end of the Nickelback video. Most of my students don't know who Ruby Bridges is before reading Travels with Charley, so this discussion was used in my class to show them that there are lesser-known American heroes out there who deserve to be celebrated just as much as Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
A week before I shared the mentor text by President Obama, I passed out this brainstorming handout/graphic organizer (another one of those Seven Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson), which asked the students to--as homework--talk with their parents and research on the Internet "lesser-celebrated American heroes." The handout asked for them to identify and justify nine American heroes in three categories: current times (heroes from the past five years), recent heroes (from past 6-100 years), and older history (from past 100 years to the beginning of America). I challenged them to come back to class with a list of nine heroes that no one else would think to put on their sheet. Because my students' poems were also focused on the question "What is America?" (thanks to the John Steinbeck memoir), my kids had to find American heroes. This poem could very easily work with international heroes too.
On the day I finally shared the Obama picture book, during our daily ritual of ten minutes of Sacred Writing Time, I sat in front of the students in my director's chair as they wrote, and I read this book quietly to myself. Sometimes, I want them to notice the book before I read it to them, and by reading it in front of them while they quietly write, and by making sounds of approval ("That's said so nicely," I quietly say) or of respect ("Great metaphor, Mr. President," I quietly say), I foster an environment of anticipation. "Is that book really by the president?" someone will eventually ask, to which I shush them, and respond with "Even our president quietly and sacredly writes some days."
Sharing from the mentor text (one of the Seven Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson): Before reading the president's book aloud, I remind students that their homework (the handout/worksheet seen at right) was to find some lesser-known American heroes. "In this book," I tell my students, "President Obama mostly went for talking about some very well-known American heroes. I particularly like how he really tried to represent as many racial backgrounds as he could, and how he didn't just choose male heroes, which has often happened in the past when I've had my students write about their own American heroes. By doing so, I think he is purposely telling us a message about what 'America' really means."
I found a scanned or photographed page from the book when I did a Google search for the book title, and I hope it's been posted without violating anyone's copyright because I become angry when people violate my copyrights. At left, I include a thumbnail of that online image I found, and if you click on it, you will be taken to the blog where it's posted (hopefully posted legally) and you can zoom in on the details. Each page of the book is formatted similarly to the example here, so if you don't have the book yet, you can see the organizational structure this poetry lesson asks students to imitate. On the left-hand side of each two-page spread, the author asks his daughters a question about a human trait he hopes his girls know they possess; on the right hand side, he uses poetic tools to crate a stanza that describes a famous American hero who--from our author's perspective--also showed the world that trait.
I love reading books that you can present as what I call "riddle books." These are picture books that, if you withheld showing the picture and read some or all of the text on the page, you can challenge your students to guess who or what is being described. The best picture book in the whole world for this (in my opinion) is Jack Prelutsky's If Not for the Cat, which has amazingly well-written haikus about animals; the haikus uniquely describe the animals without directly naming them so that when students hear the seventeen syllables and can't see the picture, they have to guess the "riddle." You can play the same game with the Obama book. After establishing that each page is about an well-known American hero that our president respects, as you flip from page to page, you can read the "Have I told you that you are ____?" statement, and let students try to guess who the stanza will be about. I was surprised how many my students were able to guess correctly; I even had one class correctly identify Cesar Chavez as the hero in question, which was a first. Sometimes sixth graders really impress me. Maybe I just a had a great lot of them this last year.
Let students know--after reading through the text--that they will be preparing to write a poem about three of the nine heroes they researched on the handout you gave them. Now that they've heard the poetic language President Obama used to describe each hero, they can have a conversation with a partner about which of their heroes would they more easily be able to write poetic descriptions.
Teaching the Specific Skill/Trait Focus for students (anotherr one of the Seven Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson): I used this lesson as a year-end assignment; I, also, believe it would be a great lesson early in a school year as it would help students explore heroic qualities, which always has a positive effect on the way students behave towards each other. Since I taught this lesson late in the year, I spent more time reviewing my focus trait and my support trait--VOICE (using figurative language and poetic tools in a natural-sounding way) and WORD CHOICE (using verbs and adjectives interestingly)--instead of truly teaching the skills. Had it been the beginning of the year when I taught this lesson, here is how I would verbally set the students up for the academic vocabulary expectations I expect from the poem my kiddos create:
"Carpenters," I would say, "have literal toolboxes; writer's have metaphorical toolboxes. When you are building a fence, you bring out different tools--a tape measure, a saw, a hammer and nails, etc--as you plan and construct your final product: the fence. When you are building a piece of writing, you have a metaphorical toolbox that holds more abstract tools that you use as the paper is built. If you were writing a story, the first tool you might bring out is your imagination; following that, you might bring out your dialogue-writing tool, because maybe you've decided you want your story to begin with someone talking. A pencil and a piece of paper are literal tools used by a writer, but today I want to talk about more figurative or metaphorical tools. Understand? Good, I want you to take three minutes to work with a partner to see how many tools from the list of writing tools I'm planning to share with you. It's a special list because it focuses on a very special type of writer: a poet. Poets use different tools than other writers, don't they? Can you and a partner think of--at least--five poetry-specific tools from my list of 8 tools I am going to share today?"
My students like these kind of challenges. After chatting with a partner, the kids share their guesses. Unless an answer is dead wrong, I always say, "Good answer, but that didn't make today's list" because there are a lot of poetry-specific words out there that your kids probably know, like stanza, haiku, or hyperbole. Should they answer with tools like creativity or imagination, say, "I'm looking for a much more specific tool to poets than that. Please try again." Here is the list I reviewed and used with this assignment because there are examples of almost all of these in Obama's picture book:
|| using words that end with the same sound
|rhythm (or pattern)
|| establishing a pattern or beat with carefully chosen words
|| an interesting comparison between two different (but somehow similar) ideas.
|| an interesting comparison between two different (but somehow similar) ideas that uses "like" or "as."
|| turning an abstract idea into a living thing by giving it human or living qualities
|| "painting a picture" on the reader's brain by describing using the any of the 5 senses in interesting ways
|| repetition of consonant sounds to make the words sound interesting when spoken aloud
||using words that imitate sounds that things make
Now I have my student aides often type up copies of stories and poems from picture books so that students can each have a copy of the poem or story that they can write on. This particular picture book became a three-page document. On the backside of the Xeroxed poem, I had my students record and define the poetic tools from above. Then, working with a partner, they attempt to find all eight of the poetry tools in Obama's poem. We found six of the eight in the poem; when we didn't find onomatopoeia or a simile, we discussed where the President might have added those, if his goal was to indeed have all eight represented in his poem. I think the best suggestion I heard was to add a line about the "whack" of the ball in the stanza about Jackie Robinson.
Sharing/Analyzing a Teacher Model (one of the Seven Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson): I do always try to provide a teacher model that my kids can analyze; they like to both compliment my writing as well as pick it apart, so I often find myself writing something to share with them that isn't perfect. I also try to show them a model that isn't the exact same assignment they are doing because I find many of them will copy me if I do that. The following teacher models were shown to my kids as rough drafts (I have since revised and published them) so that the students could pick them apart, and they also spotted how I took the same poetry format from the book and used it to pay tribute not to heroes but to other special people.
I am blessed with excellent student aides. Each semester, they give me two or three of them, and because I am (hopefully this is humbly interpreted) a popular guy among my students, a lot of eighth graders request that they might be allowed be my aide. I am blessed to hand-select from the best of the best. At the end of each school year, I always write my student aides short poems, and I write those poems onto the first page of a blank writer's notebook, and these serve as my "thank you" gift to my aides. I decided this year I would use the Barack Obama poetry format to write a stanza about each of my aides. I shared the rough drafts of these stanzas with my sixth graders, asking them to tell me which poetic tools they saw me already using, and asking them to suggest how I might revise (one of the Seven Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson) the descriptions or details to include another of the poetic tools that I haven't used yet.
Three Poems (inspired by the Barack Obama book) that I gave to my Student Aides in 2013
Have I told you that you are softly spoken?
And how I wish your eight grade peers practiced
This same skill that you have mastered.
Mastered because when you choose to chat,
What you softly say is brilliant,
A ten-thousand watt bulb that can’t be placed in
Most empty sockets invented as-yet by man
I will always remember you as a light bulb,
Searching for the socket that can handle your brightness.
Thank you, Wonje, for being my aide this year.
Have I told you that you are a charmer?
Every time you dramatically groan when I assign you a task,
Every time you award yourself an extra credit prize from my bucket,
Every time you let me catch raiding my filing cabinet for Special K Bars,
I am actually quite charmed.
I suspect we’ve developed a trust
That I just might very much miss next year.
You must go on to better places and things
And find new teachers whose
Filing cabinets you can secretly explore,
For treats and for tools to make you smarter.
Thank you, Andrea, for being my aide!
Have I told you how much I enjoy it
When you roll your eyes at me?
Whether it’s a dumb pun I make,
Or you’re hearing me re-tell a story
To the other eighth grade class,
And you know I’m changing a fact
To make the story better in its second telling,
Or when I give you a job for aiding
That you know I just made up--
Like a piece of poorly planned fiction--
Because I forgot to plan a real task for you to do.
I will miss those cynical eye rolls next year,
But not as much as I’ll miss you
Who always manages to make me smile
Without even really trying.
Thank you, Gwen, for being my aide this year.
My sixth graders really enjoyed being allowed to read these personal poems I was plannning to send my three aides, and they very successfully found the metaphors, the rhythm, the alliterations (which are my favorite three poetic devices to use). They were fascinated by my use of "internal rhyme" in the middle poem (trust, just, must), and we had a great talk about how the rhymes don't have to happen at the end of the lines.
My eighth grader aides really enjoyed their poems too, which I printed on sticker paper and affixed to the inside front-cover a fancy writer's notebook I purchased for them to start using this summer.
Explaining/Completing the Real Graphic Organizer (One of the Seven Elements of a well-designed lesson): Once my teacher-models had been analyzed for poetic tools, my sixth graders became very aware of what I was expecting from them from the stanzas about heroes they were going to compose. I passed out this handout, which had them choose five or their most interesting heroes from the original nine they had brainstormed. A few confessed to having found some better heroes than the ones they had put on their original brainstorming/graphic organizer, so I allowed them to change.
My original plan was to have them write seven-stanza poems: an introduction, a stanza about each of the five heroes they would poetically brainstorm on the handout at right, and a conclusion paragraph. We, unfortunately, ran out of time since it was the end of the school year, so I reduced the requirement to being about three heroes, not five. The handout I have provided makes room five heroes, and the sixth page is a teacher model I created to explain how the handout works. Using Ruby Bridges as my example worked awesomely with the Travels with Charley connection my kids had, but it also helped having the discussion about the Norman Rockwell painting.
I demonstrated how--before I wrote the stanza--I thought of rhyming words that reminded me of Ruby's story; I explained how abstract emotions (like bravery) that can be applied to the hero can be easily personified; I showed off how I thought of interesting sensory images that might make their way to my poem; I showed them two similes I had created about Ruby Bridges; and I showed them how I thought of short alliterative phrases and onomatopoetic words that I could apply to my poem.
When I gave the students a thirty-minute session on two different days to work on these brainstorms. I monitored their work to make sure they were thinking about relevant details about their heroes, not just random words that they could rhyme or be alliterative with.
Now on my teacher model of the graphic organizer, below the brainstorm, I believe I successfully used all six poetic tools (as well as added two metaphors). I made them discover all examples working with partners. When they began composing their own stanzas individually, I dissuaded them from trying to force too many poetic tools into each stanza, but--of course--some of them tried. I said I thought three poetic tools per stanza would be enough, but I wanted their final poem to contain--at least--five of the eight.
At left is a filled out graphic organizer with a rough draft of a stanza from one of my students, Gwen. She chose Kayla Wheeler (a young swimmer born with no legs and only one arm that my kids learned about watching CNN Student News this year). If you click directly on the worksheet, you can zoom in on her initial ideas and see which ones made it to her rough draft. I very much stressed to the kids that when they finished their stanzas, whoever they had written about, well, the reader better have a very clear idea of who the hero is, and what the hero did to be heroic. How well did Gwen do with this when you read her 10-line stanza about Kayla Wheeler?
Partners shared their stanzas after they had written them, and they then gave each other ideas for revision (another of the Seven Elements). Each writer received revision feedback from three different students, one student per stanza they wrote.
Returning to the Mentor Text to Inspire an Introduction and a Conclusion: Obama's book is a letter to his daughters; he is talking directly to his girls with his poem. My students figured out from my Ruby Bridges example that their stanzas' audience was the hero they were writing about. For the introduction and conclusion stanzas of their poems, I explained that I wanted them to talk to America. John Steinbeck's book that we had just finished asked and attempted to answer this question: What is America, and who are these people called Americans? I wanted my students to attempt to answer these same two questions with their introductions and conclusions.
I brought out the Obama book one more time, and after we re-read the Of Thee I Sing book's introduction and conclusion, my students immediately had an idea for their own introductions and conclusions. I told them they could mimic the President's structural style, or they could create a completely different technique for introducing their poems and answering the questions I had challenged them with. I gave them the choice (which is another of those Seven Elements from my lesson-design framework)
Student Samples to Analyze (Yes, you guessed it, the final one of those Seven Elements): The nice thing about teaching a lesson the first time (and doing a pretty good job of it, if I must say), is that now I have numerous student samples ready to be used earlier in the teaching process when I teach the lesson next year. Here are two of my sixth graders' poems. I included Internet links to the heroes, in case there are names you don't recognize:
A Hero a Day Keeps my Doubts Away
by Meghan C., sixth grade writer
Have I told you of the people,
The people you’ll meet
As you travel to the great places in this country.
It will be hard to find them,
But I know you will.
Have I told you that you were a strong man?
You were fighting for the right thing
While the others stayed silent.
Brian Murphy, you were a diamond surrounded by dirt
Because your courage helped you gain integrity in your victory.
The crowds of people shuffling, shouting, and screaming for justice,
And the doubtful scowls that marked faces of hatred.
The others, they didn’t feel the patience, only anger and anguish,
But you were a great leader who was hurt but stayed strong.
You were a fighter in a match against thousands, maybe millions.
Your dedication to freedom is what made you a hero.
Have I told you that you are a committed dreamer?
You became a meaningful musician who gave us beautiful sound
While many gave you doubtful sighs.
They thought you were worthless, a minor leaguer,
But with all of that, you became more eager.
Your dreams never stopped reminding you of it.
When you looked up, your eyes fluttered in darkness<
But inside, they saw passion.
Now when they hear your music, they forget your eyes’ disability.
Your music flowed like a river, truly a prize.
Stevie Wonder, you are a great legend to this world.
The great music you made changed the way they always thought of you.
Have I told you that you are a dove of love?
Every time I see a video of yours, a smile is instantly painted on my face.
You are a sage of wisdom and joy.
Your kindness sketches a perfect picture of how the world should be,
So people can’t help but want to love your incredible wit.
When people are afflicted with cruelty and hatred, it shows blindness,
But you teach us all a wonderful act, the act of kindness.
You are a role model, a comedian, and a healer,
And nobody can take away the beauty you hold, Lili Singh.
You are so close, yet so far away.
And the whole world has been taught the great beauty of love.
Have I called you the home of the brave?
The home of the great, filled with people of all types.
Some want to heal others, or change what others think of them.
People from the Great Lakes to the majestic mountains,
They want a world of love,
They want a world of peace,
But most of all,
They want a world of togetherness.
my letter to America and its people
by Jared, sixth grade writer
Have I told you how beautiful you are?
How your glistening fields
Go as far as the eye can see
To the oceans that surround us?
And how your people
Inspire others as they go?
Have I told you that you are an angel,
The ones that swoop down and protect you,
Past the bullets and cannons,
Past the bangs and the booms?
When you search the Red Cross,
You will find Clara Barton.
Her courage is represented
By the many lives she has saved.
Have I told you that you are a shield,
That the tragedy at Virginia Tech proved this?
Many lives were taken, but you saved your students.
When they heard the first bang,
Liviu Librescu held the door fast and first,
So that it would not burst.
As his students climbed to safety,
Clambering through the window.
Liviu was shot when the door flew open,
But his students had escaped.
Have I told you that you are the messenger from the gods?
I don’t know if it was skill or luck,
But you made everyone hear your alerting voice.
“To arms, to arms, the war has begun.”
Your furious ride turned the tide of the war.
You rode so far and hard that one of your horse’s hearts stopped.
Israel Bissell, you bested the great Paul Revere
As you rode into so many towns with warnings of Reds.
America, have I told you that you are made up of many different people?
Big and small, smart or simple, rich or poor,
It may be a big globe, and you are relatively small,
But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a big difference
Because you do already.
Using this Poetry Format in New Ways: My sixth graders (who will be my seventh graders next school year) now have a new poetry format "under their belts." I teach a lot of poetry formats that can be easily used in the other core content areas (math, science, history), and this new one will become yet another type of poem I encourage my teaching teammates to use. Here are just a few of the other poetry formats my kids no how to use in all their core content areas; one of these days, I'll have write-ups for all fifteen or so I eventually teach them:
- Start & Stop Poems
- Recipe Poems
- So Much Depends Upon Poems
- Personified Vocabulary
- Important Book-inspired Poems