For this guided writer's notebook lesson, students learn to imitate Williams' 16-word poetry style--just as Jack does in Creech's novel--by applying the formula-poem to a topic from their own lives. Then, they continue practicing the form by applying it to history, science, and math topics and vocabulary words.
Students ultimately create a notebook page that shares (and illustrates for) four original sixteen-word poems they have written and edited carefully. If you are using my Monthly Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards, this type of poem becomes a regular choice for writing after it is introduced in the month of October; you'll find it as an option for making "Bingo's" not only in November but also in many of the future month's cards.
Sharing the Mentor Text/Brainstorming:
If you're reading Sharon Creech's Love That Dog as a whole-class novel, then you'll "kill two birds with one stone," as it were as you introduce the poem that inspired this writing assignment. Early on in Love That Dog, the main character reads William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" and writes his own imitation of the poem as a class assignment. If you aren't reading Love That Dog, you can easily find "The Red Wheelbarrow" online, print it, and simply share that sixteen-word poem to launch this writing assignment.
Most students look over this poem--like Jack does in the novel--and ask, "Why is that even poetry?" I always explain that the final twelve words in this poem are there to "paint a common picture" in the reader's mind; the first four words, I tell them, are there to launch an interpretative discussion that I expect with all poems I share with them whole class. I say, "We can all visualize the red wheelbarrow, the rain water, and the chickens, but why does so much depend upon this image? Does he mean life depends upon this image? Or happiness? Or what? And what kind of person would even claim that so much depends upon these three images? Who do you believe this poet is to make this claim?"
Then I ask, "If you were to write a sixteen-word poem whose first four words were So much depends upon... what simple-yet-succinct image(s) would you include after those words? If you were only allowed twelve more words, you would really have to choose your words carefully, if you wanted others to have enough information to try to interpret and discuss the meaning behind your sixteen-word poem."
I next ask students to think of an important personal event from their own lives--perhaps one they connect with an emotion that was strong. I ask them to begin brainstorming the perfect twelve words to describe the most momentous scene from that event. "If you can avoid the and a and an, you'll be practicing a better word economy," I say.
For my teacher model for this personal 16-word challenge, I tell them that I lost my father to cancer back in 2004. My two brothers and I were all able to visit our dad just a few weeks before he passed away, and we played a great late-night poker game as one of our final all-the-Harrison-men-spending-time-together activities. My father loved poker, because he loved to bluff, especially when he had a terrible hand and felt he could make us all believe he did not. I remember that poker game very fondly, especially the fact that on the next-to-last hand, our old man successfully bluffed all three of us one final time. My sixteen-word poem for this important memory is as follows; by the way, I justify next-to-last as a one-word adjective because I used the hyphens:
Being able to capture a succinct, important image or memory in sixteen words takes some practice; many students will just slap down the first words that come to mind, and you have to be ready to deal with that. I require my students to try two or three versions/approaches to the same important moment they are focusing on, and then I have them poll their friends to find out which version comes across the best. Eventually, that best version is edited (with proper punctuation and spelling), then neatly placed in their writer's notebooks with an original drawing or cut-out image from a magazine or personal photograph.
Once my students understand and practice the sixteen-word poem format a few times, I can challenge them to use it many ways in class. Some of my favorite ways to incorporate it are:
As an exit ticket alternative. I say, "Capture the most important idea/concept from today's lesson in a 'So Much Depends Upon...' poem."
As a chapter summary format, if we are reading a novel. I say, "Justify the most important thing that you believe happened in this chapter by turning it into a 16-word poem."
As a writing across the curriculum prompt. I say, "Explain an important concept you've learned in another subject by reducing it into a 16-word poem. I am going to show your poems to your [insert subject name here] teacher, so be sure your being thoughtful, accurate, and spelling content-based vocabulary right!"
It's the third bullet above that I used to create my teacher model for this writer's notebook page, which you can access below.
Creating/Modeling a Writer's Notebook Page:
In my writer's workshop, most of my students' ideas for their independent writing begin in their writer's notebooks. If you have never established a writer's notebook requirement for your students, be sure to read over WritingFix's Writer's Notebook Resource Page, and if you can, get yourself a copy of Ralph Fletcher's A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You. This little advice guide from Ralph (pictured, at left) is a constantly-referred-to text in my classroom, especially in the first few months when we're setting up our notebooks. Unlike a journal, which contains daily thoughts and a writer's "ramblings," a writer's notebook is a place where students 'save and hone' quality ideas for future writing that occur to them. "If you're not willing to write further about that topic/idea during an upcoming writer's workshop," I am often heard to say, "then don't devote a page to it in your writer's notebook." I also am well-known for requiring my students to make their notebooks very visual, incorporating stickers, cut-outs, and/or original drawings inspired by my Mr. Stick character, which I introduce them to in the first week of school.
For my classroom, we set-up this "16-word Poem" page pretty early on in the school year, recording one poem (using about 25% of the space on a page) on a page, saving room for three future 16-word poems that I will eventually assign them in the next few weeks. As I said above, I make sure the other 16-word poems recorded on this page are for "Across the Curriculum" thoughts, but you don't have to do it this way. I simply want my students to practice with this poetic form multiple times on different days, so they can practice the skill of succinctly capturing a "most important idea" with very few words. Like writing a haiku well, this type of poem takes practice.
I began my notebook page with a 16-word poem about something from my own life--the story of my father's final bluff in poker. I illustrated my poem, then added the science, history, and math examples over the next few weeks. By showing my teacher model on the first day of this assignment, the students understand that they are to save room for three future 16-word poems, and in my class, they understand that I want them to apply the format to other content areas. They also know they are to leave room for small visual representations.
Below is the model page from my actual notebook. I purposely wanted my teacher model to show how one sometimes need to be creative with just sixteen words; in the example about my Dad and the math example, I use hyphens to establish more-descriptive single words made from multiple words; in the history example, I use two abbreviations (for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Civilian Conservation Corps), and I use number representations in the math. When/if you make your own model page, I would suggest you try to show some creativity/innovativeness to maintain the sixteen-word requirement; your kids will pick up on this, and they'll ask for permission to be just as creative or ingenious, which you always should encourage. A writer's notebook is the perfect place to "play" with language like I have tried to do here:
(Click here to open a printable version of this notebook page.)
Sharing/Talking/Planning Future Writing:
The reason why I require visuals in my students' notebook pages is that--when I ask them to share with each other--those visuals always launch a great conversation; when only words appear on a notebook page, my students have a harder time starting a real conversation because it's easier just to read what they've written aloud to each other. Require students to share pages like this one with each other and often, and make sure they are explaining their drawings to each other; that's where an actual conversation (as opposed to an out-loud reading of words) can begin.
Now...I have two goals when teaching this poetry format: 1) to establish a reflection tool that I can ask students to use at the end of future learning about any content or topic; and 2) to establish a way for students to really hone down an idea they might write about in the future. With my teacher model, I personally see the most potential of a future writing task with the 16-word poem about my father, though there are interesting bits of fact and personal relationships with vocabulary words embedded in the three content-based poems I share too; I could see myself turning any of these into a longer piece of writing, if I was asked to on a writer's workshop page. The point is: this notebook page would inspire me to tackle some of those ideas into longer pieces of original writing.
After students have laughed and shared their pages with each other, explain, "Next time we have a writer's workshop day and you're unsure what you can start working on, here is a page that should inspire you. I would hope to see everyone use--at least--one idea from this page before the year is out." Here's an additional use for this poetry format: I have also find it helpful to ask students--before they write a long draft about a personally interesting topic--to first write the story first as a 16-word poem; I really feel this helps students discover the most important image/detail in one of their seed ideas. When they actually write the real draft, I can say, "Make that image in the sixteen-word version the heart of your story."
My favorite thing that happens with 16-word poems is that I always find a handful of students (usually they're my more abstract thinkers) who really find they have a knack for writing this type of poem well. I discover them self-selecting to use the format a lot (even though I haven't prompted them to) when they are having trouble starting a piece of writing in a more-traditional paragraph, or when they are toying with independent topics in their writer's notebooks. When you find those students, celebrate their success with this succinct writing task. Challenge them to use their 16-word poems as a basis for theme- and image-driven writing to do during writer's workshop. Share their original examples with the rest of the class, challenging other types of thinkers to toy further with this William Carlos Williams-inspired poem.
Samples from my Students' Notebooks:
I enjoyed walking around the room late in November, asking students to show me their completed 16-word poem pages. Some had finished them during the first week of November; others waited until the last week to finish. Here are some of my favorite samples from my students this year.
from 7th grader, Bree
from 8th grader, Chris
from 7th grader, Danielle
from 7th grader, Grace
from 7th grader, Guillermo
from 7th grader, Jessica
from 7th grader, Kevin
from 7th grader, Wonje
An Invitation to Share Your Students' 16-Word Poem Pages:
You will have students who create awesome notebook pages inspired by this activity--ones that should serve as models for future students who go through this writing activity. I hope you'll consider photographing and sharing any students' notebook page that really are inspirational. Tell your students you're going to choose the three best notebook pages and post them at WritingFix's Ning; this is a fabulous way to motivate your writers, and tell your students they could very easily have their pages seen by the tens-of-thousands of teachers and writers who visit our free-to-access educational site annually.
The link below will take you to our posting page specifically set up for this lesson. And hey, I'd love to see teachers sharing their own models of this assignment too!
Click here to visit our ning's posting page,
where you can post photographs of student notebook pages.