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Poetry & Descriptive Reading and Writing: .A Teacher's Story of How "Fluff" Led to Rigor



Eons and eons ago in my teaching career, a colleague once said to me, "I don't know how you find time to get to that fluff." Even now, the words still slap, and my face burns with the memory. I had been teaching poetry in reader's workshop and my students had used choreography to express their thinking and understanding of the poems they were reading. 

They performed their poems for each other and their parents, but more importantly, their choreography became a means of discussing the complex texts they were reading. At the time, I was using this as an action research project for a teacher leadership academy in which I was participating. I was diligently tracking my students' implicit understanding of poetic text. In the end, I found that my atypical teaching approach hugely impacted my ELL and special education students. Their scores jumped. 

And yet...

Poetry was fluff. 

It still stings.

The writer uses descriptive language to show how scared and nervous Jill is. Give some examples from the book.
                           -Level R, "The Election," Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System

I was giving my last Fountas & Pinnell reading assessment in the first round of assessing for the school year. Like Pavlov's dog that salivated every time the bell was rung, I reflexively braced myself for my student's answer. Some form of this question appears at almost every level of the fiction assessments, and my students were falling down...HARD. 

They don't know what descriptive language is...

This realization hurt my heart. Maybe it's because of our obsessive focus on non-fiction text? Maybe it's because we only teach poetry in April? Maybe it's because we don't talk to each other the way we used to before digital age? I'm not sure, but it's a trend that is alarming. I've noticed it over the last five years. Our students don't have the language to describe things, and they don't have the ability to recognize descriptive language. 

Has anyone seen my box of fluff? 

The concept of Found Poetry has always fascinated me. I love the idea of taking prose, noticing the beauty of the language, and recycling it into poetry. I think of it as word ecology...where every day could be Earth Day in reader's and writer's workshops!  Using prose to write poetry addressed both of my students' needs:
  1. Noticing and thinking about descriptive language in text.
  2. Using descriptive text to improve elaboration and writer's craft in writer's workshop.
We started by using a fun website that I had discovered that took familiar patriotic songs and taught students how to create new poems from the lyrics they "found" in the original song. You can find it HERE. I did this because I wanted my students to get the gist of what we would be doing before we used our own texts. 

Then, I dusted off our picture book texts.  I took a hard look at the picture books we were reading together. I had recently read Appelemando's Dreams by Patricia Polacco and Imagine by Bart Vivian.  Both texts are about daydreaming and the power of imagination. I pulled an excerpt from Polacco's text: 

And I pulled the text from Bart Vivian's book:

I tried to use description-rich passages. We reread the passages together, and then we read them again. Students highlighted sentences and phrases that stood out to them. 

I asked them to explain what had made them choose the words they did, and our conversation exploded. They reported that the words they zoomed in on actually helped them visualize what they were reading. This is exactly what I wanted. From there, I was able to again teach descriptive language. We discussed our favorite phrases.

Then, they took the phrases and sentences apart until they had a list of words.  I taught them to add words that we commonly use (conjunctions, articles, prepositions, pronouns) to their lists. 

Then we began our Found Poetry. We arranged our words just as we did on the website. The results were beautiful, but more importantly my kiddos had a better understanding of what descriptive language is, why it's important to zoom in on as a reader, and why writer's use it. 







One of best thing about this approach was watching my students use descriptive language in their own writing. ,They were successful because they were supported and could use the "inspired language" from an author's text. This approach is especially fantastic for my ELL students. In doing so, they were able to make it their own. Exciting stuff! 


If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
                                                                          -Emily Dickinson

If you're interested in trying a "Found Poetry" approach with your students, or maybe just diving into more reading or writing of poetry, visit the links below by just clicking on the pictures (one is free)!





This week, I've linked up with some inspiring educators for our monthly Teacher Talk. Visit their posts below!



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