The summer issue of the Teachers & Writers Magazine is out, filled with exercises and ideas for making writing come alive in the classroom and out. Here's the issue's featured article, a fun and surprising exercise for middle- and high-school students.
Texting the Shining Prince by David Andrew Stoler
At night, when nobody else was awake, the two teenagers would send secret messages to each other: short bursts of text that they would wrap like little gifts in layer after layer of meaning. Gossip, intrigue, flirtation, the blossoming of young love…if their parents found out what was really going on—if anyone found out—the teens would be in trouble, to say the least.
So they had to hide their true feelings in rich metaphors, each young lover in turn teasing out what the other had said, altering it to convey a new meaning, and then sending it back. In secret, they would unwrap each other’s notes delicately, deliciously, savoring each word like a buttery caramel—so much needed to be said in a format that was, by its nature, limited in length to a set number of characters. Through these messages, initial flirtations would turn to relationships, relationships would sustain themselves, would grow—and would, too, eventually wither and die as the youngsters moved on to other phases of their lives.
And while it may be true that each generation of teenagers invents the entire world from scratch (just ask them!), we’re not talking here about text messages and Twitter, despite the similarities. No; a thousand years ago teenagers in the Japanese Court were doing the same thing as their modern counterparts—sending secret messages back and forth—limited then by formal poetic structure instead of digital character count. These messages, though, were being sent under markedly different conditions than those faced by modern-day texting teens: traditional court etiquette made it difficult for a teenage boy to even properly see a girl who wasn’t in his family, forget about holding a conversation. And if the wrong boy was caught talking to the wrong girl, they weren’t simply sent to their rooms, didn’t just get their phones taken away for a month—they were exiled far away, sent to live a life of poverty, coldness, and isolation.
So, instead, Japanese teenagers—and, in fact, most members of the Heian Japanese court—sent each other poems. A glimpse of just the outline of a member of the opposite sex behind a carriage window screen was all it took to begin a steady stream of poems back and forth. Often snuck out in the sleeves of staff members, the poems followed the strict structure of early 11th-century Japanese Waka, a form that dictated a set number of characters /syllables, and whose subject matter often revolved around nature. The quality of the metaphors—and the penmanship—were used to judge the potential suitability of a sweetheart: the equivalent of today’s Jordans or Uggs. Puns and double-meanings abounded—if the poems were intercepted, one could at least then argue his or her innocence. (more...)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is fun to write about food. Food we love. Food we hate. Holiday meals. Favorite places to eat. Special occasion restaurants. Grossest, worst, most horrible eating experience ever. Our memories seem intrinsically linked with food.
Bringing in poems about food to the classroom is pretty much the closest thing to a sure-fire fun lesson. Everyone can think of a horrible meal or an amazing meal or a place they love to go to eat.
One poem that seems to particularly resonate with students of all ages — including adults — is “Good Hot Dogs” by Sandra Cisneros. (For a video that combines an audio reading of the poem with its text, go here; for the poem’s text, go here.)
“Good Hot Dogs” covers a lot of bases. It is a free verse memoir poem, evoking a youthful routine of going to a favored after-school place with friends, and it models sensory details, descriptions, and line breaks. Plus, it’s just a great poem. You can feel the joy of running to get the hot dogs, the taste of the onions, picture the narrator swinging her legs, the lighthearted nature of the whole scene.
After reading the poem aloud, I ask students whether the narrator is an adult or a child. We discuss how the narrator feels about the hot dogs, and which descriptions and sensory details show the narrator’s feelings.
“Good Hot Dogs” also has unique line breaks. Some lines only have a couple of words with sentences broken up and out of order. The poem serves as an example of how line breaks give a sense of rhythm to a poem, a guide to how the poem should be read. The structure is playful, contributing to the easygoing tone evoked in the poem.
As a warm-up, I ask students write a list of the following, which can of course be altered: five food items they love, five they hate, five places they love to eat, and five memorable meals. Students then choose one food or meal from their list to write their own version of “Good Hot Dogs”, using sensory details and paying close attention to the line breaks. They can linger on the words to give them more emphasis, or list them all in one rush of one long line to show enthusiasm for Mom’s cheesy enchiladas or sweet spaghetti and meatballs.
Mmm mmm good!
-Susan Buttenwieser is a prose writer and T&W teaching artist. To read more about Susan, go here.
Thanks to NYU Writers in the Public Schools Fellows Javier Zamora, Stephanie Arditte, and J. Scott Brownlee for such a successful year at PS 110! Thanks also to all of the students who read their poetry this weekend at Barnes & Noble Union Square.
Couldn't make it to the B&N bookfair this weekend? No problem! Just visit bn.com/bookfairs to support us online until 05/23/13 by entering Bookfair ID 110022308 at checkout. Thank you!
"If writers have anything to offer, they should work directly with kids in the classroom and they should work with teachers who are doing something. And listen to the teachers,” said Herb Kohl in an interview in 1976. This is one fundamental belief Teachers & Writers Collaborative (T&W) still works toward today: how writers can learn from teachers and teachers can learn from writers. Kohl, a teacher, educator, writer, parent, social activist, and the founding director of T&W believes that children of every age learn in different ways, and it’s up to educators to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Kohl began teaching in Harlem in 1962 and since then has taught in many places across the country, including the University of California, Berkeley, Point Arena, California, The University of San Francisco (USF) and Carleton College. He helped to jump start T&W in 1967 along with Anne Sexton, Grace Paley, and others with the belief that teachers and writers working together can not only help kids with their reading and writing, but also develop close relationships to form a positive learning community.
“My development as an educator emerged from my practice in the classroom, informed by a vision of a decent world where resources were shared, creativity encouraged, and individual growth was accompanied by social responsibility and a commitment to social justice,” Kohl tells us in The Herb Kohl Reader (2009). He says that the teachers who inspired him as a student were the ones who took the time to learn about their students and to be curious about them as people. He wanted to be involved—not only with the kids, but also with the parents, other educators, and other members of the community.
Kohl’s development as a writer stemmed from his experience as an educator, and vice versa. He’s the author of more than 20 books including 36 Children (1967), On Teaching (1976), “I Won’t Learn From You” (1994), Making Theater: Developing Plays With Young People (2007) [a TWC publication], and The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening The Heart of Teaching (2009).
Sally is a senior English and creative writing major at Coe College (Cedar Rapids, IA) and holds an internship at Teachers & Writers Collaborative (Jan – April 2012).