Using Good Hot Dogs to Teach Line Breaks and Sensory Details

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.

Names

Maya: In Hebrew my name means water. In Hinduism, illusion. It is the NYC taxi driver’s favorite question. A familiar yawn in Israel and one letter away from Palestine. It means I know you from somewhere. Soft and sharp: the meeting of hair and metal comb.

Find me one person in the world who has nothing to say about her name. (Then find me a writer who doesn’t wish, longingly, to write like Sandra Cisneros.) Whether adored or despised, our names live with us. We cherish them, announce them proudly, turn away from them shamefully, shrug them away, change them, and twist them into nicknames. They are our identifiers and our travel companions. Points of mockery and praise, they make us cringe, stand tall, and perk our ears at their sound. 

The chapter “Names” in Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street introduces us to Esperanza:

In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.

The lesson is simple. Students read this short chapter and then explore their own names in a free-write. The narrator’s own playful and personal associations make it easy for students to dive into the deep waters of their own names. Without knowing Esperanza, we feel like we know her as we might an old friend, simply based on these vivid descriptions. And so we can get to know any young writer who takes the same plunge. Each voice, inevitably, sparkles.

-Maya Pindyck

Maya Pindyck is a poet and T&W teaching artist.  You can read more about Maya here.

Different
By Magda Chinea

My name is different and easy. It represents a shade of dark. Some people say it like it’s a long name. A lot of times, people say it wrong. Only Spanish people say it right. My name represents everything about me—from my head to my toes—from my outside to my insides. My name comes from a beautiful place that I wish to visit. My name is also a sort of mistake, but as much as people make fun of my name and mess it up, the more I like it. I love my name: Magda Luz Chinea, and I will never change it. It is the reflection in my mirror.

My Name
By Ashanti Garner

My name. It’s like a windy day or a huge black cloud. My name is like a question with no answer. I feel it’s pointless. I don’t know what it means, or hardly where it comes from, and I don’t really care. My mother named me. I don’t know what she was thinking. I wish I were Tiana or Emmanuella… 

Fine Tuning a Lesson Plan to Meet Students’ Skills

 

   

I believe most lesson plans can be tweaked to fit writers at all levels. This idea came to me a decade ago while getting an MFA in Creative Writing.

During a workshop, Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter, gave us a writing prompt and quickly added: “Don’t forget to use descriptive detail. Appeal to all five senses.” 

I found her words humbling, because hours earlier I’d conveyed them to twelfth graders. Yet the message can’t be repeated often enough as many writers, young and not so young, often share only what they see, omitting the other senses.

Fast forward to today, and I just finished teaching the use of sensory details to second- through fifth-graders whose skills vary depending on their age and placement in general education or a gifted and talented program.

The challenge: How to adapt one lesson plan to fit many needs?

With younger students (say first- through third-graders), I suggest spending a lot of time brainstorming, followed by creating a group description of their classroom.

As inspiration, I offer passages from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings. (more...)