Since I am a self-employed person, the IRS asks me to keep a mileage log listing my business travel: where I went, how far away it was, the people I met with when I got there. So here’s an ironic confession from a writer: every time I sit down to try to write an end-of-the-year holiday letter—something that because of my profession, you might assume I could easily pull off in the most clever and delightful fashion—it instead comes out sounding a little bit like my mileage log for the year.
So I’m playing with the form. And along those lines, I decided to try something out with the group of young teenage girls I mentor as a writing group: I had them write year-end holiday letters for themselves, but in poetic form. I reminded them that we’ve talked about epistolary poems before, and encouraged them to remember the many other poetic tools and elements we’ve discussed: metaphor, alliteration, imagery, rhythm, wordplay, the sound quality of certain words.
Their resulting letter poems were engagingly successful, and each girl’s work was distinctively different. A couple of them chose to write in stanzas. One wrote in rhyme. Their tones varied from funny to retrospective.
And for at home, if you’re a “Santa family,” an option for younger kids would be to help them write their Santa letters using simple poetic elements.
Maybe I’ve finally discovered a way I can leave the mileage log in the car and craft a letter of my own that makes a more poetic imprint.
“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”
A first draft is often written in a kind of overdrive, with words spinning across the paper without thought to whether they all belong. That’s a valid drafting technique, but a writer can’t stop there (however much most students want to), because that first draft acts as a block of marble. It includes such an excess of words that they imprison the perfection inside. It is only by revising—hewing away the excess—that the essential story, poem, or essay is revealed.
Picture books are one of the best tools I’ve found for teaching the beauty of “less is more” in writing. They are fantastic writing examples even for students who are well past reading them on a regular basis—including middle school and high school writers. The compact packages make for a quick study, and the best are great examples of storytelling, poetic language, the clear but evocative delivery of information, and sensory images.
Some of my recent favorites that work well with older students include City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems, A Leaf Can Be by Laura Purdie Salas, and Chopsticks by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.
Read them, talk about them, and then encourage your students to take out the chisels and get to work!
One of my dad’s greatest satisfactions in life is identifying an alternate driving route. His eyes shine as he describes the intricate twists and turns that will lead me along whatever course is his newest discovery. He’ll urge me to change the path I am comfortable with even if it will only save me mere seconds, despite knowing that I still routinely get lost even after living in the same city for almost thirty years now.
For the last several weeks I’ve been grappling with a family member’s medical issues, and that has forced me to “change routes” as well. I’ve been feeling a little lost as the regular patterns of my work and social life are disrupted. But it’s also caused me to notice and appreciate things I might otherwise overlook: bouncy Christmas songs on the long drive to the rehab center; my cat’s gentle snore as she waits for me to shut down the computer after a middle-of-the-night work session; the dandelion-fluff softness of my blanket when I finally curl into my nighttime nest.
So in that spirit of thankfulness for the little things that offer comfort, here’s a “list poem” activity for Thanksgiving. It will encourage your young writers to make sure to use all five senses in their work, which is a sure route to making their writing shine.