Writing can be really hard, especially for kids. I see my students struggle the most when I introduce poetry. It almost seems as if when they are given fewer words to write, they worry more about having just the right ones. And that is important, but just as with prose writing, poetry can be revised. A common piece of advice heard in my classroom is, “Just get the thoughts out of your head and onto the page. We can worry about making them better later.” But it’s hard to make it better if nothing’s there to start with. Students can get stuck in their heads and freeze up before writing words on the page. I’ve found that two poetry-writing activities—blackout poetry and paint-chip haikus—are a terrific way to get even the most reluctant poets creating and enjoying the genre.
One of the most successful ways I have found to ease my students into writing poetry is the blackout poem. This poetry couldn’t be simpler to create: You take a page of text and black out all the words except the few words or phrases that will make up your poem. A quick search on Pinterest or Google will garner numerous examples for you to use as mentor texts with your students. Add a book that is falling apart that won’t make you cry to tear pages out of, and you’ll be ready to start. For blackout poems, students don’t even have to think of any words themselves; they find the words on the page and put them together in a way that creates a poem.
When I introduced the activity to my students, it started with lots of “This is too hard” comments. After seeing several different types of examples, the tone changed to, “Wow, this is pretty cool.” After about 10 minutes of working on them, comments around the room changed tone again: “I like doing this. It’s actually pretty fun.” And, “Hey, poems aren’t that hard.”
The first time I tried this, my students impressed me by coming up with poems that were way more sophisticated than I expected, and much more powerful than they were writing when trying to come up with the words on their own. I even heard, “I didn’t think I could write a poem, but this is pretty good.” I was thrilled to see the effect on students’ affective beliefs through this activity also.
The next day Robert walked into class and said, “I really like those poem things we did yesterday.” And Aurelia added, “So did I. That was the funnest thing we did all year.” Fun and stronger writing? That’s a keeper of an activity. And the unexpected benefit was that the students continued to think about it. A few days later Georgia told me, “I can’t read a book without thinking of poems now. Like I read a page and look for blackout poems.” So not only are students learning the form of poems and ways words go together to create them, but they’re becoming more aware of the beauty of words and language.
As I was talking with my students about poems, I knew that shorter seemed to be better as an entry point. Having to come up with fewer words takes some of the anxiety from the writing process. We had read several books with haiku (Guyku, Hi, Koo!, Won-Ton), and I knew from the past that this type of poem could be successful early on when working with poems.
My husband and I were walking through the home improvement store the weekend before I was planning to try haiku with my students. As we headed toward the registers, I glanced to the left and stopped in my tracks. “Go ahead, honey, I’ll be there in a second. Don’t worry, I’m not buying anything else; it’s something for my classroom.” What had caught my eye? Paint chips. But not just because of the pretty colors: The specific paint chips I saw had three shades separated by thin white lines. Three! Haiku have three lines. I thought that if I brought in something fun to write on, my students might be more excited about writing the words to go on them. They could also serve as inspiration.
After getting permission from the paint-area employee to select about 50 for a classroom activity, I grabbed an assortment of colors. My husband did look at me questioningly when I walked up with the big stack of paint chips, but I explained, and he could sense my excitement.
The first step when I got back to school was writing my own examples as mentor texts.
I chose two methods for writing paint-chip haiku.
- Simply use the mood/feel of the colors to inspire my words.
- Be inspired by the names of each color, and include those names in my poem.
The great thing about this was that it offered my students another entry point into figuring out words to put in their poems if needed.
When I introduced the activity to my students, they were excited and eager to choose the color paint chip they wanted. I emphasized that they should pick one they were inspired by. I also required them to draft their haiku on a separate piece of paper (we didn’t have an unlimited supply for mistakes). Once they checked in with me, they used a ballpoint pen and wrote their haiku. It was fascinating to see which students used the paint color names and which didn’t. And there were many opportunities to confer with students and guide their writing by getting them thinking about what feelings the colors evoked. Plus, it made for an eye-catching hallway display.
We have to create opportunities for students to find ways into the language, form, and feel of poetry writing. They may even find that they begin to enjoy it. Paint-chip haiku and blackout poems are two options that help my students find delight in reading and creating poems.