April 12, 2016

Friday, October 29, 2010

Portrait Poems Lesson with Shonto Begay

Happy Poetry Friday!

Elizabeth Taylor
Munsch's "Scream"
Barack Obama
Renoir's "A Girl with a Watering Can"

No, it's not a poem. The items on this list have something in common. All were images my fourth grade students wrote about for our Portrait Poems workshop.

I just finished up a three week residency with students at Harford Hills E.S. (they're awesome, enthusiastic writers!)

They loved our session on portraits -- air crackling with excitement kind of "loved." It helped to have a wonderful model image and poem from Shonto Begay's book, Navajo.

Mr. Begay was kind enough to answer questions the kids had about his poem, and his life as an artist and author. I'll share those later today.

For younger kids, I split the portrait poems into two parts. First, the poets observe and record the details of an image featuring a person or face. Second, they imagine a story about the person. Concrete. Creative.

Here is the lesson:

1.  Look at the model image together. Discuss what we see (observe). Then, make guesses about the person. (Shonto Begay's "Down Highway 163" posted with permission of the artist.)

2.  Read and discuss the model poem.


by Shonto Begay

The old lady in the back of the truck
Has seen days much colder
Someone's grandmother
On the highway towards Kayenta
Only her face shows from a faded blanket
Her features are strong
Maybe she is related to the people in the front
Laughing and warm
Or maybe she is catching a ride to the trading post
She may even be returning
From the health clinic in Monument Valley
The back of the truck is cold
Among old spare tires and chains
Shovels and bare metal box
She is no stranger to Old Man Winter
She has seen many winters
It has been colder

Posted with permission of the author.

This poem prompted the richest discussion we had during the residency. Many children were offended on the grandmother's behalf. We talked about the weather, and how being cold can describe a person's behavior -- not just the season.

3. Bring out the portraits! We had newspaper and magazine clippings, but the school art teacher also provided some famous faces. Each student chose a portrait.

4.  Writing time.

First, write down what you see. The details you observe.

Second, imagine something about this person like Shonto Begay did in his poem.

It's as if the image you are holding is on the television, and you've pressed pause. When you imagine, it's as if you are hitting "play." What does the person do next?

There were some wonderful poems! Liz Taylor dressing up crazy for a party, where she wants to win a prize for being the wildest dresser. "The Scream" is now set on an opening drawbridge, with a stunning rescue about to take place. Barack Obama has just won the election, and he's realizing the weight of being president.

I'll post the kids' questions for Shonto Begay later. I hope you'll stop back for that discuss -- it was a wonderful sharing and I'm very grateful to Mr. Begay for taking the time to connect with my students.

They were surprised to learn that Mr. Begay was sent away to Indian School at age five, rarely permitted to see his parents, punished if he was caught speaking his native Navajo.

If you'd like to see more of Shonto Begay's work, check out his website, or this article.

My friend Toby Speed is hosting Poetry Friday today -- get cozy with more poems at The Writer's Armchair!


Unknown said...

I just printed out a copy of this post to send to school with my son--I think his teacher will find this very inspirational. Thanks for sharing this.

Author Amok said...

Thanks, Toby!

Blythe, that's a nice compliment. Thank you. Also check out "The Poem Farm" -- Amy's portrait poem (and accompanying photo) from 10/22 is a good supplement for this lesson.

Tabatha said...

Sounds like a great lesson, Laura! Getting kids excited is what it's all about. Shonto Begay's poem is a keeper.

Mary Lee said...

Begay's poem and image leave me cold. Literally and figuratively. He did his work well!

This lesson sounds like a keeper! (as in...I will keep it to use in my classroom!!!)

Author Amok said...

I believe in multiple intelligences theory -- having the images was a great entry-point into writing for many of the students. There must be a lot of visual learners in the group!

Mary Lee -- best compliment I've had today! Let me know how the lesson goes in your classroom.

laurasalas said...

What a great poetry activity, Laura. I use images a lot (myself and with kids), but I tend to avoid images of people. I find them constricting. But this gives me a new concrete way to try using them. Thanks!