April 12, 2016

Friday, May 17, 2013

Portrait Poetry Friday: Starting with What's Real

One of my favorite workshops for elementary and middle schoolers is on portrait poems. (You can read a "poem walk" though the model poem, Shonto Begay's "Down Highway 163" here.)

The poem and painting "Down Highway 163" are featured
in Begay's book Navajo.
Writing a portrait poem requires a lot of imagination. For the third graders, who are still developing a sense of self, speaking in someone else's voice can be a challenge. What's been working for my students, I think, is providing structure for their imaginations. How?

1. Someone to look at.

I ask the teachers to gather fine art portraits from the art room for the lesson. I also bring in picture books with drawings -- mainly realistic -- of children. After we discuss Shonto Begay's portrait and accompanying poem, both titled "Down Highway 163," the classroom teacher and I put the images up around the room. Students quietly walk through our makeshift gallery, deciding which portrait they want to write about. Having an image in front of them provides structure -- tangible details to record in the poem.

2. Starting with what's real.

When we talked about the painting "Down Highway 163" as a whole class, I split our discussion into two parts. First, we listed the facts of the painting -- the things we could actually see. No guessing was allowed. There is a bag or sack in the painting. Fact. Do we know what's in it? No -- we put that kind of imagining on hold until we have all our facts.

Once we've exhausted the details of the painting, the class begins generating stories. The time for "I see" is over. Now we explore what we imagine. Who is the person in the painting? Where is she going and why? How is she feeling? What's in the sack? What happens next.
Leonardo Da Vinci Art Reproduction Oil Paintings
This painting by Leonardo da Vinci was one of the portraits
the children could choose.
When it's time to write, the students who need organization can make a t-chart. On one side, they'll write "I see" and list all of the things they observe in the painting or picture book image they chose. On the other side of the chart is space for "I imagine." Sometimes, I compare this to looking at the image as if it were a DVD on pause. If you hit the play button, what would happen next?

Last, I reminded students that they had an important choice to make, as poets. Did they want to narrate the poem, writing in third person and describing the story? Or would it be more effective to write in the voice of the character, the person in the portrait?

Here are some of the third grade portrait poems. You'll notice that a few students used their knowledge of stanzas (from the opposites poems lesson) to separate the "I See" elements from what they imagined about their subjects.

A student from Ms. Grim's class borrowed my Shonto Begay book, Navajo, intrigued by an image that shows a man transforming into a werewolf.

Wolf Man
After a painting by Shonto Begay

I am a sad guy without a shirt in the day time. Each hour of night I will change hairier and hairier, hungrier and hungrier. Then I get blood thirsty. Now I am the hairy beast of the woods. Attacking deer and bunnies, I go. Shredding the skin with my hard and sharp teeth. It’s getting to daytime. I am back to the shirtless me again, but lying on the grass and not knowing what happened. All I know is I like being back to a man.

Malia chose a picture from the art room. This was an artist's self-portrait, showing him painting en plein air.

Malia K.

I’m painting with my
favorite apron on.
My brushes flow smoothly over the canvas.
My blue shirt is soft to my skin.
I love painting still life,
especially the forest.
It’s very quiet. Too quiet.
I jump as a rabbit pops out of the bushes.
I look at all the animals and start to paint.
When I finish, I look at it and think…

Hunter's fine art portrait was of a young boy. The portrait was close up, with a simple, dark background. Our poet had to stretch to imagine the boy's story.

Hunter M.

I see hair,
a green shirt
and a hat,
blue eyes.
I see that he is young
and I see a mouth.

He is staring at a bird
because the bird
is feeding her babies.
He is feeling interested
because he has never seen
a bird feeding its babies.

Hannah also chose a fine art portrait. This one was of a girl. Hannah used the I See (stanza 1) /I Imagine (stanzas 2 & 3) strategy for her poem.

Hannah L.

The Dress-up Girl

I am a little black girl
wearing a white frilly dress.
A necklace hangs from my neck.
A bracelet hangs from my wrist.
I have dark brown eyes.

I throw down my book, losing my page.
I change into my favorite dress.
I am supposed to read, but I don’t.
My necklace flies over my head.
My bracelet slides onto my wrist.
I am the dress-up girl.

Oh, no! Mom has come.
She looks disappointed.
I hang my head with a slight frown.
I am in trouble but it was worth it.
I am the dress-up girl.

I can't remember which painting Cole used for his poem, but the poem stands alone. Once again, you can see how stanza one (I See) is a jumping off point for a powerful stanza two (I Imagine).

Cole E.

He is wearing a
brown jacket, brown
shirt with a beard
and a scar on his neck.

He is a wanted man.
He’s been running away.
He lives in the desert
or maybe the attic.
Will he get caught?
Will he get caught?
No. He keeps running
from town so he can
get a better life in
a different place, a
different time.

I was so impressed with the Northfield poets' insights into human nature. I think they impressed themselves, too! More portrait poems on Monday.

Enjoy your Poetry Friday. Ed at Think Kid, Think! is hosting the poetry party today. I see that Ed makes great use of technology on his website. I imagine Ed typing away, planning some high-tech poetry project for us to enjoy today.


Linda B said...

Laura, your lessons are helpful to me. I have a huge collection of art prints & have used them for writing with my middle school students, but this structure you've used will help when I work with the younger classes. The poems turned our beautifully, each obviously unique to both the painting and the student. I love the 'dress-up girl'. Thank you!

Matt Forrest Esenwine said...

These are nice, especially Cole's! Can't believe he's in 3rd grade.

Author Amok said...

Hi, Linda. I'm so glad you'll be able to use the lesson. Absolutely, the younger writers are capable of this stretch. I am always amazed by the quality of the portrait poems, no matter what grade I am working with.

Matt, thanks! I will pass that along. One thing I love about the poetry residencies is how they are different from regular school writing. Students who don't necessarily see themselves as writers (of essays, BCRs and the like) can be very successful composing poetry.

jama said...

What an interesting lesson that yielded great results. Enjoyed reading all these portrait poems, Laura. Thanks for sharing!

Buffy Silverman said...

Beautiful poems from your young poets. And thanks for sharing your approach with these kids. I've taken some notes that I'm thinking of adapting to a poetry workshop on writing animal mask poems--I think starting with an "I see" list will help many kids with an "I imagine" list. Thank you!

Author Amok said...

Hi, Buffy. I think applying the "I See/I Imagine" frame to your animals masks should work well. I'm glad you'll be able to use it!

One of the workshops I occasionally do with elementary schoolers is animal similes. We use an animal to stand for an emotion. I'd love to hear more about your animal mask lesson!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

These poems are wonderful-- I applaud your young poets! What a fabulous exercise, not just for writers and storytellers, but also as an exercise to develop compassion for others. A skill that seems to be getting lost by the wayside in today's technology-driven world.

Doraine said...

I love your lessons, Laura. I will come back to this one. Have you ever seen the book "Teaching Poetry Writing to Adolescents" by Joseph I. Tsujimoto? I used it in classes years ago, and loved his many creative forms. He includes some that I had never seen elsewhere. I'm sure you would love it.

Author Amok said...

Posting for Ruth! (I accidentally deleted your comment, Ruth. Sorry!)
"Portrait poems are such a great idea. Thanks for this post! "

Liz Steinglass said...

I think I remember when you did this last year. I love that the assignment asks them to consider what they know and then what they imagine. I hope to try this at some point. I especially love Hannah's.

Heidi Mordhorst said...

Hi, Laura--
So enjoyable! I'm talking about the children's work, of course, but also about the project, and the value of learning to put yourself in another's place (just this week we did that through acting out The Little Red Hen.) I also enjoyed seeing some change and growth from your summary of last year's portrait workshop to this year's. I want to add another poetry project to my curriculum next year...I think "I see/I imagine" could work well for K learning about animal adaptations. Thanks for all this!