Monday, July 2, 2012

Writing Prompts

I promised awhile back to share some of the writing prompts I picked up at the Highland Summer Writers' Conference I attended last month at Radford. That day is here! 

Both of these prompts come from the poetry week taught by Joseph Bathanti. I've found that teenagers, much like the rest of us, can be very intimidated by poetry. Having them write their own is a great way to help them access other poets. Poetry writing in the classroom will also help me achieve one of my goals for the coming year: help kids see themselves as writers who write for the sake of creativity and fun. Both of the prompts take a little explaining and have some examples, so I'm going to put them after the jump.

Prompt One 
We read the poem "Ars Poetica" by Jackson Wheeler. You can find it here, but I'll also copy and paste it in case that link ever disappears: 

"Ars Poetica" - Jackson Wheeler
Because I was sung to as a child. Because my father shot himself when I was ten.
Because my mother took in ironing and worked as a janitor so that social services would
not take the children away. Because, my mother would say, she could turn on the radio
and I would lie in the crib and listen, quiet as a mouse. Because there was singing on
the radio: Kitty Wells, The Louvin Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, The Carter Family,
The Stoneman Family, and when I was older, Saturday afternoons with my father’s mother,
her dark Indian eyes glittering in the twilight of the room – boxing from
Chattanooga, Tennessee, announced by Harry Thornton. Because I watched my uncles
slaughter hogs, because I watched my mother kill a chicken for dumplings, because I
watched the Rescue Squad drag the Nantahala Lake for drowned vacationers, up from
Florida. Because Southern Appalachia was imagined by someone else – I just lived
there, in the mountains until I read about it in a book, other than the King James Bible,
which is all true my mother said and says, every jot and St. Matthew tittle of it. Because
God is a burning bush, a pillar of fire, a night wrestler, a swathe of blood, a small still
voice, a whisper in Mary’s ear, conceiving. Because my family is full of alcoholics, wife
beaters, spendthrifts, and big-hearted people, who give the shirts off their backs.
Because their stories lie buried in the graveyards, because their stories have been
forgotten, because their stories have been misremembered. Because my father’s
people said they were from Ireland, down Wexford way. Because my father’s father
baptized people, because my father’s mother bore a child out of wedlock and was part
Indian. Because my mother’s father got his leg crushed at the quarry, because my
mother’s mother died of brain cancer in her 50s. My friends think I talk too much, don’t
talk enough; that I’m too queer for company that I’m not queer enough. My mother’s
people were Scots and Welsh, three cheers for the beard of Brady Marr, three cheers
for the blood on the shields of the Keiths from Wick, three cheers for immigration, the
waves of it and the desperation behind it. Let’s hear it for King’s Mountain and the
Scots’ revenge for Culloden. Three cheers for extended family, the nameless cousins,
all the petty griefs and regrets, the novels never written, the movies never made, the
solace of the bottle, the solace of sex, the solace of loneliness of which there is plenty.
All hail the poetic arts, and the art of poetry and the knowledge at the heart of it all: 
Words bear witness. 

Then we all wrote our own poems about writing/creativity/art. I wrote two poems. One was about why I write, and the other was about why I teach. In writing the teaching one, I thought that instead of having kids write about writing (a difficult task if they don't like it), you could have them write about why they play basketball or create smartphone apps or anything else they like to do. Since this is a teaching blog, I will share with y'all the one I wrote about teaching: 

Because someone said I couldn't. Because my dad wanted me to go to law school. Because I was the only girl in the percussion section. Because Cara's uncle raped her and she came to school anyway. Because Mrs. Young called me a small-town girl with big city eyes. Because a boy once asked me if I all I wanted to do was teach even though I went to “such a good school.” Because reading saved my life. Because I sat under the stairs to write during lunch. Because I didn't hate high school. Because Mrs. Delp didn't forget to tell Kenny about the SAT, she just thought he didn't need to know. Because the family didn't have any money. Because he is the Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. Because Friday Htu spoke his first sentence in English, “Miz Thornton, is focus your favorite word?” Because it is what I was made to do.

Prompt Two 

We read the following poem about learning to drive and then wrote our own poem about learning to drive. The teacher then gave us some questions to consider while we wrote. The following are probably most useful to secondary students: 
1. Who taught you to drive?
2. Where were you taught? 
3. What kind of car? 
4. Pay attention to sound 
5. If you get stuck, look at Petit's poem. 

This exercise could be tailored to be about learning to do anything really. I think I might try it with my tenth graders and have them write about learning to do something that they do nearly every day now before we write process-analysis papers. 

Here is the poem: 

"Driving Lesson" -- Michael Petit
Beside him in the old Ford pickup
that smelled of rope and grease and cattle feed,
sat my sister and I, ten and eight, big,
now our grandfather would teach us
that powerful secret, how to drive.
Horizon of high mountain peaks visible
above the blue hood, steering wheel huge
in our hands, pedals at our toe-tips,
we heard his sure voice urge us
Give it gas, give it gas. Over the roar
of the engine our hearts banged
like never before and banged on
furiously in the silence after
we bucked and stalled the truck.
How infinitely empty it then seemed—
windy flat rangeland of silver-green
gramma grass dotted with blooming cactus
and jagged outcrops of red rock, beginnings
of the Sangre de Cristos fifty miles off.
All Guadelupe County, New Mexico,
nothing to hit, and we could not
get the damn thing going. Nothing to hit
was no help. It was not the mechanics
of accelerator and clutch, muscle and bone,
but our sheer unruly spirits
that kept us small with the great desire
to move the world by us, earth and sky
and all the earth and sky contained.
And how hard it was when,
after our grandfather who was a god
said Let it out slow, slow time and again
until we did and were at long last rolling
over the earth, his happy little angels,
how hard it was to listen
not to our own thrilled inner voices
saying Go, go, but to his saying
the Good, good we loved but also
the Keep it in the ruts we hated to hear.
How hard to hold to it—
single red vein of a ranch road
running out straight across the mesa,
blood we were bound to follow—
when what we wanted with all our hearts
was to scatter everywhere, everywhere.

This is the poem I wrote about learning to drive: 

Driving Lessons

Things had gone well in the high school parking lot.
Brake, clutch, shift, gas.
No curbs or Sunday afternoon joggers were harmed.
I was ready for the paved road that lead to our empty main street.

There was a slight hill with a stop sign.
I stepped hard on the brake over and over
forgetting the all-important clutch
as the small S10 continued to roll back.

My father, voice hoarse from shouting clutch! clutch!,
leapt out of the cab
eager to defend the only vehicle he had ever bought new
from the dent I was bound to put in it
as I rolled backward into the Bradford pear trees
outside of the United Methodist church.

He pushed against the tailgate
and managed to hold the 2,000 pounds of Chevy for a few moments
but then his arms that had always been so strong
in chopping wood or holding one of his babies gave out
and he had to step aside
to let gravity do what it would.

Whew. Sharing poetry is scary. I think it makes it a lot easier for students when you share what you wrote, too. Especially if it doesn't feel "finished" to you or has a lot of mistakes so that they can see good writing doesn't just naturally flow out of some people. It takes work. Also, for the record, I'm now an excellent stick shift driver. 

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