When A Lesson Doesn’t Work

I write a lot of creative writing lessons for the students I work with. I have a large collection of tried and true lessons that are sure to get some amazing writing. But like a chef who might cook the same food over again every night, those lessons become worn and tired. I am constantly on the look out for new lessons to test out and see what kind of writing emerges.

Sometimes lesson don’t work. Like at all. And you know it as you watch the lesson fall apart in front of you. Your face becomes red and your mind begins to sprint, you think, “What can I do to fix it?”. This has happened to me, numerous times, and I hate it. It makes me second guess my natural instinct as a teacher and sometimes I feel hesitant to take the necessary creative risks with my writers. However, there are those times when a lesson can be tweaked, revised, and eventually saved from the graveyard.

13 Ways Poetry

I initially had come up with this idea after hearing a fellow creative writer talk about a project he did with 3rd graders after reading Wallace Steven’s “13 Ways to Look at a Blackbird”. In his class they read the poem and focused on how the author had 13 different ways to look at one object. Then they created inkblot paintings similar to the Rorschach Tests often using in psychology. They then wrote 13 ways to look at an inkblot.

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I was intrigued that 3rd graders could be able to analyze such a complex poem, find inspiration for their own writing, and incorporate art as well. I thought for sure, if 8 year olds could do this work, then my 6th graders could take it to another level.

I began crafting this lesson by first really examining the poem to determine what our focus for our writing could be. It wasn’t just that Wallace Stevens wrote about a blackbird 13 different ways, his writing was about the meaning a blackbird held, situations a blackbird might interact in, and the symbolism it represented. In addition, the structure of the poem captivated me as well. Short, rhythmic stanzas that invited curiosity and wonder. And so, I wanted my students to read this poem, brainstorm elements of nature, and write a series of short poems to describe their natural object in unique ways. Sounds simple right? I thought I had this totally figured out and had high hopes that this might be the pinnacle of my teaching this year. I envisioned people asking me on the street about the earth shattering poetry my students created from this lesson. However, the exact opposite happened. It flopped. Royally flopped. And at first I couldn’t figure out why.

My teaching schedule has a long break in between classes where I often try to catch up on work or plan for upcoming lessons. But this time, I needed to reflect on the disaster I just witnessed. I eventually figured out these key issues:

  1. The Students did not connect with the text. As much as I used every ounce of my enthusiasm and dramatic movements, the kids didn’t really get or care about this poem. It was so long that after the first four stanzas their eyes wandered and their attention went elsewhere. They didn’t see the beauty or awe that I did and I needed to figure out a way to get them on board. The poem is good but did I need to read aloud all 13 stanzas to make my point? Could the students still get the point that Wallace Stevens describes in many ways with just four stanzas?  I needed to narrow in the students’ focus to retain all of their attention with this poem.
  2. My sample writing was not clear. After my class brainstorms, I will often model with the class and come up with a quick sample of a piece. Usually the kids are able to help me craft a piece with me but this time, even I struggled to come up with a good example. This made me realize, “If I had trouble coming up with a solid example to show the kids, how can I expect them to do it in a short period of time.” This meant that I needed to spend my own time thinking and doing the writing myself. I had to come up with a solid example and do the hard work that I was asking my students to complete.
  3. The brainstorm was not structured. To me, the biggest part of a writer’s workshop is doing some kind of brainstorming to help get the creative juices flowing. When I invited the students to brainstorm about their natural object to look at in different ways I only gave a vague series of guiding questions about their object. I assumed they would all be on board and know what to do. No at all. Rather, they looked quizzically at their papers and struggled to put down anything. They needed a concise format that would help them generate ideas.

After much reflection, the lesson dramatically changed. I switched the focus of the lesson to looking at an object in new ways never thought before. I pared down the poem to just four stanzas to notice the language, structure, and format of the poem. I created a brainstorming format for students to generate ideas using thinking stems. I went through the process myself, brainstorming my idea. My chosen natural object was the moon.

  • moon is… taunting, bully, constant reminder, revealing of secrets
  • moon could be…. a friend, the answer to a hidden secret, a hole in black blanket
  • moon does…whisper, shines, nags, beacons, yells
  • moon means…peace, guidance, tranquility, freedom

And lastly, I wrote and created an example to share with the students. This would be my modeled piece of writing pulled directly from my brainstorm and inspiration from Wallace Steven’s poem:

 

I. Among the midnight sky the moon sits on its throne

as her subjects shine. 
II. The moon whispers
reminders of my 
hopes and dreams. 
A beacon for my secrets. 
III. The forest lays still.
Yet the moon eerily watches. 
IV. It felt like winter all summer long.
As the crisp dew waited
for the sun to return
and the moon to retire. 

The changes I made did make a difference and it was clear in the students’ writing. Instead of surface level descriptions from my earlier class, these new pieces had developed a true voice and deep thought. This revised lesson did work better and I could tell from the drastic decrease in confused hands raised wondering of what their writing should be. Instead, after having clear examples and ample opportunities to process, my students were ready to write.


Fire by Molly 

I. On the forest floor, 
the fire burns the wood
it sits on. 
II. It flows with the wind
and lights the way as a 
source of light but also
destruction. 
III. The canvas is empty 
until the red paint of fire hits it,
to create a masterpiece. 
IV. It whispers and floats up to the 
world above. 
It grows as the wood
withers below. 
V. The fire remind me of
all my nightmares and
sorrow of the day
that has past. 
VI. It shares and spreads my word
throughout the trees that is the
source of its happiness. 

Clouds – by Joy

I. Clouds are our protector. A veil covering us from the darkness of the land beyond. 

II. The white spirits against the blue infinite.
Ghosts of white,
Pure in every way. 
Angels in the fog. 
III. Stalkers of disguise.
Protectors of invisibility.
Companions that come back, 
friends of no sin. 
IV. Gateways to a hidden world. 
A world of calm, 
Where chaos is banned from invasion.
Unity’s home,
Where division is unheard of and unknown.  
V. Clouds, 
The symbols that there will be and is more,
The reminder that there is no limit. 


I never like to admit when something doesn’t work. I felt like this was such a tremendous learning experience for me as a writer but especially as a writing teacher.
When have there been lessons that have failed for you? How have you reflected and recovered from them?
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