Thursday, March 19, 2015

Laura Shovan: List Poem Workshop

Carissa Rogers, Flickr Creative Commons

Things to celebrate today:
  • Poetry Friday
  • The first day of Spring
  • March Madness, Round Three
  • TLD contributer, Laura Shovan, is back with another terrific post about bringing poetry into the classroom – YIPPEE!

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Thanks for inviting me back to Today’s Little Ditty, Michelle.

I am developing a new poetry workshop for elementary schoolers: list poems. Today, I’d like to take you through the steps of how I create a poetry workshop for young writers.

When I’m putting together a new poetry session, my first task is to read and research poems. I am rereading an anthology of list poems for children, FALLING DOWN THE PAGE, A BOOK OF LIST POEMS, edited by Georgia Heard (Roaring Brook Press, 2009). As I read, I note poems I think the students will enjoy. Since this is an elementary workshop, I also look for poems that have an easy-to-follow structure, ones that students can model their own writing on.

I begin to think about the writing skills I hope to target. For elementary schoolers, I usually focus on one or two writing techniques in a lesson. In this workshop, I’m going to highlight sensory detail and imagery. (My favorite poems from FALLING DOWN THE PAGE are ones that include specific examples.) The second skill I want students to work on is ordering their lists.

This is the heart of the workshop. When we get an idea for a poem, we might brainstorm first. But what do we do with all of the thoughts, phrases, and jotted words? How does that material transform from notes on a page into a poem? Just like a to-do list, the key to a great list poem is how the details are prioritized. If we describe images and examples in a random order, we have little more than a list. But if we give care to the order of these items, that’s when a poem is born, whether it’s in the form of a list or not.

In particular, I plan to emphasize the importance of a poem’s closing lines.  Writers might want to save the best for last—choosing a cool idea or including a surprise in the poem’s finale. This leaves the reader with something to think about.

Let’s look at a model. Here is Heidi Stemple’s list poem from FALLING DOWN THE PAGE, “Under My Bed” (used by permission):

By Heidi Stemple

Under my bed
a party rocks
with dust bunnies and unmatched socks.

The guests line up
to do-si-do
Two by two and heel to toe—

A stuffed brown bear
with a missing ear,
a mitten knit with
a red reindeer.

A shoestring,
and a candy cane,
my sweater with the grape juice stain.

My favorite blanket
I thought I lost
and a sneaker that I must have tossed.

The book I was reading
but didn’t like
and the seat from my cousin’s ten-speed bike.

And, though my guests have had lots of fun,
it’s cleaning day—
this party’s done!

© Heidi Stemple, 2009
This poem is used with permission of the author and may not be further reprinted except with her expressed permission.

After I read this poem to students, I’ll ask them to point out favorite lines. We’ll also look for the items on the list that seem important to the speaker. We might discuss what we know or can guess about this person based on the things under her bed. (Does she have a sweet tooth? Maybe he seems forgetful.)

We’ll spend some time looking at the way the final stanza closes the poem. The reader gets a little surprise: Why has the speaker been cataloguing what’s under his bed? Because he’s cleaning!

Older writers will feel comfortable generating topics for their own list poems. I like to give elementary schoolers a little more structure. Using Heidi’s poem as a model, I’ll suggest the theme: “In This Place, You Will Find.”

This could be:
•    Found in my desk
•    Hiding under my bed
•    In the refrigerator
•    In my room
•    My back yard or garage
•    The craft drawer or the junk drawer
•    A neighborhood walk
I like this topic because it’s concrete, but students can choose something that suits their own lives and interests. There are other poems in FALLING DOWN THE PAGE that fit the “In This Place, You Will Find” theme, including “Lost and Finds” and “Walking Home from School I See” by Rebecca Kai Dotlich.

When I’m teaching poetry, I like to write a group poem at the board, with contributions from the whole class (if there’s time!). This allows me to model the writing process, which will include these steps:
1.    Choose a list poem topic
2.    Brainstorm items for my list
3.    Decide on an order – save something important or surprising for last
4.    Write a first draft
5.    Share
I’m not teaching the list poem workshop until April, when I will be in residence at Northfield Elementary. Be sure to visit my arts education blog, Author Amok, where I’ll have student list poems from this lesson. As always, after running the list poem workshop with the Northfield third graders, I’ll have lots of ideas about how to improve this session!

I’d like to send a big thank you to Heidi Stemple for giving me special permission to post her poem, “Under My Bed.” And thanks, Michelle, for hosting me today!

Laura Shovan is poetry editor for the literary journal Little Patuxent Review and of two poetry anthologies. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. She works with young poets as a Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Residence. Her debut novel-in-verse for children, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, will be published in spring of 2016 (Wendy Lamb Books). Laura blogs about arts education at AuthorAmok.

Read Laura's other posts on Today's Little Ditty:

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Before I send you off on your Poetry Friday rounds, just a reminder that next Friday, March 27th, will be the end-of-month wrap-up celebration for Margarita Engle's DMC challenge.  If you haven't sent in your tanka yet, this would be a good time to do so!  This week we were treated to poems by Linda Mitchell, Matt Forrest Esenwine, Leane Gill, and Kristi Dee Veitenheimer.

Also, I've been having a blast with #MMPoetry, and can't thank you enough for all the votes and other kind support that have carried me this far!  I'm quite proud of my Round Three poem and hope you will take a look at my match up with Randi Sonenshine (who also wrote a killer poem). If you're reading this on Friday, VOTING IS CURRENTLY UNDERWAY! Please vote for your favorite poem, regardless of the poet's name attached to it.

And finally, the winner of last week's giveaway: JONE MACCULLOCH! Congratulations, Jone, on winning a copy of TOASTS: The Perfect Words to Celebrate Every Occasion, edited by June Cotner and Nancy Tupper Ling.

Today's Poetry Friday roundup is being hosted by the generous and talented Catherine Flynn at Reading to the Core.


  1. Some good ideas here, Laura. I have the list poem book and one students who is writing lots of poetry has found it and is trying out this form. It's a fun exercise that students seem to think is not too hard to do. Thanks Laura & Michelle.

    1. Forgot to say congratulations on the MM Poetry win, and now time again. I'll look for your new poem!

    2. Thank you, Linda. It's been a lot of fun competing this year!

    3. Thanks, Linda. I'd love to know the title of the book you're using.

  2. Nice to get to see the thought processes of a teacher. I sort of go with the scattershot approach--I don't recommend it for teaching! Reading the MM poems has been a delight, yours especially!

    1. Thanks, Diane. Your encouragement means a lot!

    2. Thanks, Diane! I come from a traditional teaching background, which probably shows in this lesson. For that I can thank the amazing Muriel Becker, who taught many, many English educators how to teach.

  3. Michelle and Laura, thank you so much for sharing these terrific ideas. Falling Down the Page is one of my favorite collections and I can't wait to try this out with a group of third graders next week!

    1. Catherine, that's great! Let me us know how your third graders like the workshop.

  4. I am stealing this workshop, Laura. Hope that's OK. My kids will love it. I always get stuck with how to show them that the end of the poem is the kicker. Finding good models is absolutely necessary. Thanks!

    1. It's here to be stolen, borrowed, and used, Margaret. I agree. List poems can help us highlight how important the closing lines of a poem are -- whether we are reading or writing.

  5. What a great idea for a workshop. A cheery rummage poem. :-)

  6. Thanks, Laura! Wonderful post packed full of great ideas clearly presented. I need to reread my copy of Falling Down the Page now. :)

    Congrats on making it to Round 3, Michelle!

  7. Love your workshop ideas, Laura! I'm copying it and saving for inspiration.

  8. I love list poems! Thanks for sharing your workshop process, Laura.

  9. Michelle and I were both awed by this list poem, shared today at the Split This Rock website:

  10. Heidi's list poem is so fun and playful! What a great exercise for kids. I'm looking forward to checking out your book too, Laura! Thanks for the post!

  11. Heidi's poem is terrific. I've never had much luck with list poems, but Heidi's poem is such a good example, maybe I'll try again.

  12. I'm sorry to see that your cloud weavers didn't win, Michelle. Great poem!

    Thank you for this lesson outline, Laura! #amborrowing

  13. I love it makes me want to experiment with list poems. I do like to write poetry but that would be something new.

  14. Wow on so many levels, Laura! Thank you for shining the spotlight on Heidi's poem, too. And thank you Michelle for your awesomeness during March Madness. =)

    1. You're pretty awesome, yourself, Bridget. Thanks for your kind support. :)

  15. I've never tried a list poem, but Laura and Heidi make it seem possible. :-) I loved your weavers poem. I hope you can submit it to a magazine and it gets a fabulous illustration to go with it. xoxo

    1. There aren't many magazines that will take it now that it's been published online, Keri, but maybe it will find a home in my own collection one day. :)

  16. What a timely post, Michelle! I'm getting ready to talk to some 5th graders about poetry. Thanks so much for taking us through your steps on creating a workshop, Laura. This will be really helpful to me as I plan.

  17. You're so right about giving some thought to the ending!
    I wish every grade had a poetry workshop. Only the 8th graders have one in our area. It's a great one, but they need a lot more than that.

  18. Thank you Michelle and Laura for such a rich post. Love the workshop ideas - I know a few teachers who would definitely learn a great deal from this.