Collaboration, Poetry & Junk Drawers

Recently, as part of a poetry-writing unit in Zoe Tuohy’s fifth-grade language arts class, students workshopped with Upper School writers in Creative Writing and Portfolio Development, a course offered each year by English Department Chair Andrew Lutz. Over the course of two consecutive Tuesday visits, the fifth-graders generated, revised and received feedback for their original poetry while paired-up with upper school students. The goal of the workshops was for the older students to offer insight into the poems—pointing out what worked particularly well and lines that resonated. Taking those moments as starting points, fifth-graders were then able to expand and further explore from there. As part of that process, many fifth-graders made their poems more specific, bringing out tactile details to help readers experience the words on the page and more vividly see the items being described.
 
The inspiration for the poems came from short prompts handed out during the first class visit. Fifth-graders were asked to choose a garage, junk drawer, closet, or kitchen cabinet. By taking inventory and specifica­lly listing objects that get stowed away over the years—bicycles no longer ridden, Christmas sweaters and dried-out markers—fifth-graders revealed a little bit of themselves. As often happens with writing, many of the aspiring poets were surprised at how their words suggested meanings beyond what they had set out to write. As Lutz explained to the group, "Once your words are down on the page, they take on a life of their own. Listen to your writing and step back as an author. Listen also to what people say about your writing and be willing to revise—always be willing to do, not what is best for you, but what is best for the writing." According to Tuohy, this was one of the biggest takeaways for her students. "At first, the fifth graders thought the older students would just be correcting their poems. What they learned instead was that they have a lot of great things in their minds, a lot worth sharing. They really benefitted from working with the older students."
 
The fifth-graders were not the only beneficiaries of the workshops, however. "Any time you are teaching, you are also learning," Lutz offered. "My students got as much out of the experience as their younger counterparts."
 
Excerpts from a few of fifth-grade poems…
 
I open the door to find something new each time
Like a spare portable heater
And my dad’s water-damaged bird encyclopedia,
Very big and heavy. – Max

My aqua and pink surfboard
Waiting for me to ride it – Elliana
 
Those poor rats were lucky; others were thrown into the woods
And their children were eaten by either the stray cat we named Midnight when I was five 
Or my chickens. – Cassie
 
And old headphones that do not even work,
They are all tangled.
And when I pick my good head phones up
They are tangled with them too. – Corbin
 
The drawer I dare not go in
Has reasons to be left alone. – Alexa
 
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Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a vigorous, meaningful and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.