Writing to a Historical Poet
Students will explore the voice of poets and write an informal letter to a historical poet asking how a poem was written.
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
- Unit Plan:
Welcome to the classroom component of the Academy of American Poets 2016 National Poetry Month education project, Dear Poet. The four lessons incorporate multimedia and classroom activities to encourage students to explore and interact with poetry by first writing letters to important historical poets as practice for writing letters to the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors.
Before beginning this lesson, the second of four in the project, make sure students complete the previous lesson, Selecting Favorite Poems From Historical Poets. There, students will familiarize themselves with several poems by historical poets and discuss themes of voice and personal response.
- Write a letter to a poet whose voice speaks to them
- State why the poem spoke to them
- Ask questions about the poem and how it was written
- Use an opening, body, and conclusion in their letter
- Employ proper writing conventions
Whole Class Warm-Up: Whip-Arounds
Step 1: Invite students to stand up and form a circle. Do the following whip-arounds one after the other. Start each cycle with the following prompts:
- Right now I feel… (using only a hand gesture)
- Right now I feel… (using only their voice with no words)
- Right now I feel… (using their gesture, voice, and descriptive words)
Step 2: Repeat the cycles using as many of the following prompts as you can: “I see…,” “I hear…,” “I dream…,” “I imagine….”
Step 3: Ask students to sit down at their desks to write how they are feeling (or what they see, hear, dream, or imagine) at this moment using only descriptive words. They should try to capture — in words only — some of what happened when they moved and verbalized. (This may be difficult, but they should try. It will get them somewhat closer to what poets have to do with the tools they have: the blank page, their internal voice, rhythm, and words.)
Ask your students to take out their notes from the Selecting Favorite Poems From Historical Poets lesson in which they responded to poets’ voices and discussed their choices. They will use these notes when they write draft letters to these poets.
Step 1: Ask students to look at their notes and find where they explain why this poet “spoke to them.”
Step 2: Ask them to jot down in their journal or on a piece of paper some questions they would like to ask their poet about how they wrote this poem.
Step 3: Ask students to turn and talk with a neighbor about the questions they want to ask, review the questions, and make suggestions on how to improve them.
Step 4: Ask the whole class for examples of great questions to ask in their letters. Write some of these on the board at the front of the room and discuss what makes a good question.
Whole Class Writing Activity
Step 1: Review the format for an informal letter, including date, greeting, and closing.
Step 2: Review what makes a good letter in their own voice: their opening idea, the body of the letter containing several paragraphs with their ideas and evidence, and their concluding thoughts.
Step 3: Ask each student to write a draft letter on their computer addressed to their chosen poet, telling him or her what in the poem spoke to them, and asking questions relating to how the poet wrote this poem and writes others.
Step 4: If they do not finish this draft, students can continue to write for homework or continue in another class session. Or, if you prefer, they can do the entire draft as homework.
Peer Review: Mirroring Activity
When your students have finished writing their first drafts, do the following:
Step 1: Place your students in heterogeneous groups of three (or in their usual writing groups, if you do peer review regularly).
Step 2: Ask students in each group to exchange letters so they each have someone else’s.
Step 3: If necessary, remind your students how to give constructive criticism, citing positives first and then specifics on what can be improved.
Step 4: Ask one student to read aloud the letter she has to the other members of her group.
Step 5: After she reads it, ask her to tell the writer what she thought the letter said and what was confusing about the letter. Is the letter writer’s voice strong and clear? The reader should also make helpful comments about voice, format, and conventions.
Step 6: The writer should take notes and incorporate helpful comments, especially those where the reader’s interpretation differed from the writer’s intent.
Step 7: Continue the process in each group until all three people have had their letters read back to them and recorded helpful comments.
This can be accomplished in class, as a combined in-class and homework activity, or as homework.
Step 1: Ask your students to rewrite their first drafts, paying attention to the comments they received from their peers.
Step 2: Students hand in their second drafts to you for questions and comments.
Submitting Letters to the Academy of American Poets
We encourage you to submit your students’ letters for possible publication on Poets.org in May 2016. Send all letters via post or email by April 30, 2016. Please include each student’s name, the poet that inspired his or her poem, and the name of your school.
The Academy of American Poets
75 Maiden Lane, Suite 901
New York, NY 10038
Literature Common Core Standards Addressed in These Activities
Reading, Craft and Structure:
Writing, Production and Distribution of Writing:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4 and 5
Speaking and Listening, Comprehension and Collaboration: