Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I Meant to Tell You before I Forget: a creative writing experience

I love teaching "I Meant to Tell You" themed poems. I first heard this lesson from a teacher during a demonstration on copychange poetry while facilitating the Ozarks Writing Project's Summer Institute. I quickly purchased my own copy of James Stevensons' children's book, I Meant to Tell You,  and modified this into a more organic and natural narrative writing opportunity for my students.

This lesson is easily adaptable for all grades levels.  I enjoy teaching it in my English IV class with seniors, particularly at the beginning of their last semester of high school. Seniors in America are often just beginning to think about "what's next?" I try to get my students to not only think about what's next, but also what is now, and what was then? I want to guide their thoughts toward the people who have helped them along the path of their first 18 years, and help place value on the relationships with family, friends, and significant adults in their lives. This lesson guides students through a series of memories and creates a platform to share their connection with someone close to them.

It varies in how I present this lesson. Sometimes I read Stevenson's book as an opener, lead the students in writing, and then follow that with previous students samples and my own poem about my grandmother. Sometimes we begin with the freewriting questions and then provide the samples afterwards. It generally takes two 48-minute classes, or one full 90-minute block.

Ms. Daugherty and Grandma Susie, Valentine's Day, 2007
With all writing, we begin by freewriting, but before we do so, I share my personal writing story and a photo of my Grandma Susie. "This is the mother of my mother" I explain to the students, "and after my mother died when I was 10, this woman became one of the single, most influential and significant women in my life." I go on to talk about the poem I wrote to her for Mother's Day, 2008, based from this writing we are about to do, and I let them know that her death in 2011 is still a painful grief for me to bear. "The death of a beloved is an amputation" wrote C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed, and I surely still feel physical loss with the passing of this woman.

As we start, I ask students to think about and write down the names of the closest people to them, These are the people who have made an impression or an impact on them; people who, if were not in their lives, would leave a significant hole. My grandma was one of those people for me. I follow that by posting one question on the board at a time, and then offer students three-four minutes of private, quiet writing time. I also let students know that everything they write during this session is private, not to be shared with a partner, me, or the class.

Work sample from a student
during focused freewriting. Eventually
this student may choose to continue
this into a formal piece of writing.
After questions have been answered, sample poems have been shared, and students have had a few minutes to talk about writing possibilities, writing time is provided. Options are available. Students can use the copychange structure, or any genre within the narrative mode; I encourage creative non-fiction, memoir, essay, or narrative poetry. (A note about the copychange: if you're worried this doesn't produce authentic writing, keep in mind this is a strategy that provides students with the skeleton model of a poem. Mimicking others is not uncommon. Walk into any museum and notice how many art students you may find sketching portraits. Also know the copychange style is sometimes a block for me as a writer. It feels like a worksheet; that I have to get it perfect before I write it down. I share these feelings with my students and show them examples of how I overcome it by starting anywhere on the page and writing in the margins)

Be sure to write with your students. Share in the messiness of crafting together words.

Below is my I Meant to Tell You about my Grandma Susie. I had the privilege of reading this aloud to her. It was framed, placed on the mantel, and eventually read at her funeral.

Dear Grandma, 
I meant to tell you, before I forget:
I remember growing up with you always there.

I remember we used to spend time at Bull Shoals Lake
When you and Grandpa would camp at Pontiac.
You always picked the prime spot--under oak groves overlooking bluffs
And always near water hydrants and bathrooms.

We would play games after dark by lantern light.
We'd clean the checkered tablecloths from the stickiness of fresh cantaloupe and watermelon
And divide up spoons and cards, or sometimes dominoes.
And then you'd bathe us in bug spray and bury us under sleeping bags and blankets in tents.

When I was little and spent the night at your house
You'd sleep in Rick's twin bed beside me,
I asked "Did you lock the door?"
You said "I never lock the door! But tonight I did."
You told me it was because there is something precious in the house.

I looked up out the window from the bed, afraid of approaching thunderstorms.
You said, "Grandpa will take us to the basement if it gets bad."
I fell asleep snuggled with stuffed animals and you.

By morning, you'd be back in your bed next to Grandpa.
I woke up early and crawled in beside you to watch the Smurfs.
Grandpa brought us bacon and juice.
A Saturday morning breakfast in bed.

The first time I remember you visiting Gainesville
You brought strawberries in a picnic basket.
We made homemade ice cream on the back porch.
You sat on the redwood deck with Mom, and Dad, and Grandpa, and our dog, Lucky.
You talked and laughed and I brought you lightning bugs in canning jars.

I learned who you were from Susie's Flowers and gained an adult respect and love.
You gave away so much.
You hugged old friends, and made news ones before they walked out your door.
I wanted to become who you are.
I hope I am who you were.

You always said, "She teaches in Willow Springs," to your customers.
You didn't let anyone leave without them knowing my accomplishments.
But mostly, you bragged that I was Carolyn's baby and Lionel's daughter.

I remember you were there when mom was sick, I think
You knew it might be the end.

I remember, once, how the nurses wouldn't let me in to see her in intensive care.
Together, we watched the doors slowly close and heard them latch, locking me out.
And I cried into your chest.

You hugged me tight, and between kisses on my forehead whispered
"I wish I could take her place."
I never knew a love so strong.

One day at the flower shop after a busy Valentine's Day
You hugged me tight.
You told me you couldn't have done it without me.

It was a while ago...
But I remember growing up with you always being there.
And all the things we did together.
I meant to tell you that. 
Love, Casey
Mother's Day 2008


Anonymous said...

I love this project. It offers a way to connect personally with students, which so important to high schoolers. I also love that you give options, from the copychange format to a free style of expression, since all of our students come to us with different skill sets. This allows the writing project to be both accessible and challenging for all. We, as teachers, will have to know our young people well enough to encourage them to adapt to their own strengths and needs. Your poem is so touching, too, I'm sure it inspires your students.

pens and needles said...

This sounds like a really useful teaching method. I'm glad you mentioned that "copying" someone else's style is not wrong or even uncommon. That old saying from Ecclesiastes is so true: there is nothing new under the sun. We only give it "our" perspective or interpretation. But most of all, I loved your poem. How wonderful that you shared this with your grandmother when she could appreciate and enjoy it! And I loved that she shared with you how YOU helped HER through the rough time. For kids, it is usually all about them. As we get older, we learn to see things from another's perspective. You two were there for each other, and that was your deep, abiding bond. Beautiful!

Crossing Borders said...

Apart from the fact that I love teaching creative writing to my students, the poem to your grandma made me cry. It is so touching and authentic. It must be very inspiring for your students.