Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog > 2018 > April
2018

While reading stories from my students this semester I noticed in many pieces there was a clear tension between two characters, but no other elements of conflict. In our individual conferences, many students expressed a desire for deeper and richer stories beyond the single line of conflict. “It feels like my story is missing something,” one student said.

 

Both in conferences and in class, I encouraged my students to draw out a third element in their stories—a character, a weather pattern, an object—that bears significance to their stories and pulls at desires of the two characters already on the page. Then the stories have three central elements in conflict, a triangle of tension as one of my own creative writing instructors called it.

 

While my students understood how adding a third element to their stories would be effective, the question many of them asked was “How can I do this?” In response, I led the class in a guided story exercise of five steps. Each step built on the next to encourage students to pay attention to conflict and to go looking for trouble. After each step, I gave students a few minutes to wander on the page and see where the prompt took them before moving onto the next. I used “you” in each step to encourage students to get in the mindsets of their characters.

 

First, I asked my students to place themselves or a character in a room.

   Where are you?

   What are you doing?

 

Then, I drew their attention to another figure in the room.

   There’s another person in the room with you.

   What are they doing?

 

I turned toward dialogue, asking students to listen to their characters.

   What do they say to you?

   What do you say back?

   What are you doing while you’re talking?

 

I finally asked them to look for another figure in the scene.

   You may have already noticed this, or you’re just noticing now, but someone or something else is in the room    with you two.

   Who or what is it?

   What do they say or do?

   What do you say and do?

 

Finally, for the closing of the exercise, I encouraged students to explicitly consider elements of conflict and tension in the scene.

   What do you want?

   Who and what is in your way?

 

When students came up for air at the end of the exercise, shaking out their hand cramps, I saw the pages of their notebooks were filled. As a class, we discussed the benefits of the exercise. One student said she’d forgotten to look for a third character when she started writing, so she was grateful for the prompt to pay attention to one. Another student found the open-ended nature of the prompts useful, so that he had authority over where he sent his characters. Yet another student found the closing part of the exercise, the question of what her character wants, to be a powerful question to ask each of her characters to make sure they all had something at stake in the piece.

 

My students almost unanimously asked for more guided story prompts, with the condition they receive even more time to write than the fifteen minutes I had set aside. I’m eager to develop more of these exercises to support other fiction skills, such as creating turns, developing a clear setting, and tuning ears to dialogue.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen KolbaDigital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida. 

 

“I was not excited to read this book,” says a student, holding up a copy of Morgan Parker’s There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé before our Introduction to Literature class starts. The poetry collection is the first book we’re tackling this semester. “But then she quoted Kendrick Lamar right off the bat, and I was like, I know this! I know what song this is from.”

 

My student is referring to Parker’s epigraph, a line from Lamar’s “A.D.H.D.”: “The president is black/ She black.” Already, my student has access to one of the cultural conversations that the poems exist alongside. I know this. His words play over in my head, and I think, this is why I start my poetry units with contemporary poetry.

 

Many of my Introduction to Literature students are nervous about poetry. It’s the kind of literature that they oftentimes see as locked behind a gate and only with the right key or code can they unlock a poem’s “secret meaning.” They view poetry as an elevated form of writing, in contrast with prose writing, which they view as “casual” (a terribly vague word that, when I press for greater specificity, usually means accessible or colloquial or language that’s familiar). While I question their use of the word casual, it highlights students’ relationship with poetry. That it’s prose’s buttoned-up, stuffy counterpart, guarding a lock box filled with the secrets

 

However, contemporary poetry offers students the opportunity to redefine their relationship with the form. If they can understand how their own positioning within history and a culture (a familiarity with the allusions Parker makes to Lamar’s body of work, or references to the Black Lives Matter movement) allows them to read, interpret, and understand a poem, then they might be more prepared to turn to poems from other periods. When they gain confidence reading contemporary poetry, they’re positioned to be better readers of older words. They’re less intimidated by poems from other time periods if they understand that at one point, someone was able to read that poem not because they had unlocked a secret code, but because they had the cultural context to do so.

 

Perhaps here is where teachers might worry that this method invites students to dismiss older works because they come from a different context. However, I get sort of excited when a student says, “I don’t get it because the poet’s references aren’t relatable to me.” These kinds of comments offer a perfect segue into a discussion about what it means to be an empathetic reader and why poetry and literature matter. I’ll ask the student (and the rest of the class): “What if I assign a poem written yesterday by a person with a completely different gender, race, socioeconomic status than you? And the experiences they relate in this poem are nothing like what you’ve ever experienced? Is it not worth reading? Or trying to understand?” The student, as well as a few others, will say: “I would try to understand.” And so I prod further: “Why would you try to understand?” At which point, they’re a little bit cornered: “Because it’s good to hear and try to understand different perspectives and experiences.” We enter a discussion about how reading poetry from other eras can help humanize experiences that are different from our own, which then will usually spiral into a wider conversation about how poetry and literature can make us better people.

 

By unlearning some of the expectations that they have of poetry—that it’s inaccessible, it’s too formal or lofty for non-English majors—students can gain more confidence in their ability to read poetry, which will in turn make them better and more enthusiastic readers.

 

April is National Poetry Month! We've asked some of our LitBits bloggers to discuss how they approach poetry with their literature and creative writing students.

 

Before the first workshop of the semester in any class I teach, I pass out a stack of papers, face down, and instruct my students to take one each. When everyone has a paper, we flip them over. I’ve given them a poem: "Kindness" by Naomi Shihab Nye

 

Without introduction, I read the poem. I pause when I reach the ending. Some students’ heads are bowed, gazing at their copies. Some have their eyes closed. Some are watching me.

 

“Why do think I wanted to share this poem with you today?” I ask.

 

The responses from my students vary depending on the course I’m teaching. But often, one of the early answers is a question: “Because you like poetry?”

 

“I do like poetry.” I smile. “But what is it about this particular poem?”

 

Soon, someone points to the lesson plan on the whiteboard. “We’re going to talk about workshopping.” Another adds, “And you want us to be kind to each other.”

 

“Great observations. So what can we learn about kindness from this poem?”

 

The room is quiet. My students frown at the poem, or at each other, or at me.

 

It’s time for a short writing exercise. I ask my students to write their answers to two questions: what can you learn about kindness from the poem? How does the poem make you feel?

 

Most of my students are used to analyzing writing. They are used to looking for meaning. They are not accustomed to looking inward, at their own feelings, at how the work is affecting them. Poetry, in this instance, helps them identify their feelings and prepare them for the vulnerable process of workshopping. An honest conversation about something other than workshopping encourages them to trust their ideas and each other before diving into their own work.

 

After a few minutes of writing I ask my students to share their responses with a partner next to them, if they are comfortable. I walk around the room, eavesdropping. “This is a sad poem,” several students say. “But it’s hopeful,” others point out. “I don’t understand all of it,” some students say, and their peers offer, “I think that’s OK.”

 

I bring the class back together and encourage my students to share their responses. They are animated, responding to each other, almost as if I’m not present.  

 

“I don’t like poetry much, but this is deep,” one says. “It’s like reminding you to walk in someone else’s shoes, you know?”

 

“Everyone has sadness. I’ve got sadness, you’ve got sadness.” A student points to herself and then to her peers.

 

“So we have to respect each other,” says another student.

 

“Even if we disagree.”

 

“Especially if we disagree.”

 

I step into the conversation after a few minutes. I encourage my students to point out their favorite lines.

 

“I like the opening: 'Before you know what kindness is you must lose things.'”

 

“You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

 

“It follows you like a shadow or a friend.”

 

All or almost all of my students participate in the conversation about the poem, even my quieter students. The poem animates them. They connect with each other over favorite lines and ideas. They connect over confusion and questions. It’s these connections that are vital to successful, thoughtful, and trusting workshops.

 

I read the poem one more time after our discussion, so students can listen to phrases they haven’t noticed before, memorize lines they hold dear, and remember how kindness will take them far both in workshop and outside the classroom.