Writing to Music

Once or twice a year, I bring my mp3 player into class, and we write to music. We write to things like Tchaikovsky, Bach, Buena Vista Social Club, Edith Piaf, fiddle tunes, Tuvan throat singing, and a seven year old’s piano compositions. I avoid English lyrics, just to let everyone’s imaginations be free of a pre-made story. I usually let each song run for three minutes or so, and then shift to something different. Sometimes at the end I’ll leave on a good, emotional classical piece for fifteen or twenty minutes. The music makes it fun, and we can write for a long time.

I ask the children just to write down whatever words, ideas, feelings, or images come to mind when they listen to each song. If a whole story comes to life, they can write that. If it feels like a poem, they can write it like a poem. If they like a piece and want to keep writing it later, they can.

What is wonderful about this exercise, beyond watching everyone’s responses to all the weird/cool music, is how dramatically music stirs our emotions, and how many interesting, specific images it can generate. A sad woman folding socks for money, writes a student. A family standing on an island scared of sharks. A man at a beauty store playing a banjo. A mime pretending to die.  A man in a boat, singing to a swordfish. A cheetah is lost in a dark jungle. Slow yoga. The sky is singing to the people. How utterly strange and beautiful and particular! This is good stuff.

And once, this lesson ended with an impromptu disco sing-along to Woody Guthrie. Does it get more fun than that?

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Ancestor Interviews

Every family has stories. Every fall, with a nod to Halloween and Day of the Dead, we go out and learn some of them. I ask my students to go home and talk to one of their relatives — preferably some one old, maybe someone they don’t see all the time, but even a parent works — and ask that person to tell them a story.  Then the students bring those stories into class, where they have a chance to both tell them and write them down.

Otto Mears — an ancestor of mine. Photo credit: Wolf Creek Ski.

This year, I asked them to learn a story about how their family ended up in Washington. We got stories about orphans and runaways and war brides. There were relatives who had come by flying in early trans-oceanic passenger planes and modern jet planes, by crossing the Isthmus of Panama pre-canal, by riding in jam-packed cars over dirt roads across the Rockies, and by sailing on the Mayflower. There were wars and tragedies. There was talent and fame. There was love and disappointment. There were mysteries.

I asked the students to draw a family tree connecting them to the ancestor they were writing about. They could put more information on it if they knew more, or it could just be a sort of family stick showing them, their mother, and their grandmother whose story they told.

Last year, I asked them to talk to their oldest living relative and ask that person to tell them a story about their oldest relative. There are so many other possible prompts: wars, work, love stories, mischief, childhood, land — so many more. Whatever the prompt, the project seems to give the children a sense of pride in their family and respect for their relatives’ struggles. Learning family stories gives their own stories a context and a larger meaning, and makes history and geography personal. It builds intergenerational ties. It’s also just fun, especially when older relatives tell crazy stories about their younger selves.  Who knows, maybe your grandmother smoked and ate a bear — but you’ll never know unless you get her to tell the story.

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The Busy City: Playing with Noise in Poetry

 I want to share something really cool that formed in class today. We had been talking about noises in poems — noisy things, words we liked the sound of, onomatopoeia — and decided to write a group poem about a crazy, noisy city night. Everyone, including me, was given a small slip of paper. We each wrote one line. Then I put them in the best order that occurred to me.  The poem it formed was really exciting, and the class thought so too. There was a kind of wildness and unity, and of course a real noisy, visceral liveliness in it. But enough talking about poetry like an abstract wine taster — you can read it yourself.

The Busy City

I can hear the peaceful sound of the city. Honk! Honk! Honk! Honk!

I hear a sound that sounds like somebody going flop. No, a car.

Up the escalator, down the very tall stairs. Honk goes the cars. Well goes the man, why’d you hit my bumper.

Basher — THWACK! Crack! Gun — RAT-A tat tat. Plink, Jink, SLAKT! Freedom! Boom!

Honk, crash, boom, eeeoooeeeooo.

The town was noisy. Boom, crash, splat. Everything was noisy. Creak, bang. Too loud, too loud. The town is too loud.

Hewwwph…. The wind of the storm. Honk, honk, whew. A traffic jam. Stop the! — bang, bang. The guns in a riot. Croak, criou, criou. Insects in the night. Hewwph. Honk, whew, bang, croak, criou. The city.

There were rock bands playing and pots slamming together. Tornado!

Creak, squeak, creak, squeak, wipers sweep the splashy glass the splishy fishy puddle washing wheels crossing hills heading home through the rain beat streets.

The moths are buzzing with their golden wings under the light of the moon.

Boom crack. Sound. My heart beat goes on and on. On.

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James Bond and the Past Perfect: teaching grammar through poems

My name had been Bond. James Bond.As I was organizing things for the first class of the year yesterday, I found a gem from the archives. We had been learning about the past perfect tense and how weird it is to try to write in it in any extended way. Instead of just blabbing at the kids about this, I had them write a group poem. The rule: everything had to be in past perfect. It gets weird, as group poems do, but the first line and ending are priceless. I love that the class not only answered to the prompt but found the potential humor in the stiffness of the tense. Please read in a serious, Bondish voice.

My name had been Bond. James Bond.

I had eaten and swum all day.

It had been a dark, stormy night

And I had still eaten and swum all day.

I had hit the fallen tree with what I had eaten.

I had drunk frozen swingsets

After I had swum and eaten all day.

I had conquered the fallen chipmunks

After I had swum and eaten all day.

Now my name is Bob. John Bob.

And I still eat and swim all day.

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