What teacher of writing has not been influenced by the work of Ralph Fletcher? I know I have. I’ve read just about everything that he has written for teachers and have experimented with dozens of his lesson ideas. His series of books for kids on writing are also fabulous and I have taken many an idea from his Poetry Matters to develop lessons for students of all grades. Here are just a few I’ve tried:
1. Repetitive lines. It’s easy to find poems with repeating lines. “Every Time I Climb a Tree” by David McCord is a favorite. I show several poems to the students with repeating lines and we talk about why the poet might have chosen to do that. Sometimes the repetition establishes the rhythm of the poem; sometimes it’s just an important point the author is trying to make. Fletcher says, “Repetition is important glue that can hold a poem together” and then he suggests that the students experiment with the idea. Read pages 38-40 to the students and share the poem that a fifth grader wrote about his place in the family, repeating “Little old me, stuck in the middle.”
2. Use fragments, not full sentences. Sometimes it’s the fragments and short phrases that help the readers of poems get great pictures in their minds. Most poems are written like this, not in full sentences. Young children oftentimes tell a story in complete sentences but merely shape it on the page to look like a poem. Fletcher says, “If it sounds like a story, then it is a story, not a poem.” Fletcher takes a poem a 4th grader wrote about the New York City subway (pg. 61) and then rewrites it in full sentences. Students discuss how much better the fragment-poem conveys the real sense of the crowded, busy subway. You can do this with any poem. I also keep this idea in mind when helping students revise. Sometimes they need support to discover the great phrases they have in their poems. Help them cut down those long, wordy sentences to shorter phrases and see a better poem emerge.
3. The last line counts. On pages 71-73 Ralph Fletcher shows us how much endings matter in poems. I often show kids a poem my husband wrote for me on my birthday (the 22nd of Nov.) Being an accountant and very interested in numbers, Rick once read that you can find combinations that add up to any number if you look hard enough. So this poem has lines in it of all the things that add up to “22,” like the letters in our names or the last digits of everyone’s age in our family. It goes on for a while with some very funny combinations. But the last line of his poem says, “Our being together just adds up!” Of course, that’s what makes the poem so special to me. Fletcher suggests that students take the first draft of their poem and look for their best line. Then rewrite the poem in a way that makes that line come out last. He’s tried this many times himself with much success. Along with this lesson I also show another favorite by Jean Little where the last line is what makes the whole poem work. It’s from her book of poems and vignettes called Hey, World, Here I Am:
I like new clothes.
They seem brighter, smoother, shinier.
I move carefully in them.
I remember to hang them up.
I feel taller in them – and prettier—
And I don’t climb over barbed-wire fences.
I like old clothes too.
I don’t think about them much.
They are part of me.
Going where I go, doing whatever I feel like doing.
They are less bother and more comfortable.
They don’t expect me to be so tall.
They know my size exactly.
You know, it’s a funny thing —
Friends are like clothes.