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the year when two high fives finally signify your age, a time of social reorganization, of jostling for individuality. During my teaching residency at Corbett Elementary last Spring, I was looking for a way to funnel my fourth grade students’ intense thirst for knowledge and competitive spirits into creative energy on the page. So I started hiding my lessons in guessing games. My writing groups turned into “teams.” Presentations of creative work happened during “finals.” This ekphrastic poetry lesson came from that time when I finally learned to use my students' need to engage with each other as a constructive structure for writing.
I called the lesson Poetry Riddles, and began it with a short discussion of rhyme in poetry. I asked the class to think of places in the world where they could find poetry outside of books. To their ideas, I added hip hop and riddles, which can both involve rhyme, but don’t do so as a rule (I generally veer away from teaching rhyme since I think it can constrict younger writers and leave their work feeling more basic and sing-songy than intended). I then asked the students if they wanted to play a riddle game, to which they responded with emphatic affirmatives.
I projected a set of 5 surrealist paintings on the class smart board. I asked the students to take out a sheet of paper, and to mark it with the numbers 1-5. Before the class, I had gathered poems that were each inspired by one of the paintings, including “The Great Wave at Kamagawa,” “No.5,” “Starry Night,” and “Dali and the Persistence of Memory.” I instructed the students to listen carefully as I read each of these poems aloud, and to mark on their sheets which poem they thought was inspired by a particular painting. Afterwards, I read the answers aloud, and we had a short discussion about the activity. I asked the students which poem they thought was the hardest to guess, which poem they liked best, and why. Through this I learned that the students’ favorite poems were those that embodied an object within the painting, or described its mood, while not being too obvious about its imagery. They wanted to be able to guess correctly, of course, but my fourth graders liked a challenge. They wanted to consider their answers carefully and to feel that their peers had as well.
For the writing activity, I inverted our initial guessing game by placing 5 new paintings on the smart board and asking students to write their own riddles about a painting of their choice (I tried to choose paintings that were impressionistic, surreal, or without humans depicted in detail). I was sure to emphasize that afterwards, the students would present these riddles to the class and everyone would be asked to guess which painting inspired their poem. This, I knew, would be especially inspiring. With the pictures on the board, I sent the students on their writing way by revisiting aspects of ekphrastic writing that they themselves had just considered. I let the students know that if they felt stuck, they could just start by describing what they saw, but emphasized that describing a painting’s mood was one way of making a riddle more challenging to their audience. I then suggested that students take their riddles up a notch, and try to inhabit the perspective of an object in the painting, as they had previously mentioned, or to take the perspective of the artist as they created the art work.
I gave the students 15 minutes to work on their poems—work that they dove into furiously. When the writing time ended, I selected readers on a volunteer basis to read their poems aloud to the class, and to let the class guess which painting had inspired them. I found the work that came from this lesson some of the most surprising and varied of the semester. I think this was perhaps because of the number of voices the students were exposed to in a short time during the guessing game, and the different styles of the paintings presented to them during the writing prompt. When teaching this lesson again, I hope to provide 7-10 paintings for students to write about to enhance this further. Here are a few of my favorite poems that came from this hour of writing.
Riddle Poem by Logan
I am trapped within a scorching land where down is the same as up.
I have a home that is not my home. I am so sad to be alone.
I am so small yet so big. I am dead yet alive.
I have water where it does not exist.
I am the holder and the one who looks into the abyss.
Riddle Poem by Bryce
Light blue reaches gray
A cloud like a pillow
My wood touches the cold ground
I am like a mirror
Floating in empty space
Riddle Poem by Zane
If you are lucky enough to experience this world
You will be able to go a lot farther
But not where you are
Not many people can be here
At least not at the same time
Sarah Minor is the Education Intern at the Poetry Center and Co-editor of the Wordplay blog. She is a current MFA candidate in Nonfiction at the University of Arizona.