I had the amazing opportunity to study poetry for many years with noted anthologist and poet, Myra Cohn Livingston. She did not lecture at the start of our first class each semester —  she sent us outside — to observe and to write. She wanted us to learn to look closely at the world around us and to understand that observation one of a writer's most powerful tools.

     Has this every happened to you: You walk by something every day and never notice it? Never stop to really look at it? It happens to me all the time; I'm surprised at what I see when I do stop and look closely. It could be anything:   a tree, a crack in the sidewalk, a shoe, a pile of snow, an expression on someone's face, or even clouds.

     When we went outside to write, Myra had us divide our paper into two columns. One column was labeled "Observation" and the other was labeled "Feelings and Reactions." Try this technique: Choose something to observe at school or home and write about it for ten minutes, using a worksheet like the one below. Ten minutes will seem like a long time, but keep writing. I think you just might be surprised at what you discover.


Let's practice observation skills using a photograph and an observation worksheet:


Let's pretend we're looking at a cracked sidewalk.

Use all of your senses: sight, feeling, smell, hearing. (Don't taste it!)


OBSERVATION WORKSHEET

OBSERVATION

Part of it looks wet
Spotted - mottled?
Many shades of gray
Looks like a jigsaw puzzle
Jagged edges
Cracks are almost black
Cracks are crooked
Cool to touch
Feels damp
See a strange face
Smells like rain
FEELINGS & REACTIONS

Broken, sad
Freeway for ants
Grey feels lonely
So many footsteps
What made it crack?
My front porch looks like this
I tripped on broken concrete and skinned my knees
An awful fight with my best friend
I'm having trouble in math
I want to learn to make art
Next, use some of your ideas from your Observation Worksheet to write your first rough draft:

 

FIRST ROUGH DRAFT

Jagged cracks in the sidewalk
jigsaw of broken concrete.
Thousands of feet hurrying past
     no one stopping
     no one noticing
     cold, gray beauty.

Well, that's certainly not a great poem, but it's a start. (That's why we call them "rough drafts.") Looking back at my observation worksheet you'll notice I also came up with other  ideas for poems such as tripping and skinning my knee.

What would YOU write about a cracked sidewalk?


Practice!

 What if you  looked out your window and saw this owl? 

   

After you've finished your worksheet, think about the different types of poems you might write about an owl. Here are a few ideas:
 

1. Write a narrative poem in which you describe the owl and its world.

2. Write a "mask poem" and pretend that you are the owl, using first person such as "I," "me," "mine," etc.  What does an owl have to say the world? What does he dream about?

3. Write an "apostrophe poem" in which you speak directly to the owl. What will you tell that owl? Will you ask him questions?

 


Have fun! Read your work out loud as you go along. (I know that sounds silly, but it really does help!) Write lots of drafts until your poem is exactly how you want it to be.

Here are some books and links that you might like:

Watch "A Moment in Time" - a celebration of individual moments in our lives.

Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry by Myra Cohn Livingston - good sections on mask and apostrophe poems and a terrific must-have book!

Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem from the Inside Out  by Ralph Fletcher

Visit Student Poets for links to different sites that publish student poetry, offer writing advice, or give you an opportunity to read poetry written by other students.


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