The power of posting student poetry

Hi everyone,

Nearly ten years ago, when this blog was new and teachers had more time to post poems written by their students, we routinely received students’ work. Classroom culture has changed now. It’s a rare month when a single student poem is posted. It’s a change that I regret.

Two student poets stand out in my memory. Ironically, neither went through the suggested route to get their poems on my blog. Both girls got there on their own, with parental help and support. Rachel Heinrichs and Taylor McGowan were in 4th grade when their early poetry appeared. In those days we held monthly balloting to select the “Children’s Poet of the Month,” and sometimes voting was spirited. One month the contest came down to Rachel and Taylor and votes poured in from several countries. At the time it was the busiest day my blog had experienced.

Not long after that event, I gave a keynote at SCBWI in New Jersey. Rachel begged her mom Michele to drive several hours to the conference so she could meet me. I introduced her to a crowded room of writers and illustrators and they gave her a resounding round of applause. The following year Michele again drove many hours to bring Rachel and young sister Sarah to my poetry workshop in Pennsylvania so we could share lunch together. And word has it that they just might make it again this year. I would love that!

As for my other poet, Taylor, I received a note from her yesterday that I appreciated so much I want to share a little of it.

“I’m sixteen years old now, and will be entering my junior year in high school…my interest in songwriting and efforts to write a musical recently reminded me of where I got my real start in poetry – your blog. To this day, I am beyond grateful for the opportunity that your monthly poetry contest afforded me. It gave me a chance to put my work out there, and kept me motivated even when writer’s block proved to be a hindrance. I have such fond memories of participating in the W.O.M. challenge…I have been writing for all the years since. I have participated in NaNoWriMo, drafted (or at least partially drafted) multiple novels, written award-winning “modern myths” for a youth academic convention multiple years in a row, composed songs (both music and lyrics), and also performed well on written assessments at school. I believe I owe some of that success to you and your contest; without it, I would not have been nearly so brave in my later endeavors.”

As we all know, writing is something we learn by doing. My blog didn’t teach Taylor to become the successful student writer she has become. She did that on her own. But we all begin somewhere, and I’m thrilled that Taylor believes her career began here. I’m deeply grateful to her for telling me and hope I don’t embarrass her by sharing some of her letter. I do it because we never know when, how, or where a young mind will become challenged and energized, turned on to a path of personal importance. And THAT’S why I regret that we so rarely see student poems posted here anymore.

Six years later . . .

Hi everyone,

Some of you may remember Rachel Heinrichs. Not long after I started Word of the Month Poetry Challenge, she began posting her poems. At about the same time another girl, Taylor McGowan, began to post hers. They were ten years old and loved to write. One month we held a vote for Young Poet of the Month and the girls drew votes from seven countries. At that time it was the most visits I’d ever had to my blog.
Ryan Heinrichs
Six years later. I haven’t heard from Taylor for a long time but Rachel and I have kept in touch. Her mother Michele drove her to New Jersey so we could meet when I was speaking there and also brought her to one of my poetry workshops at Honesdale for lunch.

Today Rachel has found her core as Ryan. I call him Agent R and we both acknowledge the distinction. Ryan is sixteen now (can this be??), making good grades, taking online courses, and looking at colleges that can offer a dual major in education and Spanish. And Ryan still writes! He just shared this poem with me and I asked permission to share it with you. Ryan’s teachers are impressed and so am I.

I admire Michele Heinrichs for always being there for both of her daughters. And I love Rachel, now Ryan for sharing his journey with me.

This poem was a class project. Ryan is going through a poetry unit in English class. “I had to read a poem, and then use the first two lines of it to write my own poem. The requirements were to use those two lines to begin and end my poem. Here’s what I came up with.”

Sadness Is Not A Disease
by Ryan Heinrichs

When I get to be a composer
I’m gonna write me some music about
How sadness is not a disease
It is not something you can say,
“I have sadness,”
Because people will shake their head
And simply turn away.

When I get to be a composer
I’m gonna write me some stories about
The children who tried to tell
But got a pat on the shoulder
And the sentence,
“It’s a part of life.”
What a strong verbal knife.

When I get to be a composer,
I’m gonna write me some questions about
Why it’s okay for someone
To be depressed
Or anxious
Or angry
Without reason
But if someone’s sad without reason
It’s treason

Against the people
With a “real” diagnosis?

When I get to be a composer,
I’m gonna tell me some people about
What the real disease is
Because it isn’t depression
Or anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s
Nor schizophrenia.
The real disease here
Is how people without a label are treated
Almost as if to say,
“Your feelings are invalid
Until a doctor rubberstamps your forehead.”
And that is the only disease here.
It is ignorance.

So when I get to be a composer,
I’m gonna write me some music about
How sadness isn’t a disease
It may destroy lives
And friendships
And hopes and dreams
But not with me,
No, not with me.
Because I have overcome
What it really is.

Sadness is an everlasting, unavoidable,
Don’t-want-to-cry-but-have-to
Emotion.

Writers at Work: Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You, Part 4

Hi everyone,

Thank you for joining me today as Writers at Work continues with this month’s subject of making on-line writing challenges work for you.
David publicity photo
WRITERS AT WORK
Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 4
David
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hi again, Sandy Asher. I’m astounded by the number of challenges you seem to handle without breaking stride! On occasion you have mentioned that you think I possess a lot of energy. But REALLY! You make me feel like taking a nap after reading about all the projects you’ve been working on. You also are the personification of a writer at work. As you so succinctly put it, “A writer writes.”

Some of us may accept writing challenges and/or propose them because writers sense a constant need to test our mettle, stay fit, compare our work, get it out there. Some highly successful writers, such as you, also provide a service as role models for writers who may be a rung or two down but actively engaged in improving their craft.

Jane Yolen, for example, occasionally jumps on my poetry challenges with one or several poems. It invariably causes a burst of energy that attracts other poets to join in. Others have lent their talents as well: J. Patrick Lewis, Joyce Sidman, Laura Purdie Salas, Sara Holbrook . . . the list is much longer. One visitor was Gregory Maguire, author of WICKED: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST.

As I mentioned earlier, not as many student writers have been represented on the Word of the Month challenge as I’d like, but we’ve had quite a few. Two in particular who stand out in my memory are Rachel Heinrichs and Taylor McGowan. They were both 4th graders when they first began posting their poems. In those days we held a vote-off at the end of every month to determine the Poet of the Month in each category. The girls mustered so many backers for their cause, some from other countries, that my total count of visits for the day – something over 1,600 – remained a record until early this year. It has been a privilege to keep track of Rachel and Taylor as they have grown, developed additional interests, and are now preparing to enter 8th grade this fall — an unexpected bonus for issuing a challenge that young people can also take on.

In another case a teacher began sending poems written by her high school kids. These were students with various learning issues and much of their work was not of the highest quality, but they loved the idea that they could write poems that would be published on my blog and they were proud of the encouraging comments they received from other visitors there. Their teacher wrote me a note. “When I introduced poetry, my students were interested. At first, they tried to act cool and aloof, but I knew them… When I showed them poetry, they were a little interested. When I taught them to read poetry, they were more interested. When I told them to write poetry, they thought I was crazy. When they wrote poetry, they came alive. Were the poems good? No, not technically. But they poured their hearts into them and they loved seeing their names on your blog. And that is when their reading scores went up.”

Sandy, I can see that my challenges may be different from those that come with specific rules and guidelines. You have had success accepting the challenges but making them work to your advantage by adapting them to your own needs. In my case, Word of the Month Poetry Challenge merely tosses out a word for anyone to accept or not. Some months most of the poems come from regular contributors but along the way new names are always joining in the fun. There is no long-term commitment involved so people come and go depending on whim, time, and energy. Some of the first devotees of Word of the Month continue to post their poems while others have dropped out somewhere along the line.

From a challenger’s point of view, I take pleasure in watching a community of writers come together around a central issue such as writing a poem inspired by one word or writing something that is theme related or, well, writing anything at all. What invariably happens is that the sense of community serves like an extended family to welcome in newcomers and develop ties with everyone involved. People get to know one another. They exchange bits of personal history, express their concerns about an unruly line or a rhyme. Sometimes they even ask for advice although an unspoken guideline is never to offer unless asked.

So what do I make of these challenges? I think they serve an important purpose and you’ve already stated it: Writers write. No one ever said that writing is simple, fast, or easy. It takes work. It requires patience. It demands passion. Whatever it takes to keep us exercising our writing muscles can’t be a bad thing. I don’t take credit for the marked improvement I’ve observed in the writing of many who routinely post their work on my blog where I can see it, but I believe that those who write on a regular basis are going to get better. That’s how it works.

And now – drum roll please – Sandy and I are delighted to announce our special guest for next week’s concluding essay on this subject of “Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You.” Our mutual friend Kristi Holl has agreed to join us on the 5th Tuesday so be sure you are here on July 30 to learn what she has to share. Until then here’s a way to get better acquainted with Kristi and her wonderful work. http://www.kristiholl.com .

Thanks, Sandy! It has been good fun as always.

Kristi, the floor is now yours.

David

The December Word of the Month is . . .

BULLETIN: The new word of the month for December is WINDOW.

Hi everyone,

As I was leaving town for Portland last week the mail brought an f&g copy of my new picture book, A PERFECT HOME FOR A FAMILY. I’m delighted by the gorgeous artwork by Italian artist Roberta Angaramo (http://www.robertaangaramo.com/index.html ) It’s due for release on January 7. I’m sorry it isn’t available for Christmas but you can order it now for shipment as soon as it’s available. Here’s a link on Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Perfect-Home-Family-David-Harrison/dp/0823423387/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1354278561&sr=8-1&keywords=a+perfect+home+for+a+family+by+david+l+harrison . I apologize for not making these links live. Something has gone wrong with my computer and I haven’t figured out yet how to fix the problems.

Some of you know the story behind this book. Three years ago raccoons moved into our attic. We eventually had to replace the roof in the process of ridding ourselves of the constant nightly patter of little feet. I wondered what they were thinking up there and decided that they were just as unhappy as we were. Who wants an infestation of people in the basement? I hope I make enough from this book to pay for that new roof!

David

The Word of the Month for November is . . .

ANNOUNCEMENT: Yesterday’s mail brought my copy of AND THE CROWD GOES WILD, the sterling, international collection of poets and their poems about sports. I’m delighted to be in the book and grateful to Carol-Ann Hoyte and Heidi Bee Roemer for creating this idea and bringing it to life.

Hi everyone,

A few weeks ago I sent a note to our friend, Rachel Heinrichs and asked her to give us the word for November. Rachel is a talented student, so guess what word she chose for us? TALENT. Okay. Deal with that this month. If we’re talented enough, I expect to see a bumper crop of fresh poems inspired by Rachel’s word. Go!

David