Poetic Power

A Creative Communication blog

Featured Teacher: Heather Hohnstein

on March 19, 2012

Today we have a wonderful teacher, Heather Hohnstein, sharing her thoughts on motivating student writers.  Heather is a 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Eagle Point Middle School.  Here are her thoughts:

“It is an honor to be asked to write a piece for the Creative ImageCommunication blog.  As a way of introduction, I was born and raised in Southern Oregon, Medford to be exact. I attended Western Oregon State College for a year before transferring back home to complete my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Southern Oregon State College.  After working two years as a Senior Milieu Counselor and Activities Coordinator and three years for a commercial hardware supplier, I decided it was time to go back to school and earned my Master’s Degree in teaching from Concordia University.

I have been teaching at EPMS for the past 6 years and absolutely loving every minute with the students. I have had the opportunity to teach 7th and 8th grade language arts as well as two different reading intervention classes. I have a wonderful team of colleagues to share ideas with and who support me.  I have coached volleyball, boys’ basketball, and girls’ basketball at the middle school, and am currently a member of the school Leadership/PBIS team, the district’s Superintendent Advisory Committee, as well as being the National Junior Honor Society Founder and Advisor for our district’s only chapter.

Motivating students in the classroom is paramount to teaching and ultimately to learning. My classroom doesn’t run by rules, after all, rules were made to be broken. We operate by student created and voted upon principles. This first step changes the climate in my room from “classroom” to learning community.

Next, I give my students choices. I know what I need them to learn and be able to do, and I realize that there are a number of roads to get there. These choices motivate the students by giving them a sense of control which leads to a desire to try and a freedom to discover, all while encouraging a sense of personal responsibility.

ImageFinally, I work to make my lessons fun, engaging, and challenging.  We begin class most days with a 10 minute quick write. While I give my students topics which range from philosophical to just plain goofy, my students take turns giving me topics. Writing with my students motivates in two ways. The first, if I have to manage behavior, I can’t write, which means they don’t get to see what I wrote (translates to them seeing if they stumped me or not). The second way it motivates is more subtle. Even my most resistant students have bought in since I started writing with them. They watch me struggle to find words and put thoughts together, they watch me as I giggle when I get it right, they enjoy seeing the product and giving me feedback.  The first time a student tells me that my writing missed the mark is a special moment. Every year the room becomes preternaturally quiet, students avert their eyes, and you can feel the tension squeezing in until I agree with the student and ask for suggestions to make it better. Tentatively at first, ideas are shared. By this time of the year, they don’t even raise hands before weighing in – good or bad.

Speaking of engaging and challenging, I have two favorite lessons. I guess I wouldn’t call them lessons, but more pieces of units.  The first is a form of an “I Am” poem I use as a final project for the novel, Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen.  With three stanzas and each verse prompted even my more reluctant writers feel they can be successful.  The twist I add to it is that the students must choose a dynamic character from the novel (elements of literature) and write the poem from that character’s point of view. They must also show the change in the character from beginning to end (First stanza = beginning; second stanza= middle; third = ending). Finally, there is a verse that repeats itself throughout the poem so the students must think about the character and choose two characteristics that are true about them during the entire novel to complete the verse.

I find this assignment to be extremely challenging for the students and yet, I have a great deal of success with it. It is amazing to watch the students think, analyze, reason, discuss, compose, and finalize a very complex poem which integrates not only what they know about the novel but what they have learned in terms of literary elements. Many students choose to enter this poem in your fall poetry contest as opposed to their other pieces.

My second favorite lesson is one I present in the spring. It is part of my Tolerance Unit. For five to six weeks we study our Nation’s history as well as the world and look at instances of intolerance, who perpetrated it and who overcame it.  Towards the end of the unit, I give them a copy of the poem, “Ballad of Birmingham”.  We read it and do a quick analysis. Then I show them the University of Tennessee Choir video performance that has footage of the aftermath of the bombing (can be found on YouTube). Following a class discussion the students write their own poem about the general topic of intolerance/tolerance. Again, the content is challenging but it is something that the students relate to.  Many students draw connections between their own experiences and historic examples in their writing.   They choose different styles of poetry to mimic, some write similar to the, “Ballad of Birmingham” while others have similarities to Maya Angelou and still others strike out on their own.

The poems they turn in represent heartfelt snapshots of not only what they understand, but who they are at that very moment.  I like this particular assignment because I enjoy challenging my students to look deeper, to think and reason on their own, and to write from their heart. When they write with that emotion their writing begins to take on a depth of complexity that catches them by surprise. When they share these pieces you can feel the pride they have in their writing.

ImageI find that the Creative Communication’s poetry contests give my students an opportunity to share their work with a greater audience. For some, it is the first time they have ever taken the risk to share their work outside the teacher/student relationship. It gives all students an opportunity to take pride in their work and to feel a new sense of accomplishment beyond simply completing an assignment.  The contests also teach humility and grace – how do they react when their poem is going to be published but a classmate’s is not.  It teaches courage to enter and face the possibility of rejection and resiliency to try again the next time.

My students love getting the books. Students who have been published get to highlight their names and share their work with others. I have the whole collection since I first started teaching and each year my 7th grade students enter and ask if they too can find their names from the year before and highlight.  It is a tradition that allows me to share in their pride and joy of writing.

The books are also a fantastic resource. I received a book from the Texas contest on accident and was able to keep it. One of my students was going through a very difficult time and she found a poem written by a high school student in that book. She ran to my desk with tears streaming down her cheeks and asked if she could make a notation by the poem in the book.  Her notation was about how she no longer felt so alone because the author of that poem shared something similar.  You can’t beat that kind of genuine connection to writing!”

Thank you Heather for sharing what makes your classroom so successful!  Keep up the great job and we look forward to seeing more work from your students.

For more information on our national writing contests, go to www.PoeticPower.com.

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