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How to Use Ideograms to Help Students Generate Powerful Poetry

Incorporating visual elements into poetry writing can help students express themselves and uncover deeper meanings in their work.

In international schools, where many students move from country to country regularly, it’s challenging to cultivate a sense of belonging. In the literacy classes we teach at our school, we created a very engaging poetry project for third-culture kids. It involves having them write a poem in the style of George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” and then using an ideogram technique to find the true heart of their work.

In the first two days of the project, we use a PowerPoint to help students understand some of the techniques that Lyon used. Students emulate Lyon’s style of poetry by collecting personal images related to important moments from their life. This activity allows students to gain a sense of themselves and to realize how those pivotal moments from their lives create a foundation for their identity.

Some high school students may feel that their lives are too small or too subjective to offer meaningful moments to include in a poem. On their own, they sometimes come up with commonplace images like bubble gum flavors or clichés about the countries they’ve lived in. On slide 11 of the PowerPoint, we’ve listed some examples of things that help bring a poem to life. If the teacher shares some personal examples from that list, students will find much more interesting images from their lives to include.

For an example of an image about a neighborhood character, Mr. Buteau talks about Ellen, a powerful woman who used to run a remote summer camp where he worked. The camp had an old pickup truck they would haul kids around in, and it had a wooden fence around the back to keep things from falling out. Well, one day Ellen was in the back of the truck throwing luggage out to be loaded into a cart. When she went to jump out of the back, her ring got stuck on the fence. She hit the ground screaming, and they couldn’t get her to the hospital in time to save the finger. From that day forward, any reprimand or dissenting opinion would be accompanied by a hand gesture with the ring finger folded behind the palm.

We also give students access to a Jamboard that they use to collect memorable childhood moments from their lives. The model pages feature images and phrases from Mrs. Douglas’s life in Trinidad and Tobago.

One picture represents her memories of confronting death one day after school in her rural village. The children noticed that the church doors were wide open. As they peered down the aisle of the otherwise empty church, to her utter dismay they discovered a coffin with a dead person inside.

She was afraid, but her older brother and the other boys went sneaking down the aisle toward the coffin. She ran out of the church and waited by the gates. A few seconds later, the boys ran out like a pack of wildebeest. Her brother told her, “It felt rubbery, like a jellyfish washed up on the beach.” Just then, the priest appeared at the door. Her brother grabbed her hand and the children ran down the road.

IDEOGRAMS ARE A HELPFUL TOOL FOR REVISION

These personal examples from the teacher help students produce engaging rough drafts with a nice collection of images and moments. However, it’s sometimes challenging for students to understand that below the surface layer of the images they’ve chosen hides a deeper meaning, the genuine heart of their poem.

A revision idea came to us from a great lesson plan from Teach Living Poets. In it, Kaveh Akbar sees ideogram drawings, or abstract visual representations, as a way to reflect on a finished poem and to explain its significance in a way that “feels truer, or at least more interesting, than anything [he] could clumsily articulate about the poem.”

We thought Akbar’s reflective use of ideograms could be transformed into a revision technique for students who were having a hard time articulating what was important about their own story in poetry. Students created an ideogram based on their rough draft of the poem, and then they wrote a very brief description of the ideogram before working on the final draft. This activity yielded good results for students, and the description often revealed an aspect of their story that was important but wasn’t yet evident in the poem. In conferences about their final drafts, we focused our discussion on helping all students visualize and articulate (in a figurative way) anything that they discovered through the ideogram process.

One student’s rough draft was submitted with a nice combination of images. Yet, there was something more hiding there that only came out in her ideogram. The description clearly conveys a sense of regret that was important to her, but it wasn’t really present in the poem itself. In our conferences, we asked her to expand on that darkness. She explained that her loss was related to a dissolved friendship. So we asked her what she remembered, what she missed, and what she included on her Jamboard.

Through those discussions, she became more comfortable with the idea of sharing more details metaphorically—describing some of the difficulties without revealing too personal or too direct of a description. The heart of her poem, the central moment that matters as a part of her identity, became more clearly articulated, and the final draft reveals her resilient nature and makes a much more powerful poem.

Most of our students enjoyed the ideogram’s reframing of the poem in a visual scheme because it allowed them to connect their written feelings with an artistic display of their work and helped them locate the real heart of their poem.

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