Monday, May 9, 2011


by Mary Quattlebaum

The Beatles song says it all:  “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

I certainly feel that way when I’m writing and teaching.  Just recently I gleaned new insights from fellow bloggers Laura Krauss Melmed and Pam Smallcomb from their posts on using folksong and tall-tale prompts.  Thanks much!

Another friend whose creative work is informing my teaching is Debbie Levy.  Debbie’s The Year of Goodbyes (Disney Hyperion, 2010) is an exemplary novel in poems, perfect for writing teachers working with grades 4 through 9 and for college and graduate students interested in the form.

Debbie chronicles a year in the life of her mother, Jutta Salzberg, a Jewish girl growing up in Germany.  It is 1938, a time of horrifying change for Jutta, 12, and her country.  In free-verse poems, Debbie personalizes the sweep of historical events with details from her mother’s youthful perspective:  the click-clack of Nazi boots, her father’s desperate pleading “like tears” for the visas that will allow the family to leave for America.

One of the few things that Jutta was able to take to America was her poesiealbum—an autograph book filled with the inscriptions, verses and drawings of family and friends.  Each poem in the book is introduced by one of these inscriptions, and they offer a variety of voices (some soon to be silenced by the Nazis).  These poesiealbum entries might be jumping off points for your own students’ reflections and writings.

The Poesieablbum Project at  Debbie’s website includes a discussion guide, video and writing project invaluable to educators who plan to share The Year of Goodbyes with students.

Beginning a Classroom Poem on Friendship:  Everyone seems to have strong feelings about friends.  Teachers might begin by having students talk about their reactions to Jutta’s friends and have them name some of the things the girls did together.  Students might share their reactions to Jutta’s losses and their own experiences on losing friends whether to moves, different schools, changing interests, and death.

Writing the Class Poem:  Teachers might have each student contribute one line about a friend or friendship.  The line should not include the name of the friend.  Before they write, first have students close their eyes and focus on the friend and some of the things they do together.  Then ask students to think of and write about one time when this person was a true friend and why.  Teachers can collect these lines, keep them anonymous, and arrange them into one long classroom poem, which he/she might read aloud and post on the bulletin board.

Individual Poems on Friends:  In a journal or during private writing time, students might be encouraged to pen additional thoughts about friends or their loss.  It’s important to honor the sensitivity of the topic and any students’ desire for privacy by not mandating that these pieces be read aloud.

The Friendship Continues:  Students might also discuss the power of writing to connect friends, including their own texts, emails, and Facebook pages.  It was Debbie’s article in the Washington Post that helped some of Jutta’s childhood friends (now women in their 70s) to find one another and re-connect.

Oral History Poem or Writing:  Debbie’s blog references her extensive research and the many talks she had with her mother as she tried to re-create Jutta’s story through poems.  Students might “interview” an older family member about a childhood activity or incident and write this up.  This might become a treasured piece of writing to share with other family members.  Examples of questions:

  1. What was your favorite activity when you were (same age as student)?
  2. Who was your best friend?  What kinds of things did you like to do together?
  3. Tell me something that made you angry or sad when you were my age.
  4. What was your favorite subject in school?  Least favorite?  Why?
  5. Tell me about a time when you got into trouble.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Mary! Readers in the DC area might like this current promotion by Imagination Stage: kids can write a few lines about their best friend, which might appear on the theater's blog or in Washington Parent...and all entries get a $5 coupon to use toward a future play at Imagination Stage. (Info on