Monday, July 21, 2014


In my novel Jasmine and Maddie 7th grade English teacher Mr. Carty asks his students to “dig deeper” when they write poems about themselves. He wants them to use “real emotions as the raw materials for their poems.”

When I created the character of Mr. Carty, I drew upon my own experiences, both as a former seventh grade English teacher at the elite private Horace Mann School in New York and more recently as a creative writing instructor at Writopia Lab and the Westport Writers’ Workshop.

I learned in the field (or classroom) that it’s tough getting kids to open up and take risks on the page at a time when all they want to do—at least in public—is to hide who they really are and blend in with the crowd.

So I did what Mr. Carty did—a version, at least. I gave my students writing journals, and in my case, I let their words remain private if they chose that option. I taught them poetic forms, such as sonnet and pantoum, but didn’t force them to rhyme. The great thing about a poetic form—even without the rhymes—is  that it forces your brain to focus on one thing, and while your brain is distracted, your heart pours out truth and love and pain and anger. Works like a charm.

So for some kids, digging deeper is aided by privacy in the form of a journal. For others, expressing themselves inside the constraints of a form serves to help them dig deeper. For others, responding to a writing prompt (write a poem to your frenemy and write what you can’t say) works for other.

Others respond to  Poetry Slam or Poetry Jam or Poetry Reading—whatever you want to call it. That gets kids digging deeper because they want their words to connect to their audience. They want to be understood.

All young poets are capable of digging past the surface (as Mr. Carty knew) with the right shovel.

GUEST BLOGGER Christine Pakkala was born and raised in Idaho. She earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop (Poetry) and was a Fulbright scholar. She's the author of Last But Not Least Lola: Going Green, which earned a starred review from School Library Journal. Jasmine and Maddie earned a spot on School Library Journal's "What Hot In YA" for Summer, 2014. Last But Not Least Lola and the Wild Chicken is forthcoming September, 2014, and Last But Not Least Lola and The Haunted Mansion is scheduled for September, 2015. All titles are from Boyds Mills Press, an imprint of Highlight. Christine, a former English teacher with a passion for punctuation and poetry, now teaches creative writing at the Westport Writers' Workshop. She lives in Westport, CT with her husband, two children and two dogs.

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