Poetry Behind The Scenes – 6th through 8th Grades: A Four-Part Series

6th Grade Poets: Evidence, Not Conclusions

POETRY IN MIDDLE SCHOOL builds upon all the elements of the previous grades, reinforcing the same principles with greater sophistication and then expanding upon them.

Poetry is taught as part of the art curriculum, so Susannah, our upper school art teacher, and I collaborate for three double-block sessions.

In sixth grade, we give students a chunk of time to create without prompts. They have 10 minutes for a Brain Sweep (free write) and then either further writing or doodling. Sometimes the process elicits a list of random thoughts; many times a poem fully emerges.

Here are some lines from a 6th grade Brain Sweep:

Hiding is what we’re best at.

We hide from the truth.

We hide from ourselves.

We hide from others.

We steal the truth, then we hide it.

– 6th grade poet

As we move into reading model poems, writing and sharing, we discuss the difference between evidence and conclusions—and aim for discovering “evidence,” the details which help keep a poem fresh and alive.

Here are first-draft excerpts from another poem:




– 6th grade poet

Over the course of these three double blocks, we explore the powers of memory, imagination and observation. I love to bring in prompts that challenge the eye, the ear, the mind and the heart.

Finally, students choose one poem for the anthology and we conference and edit their work together.

7th Grade Poets: Words and Intention

This year, seventh grade poetry develops out of the weaving curriculum in art. Once again, we use movement warm-ups, Brain Sweeps, reading model poems and writing with—and without—specific forms.

The following piece is inspired by Evie Shockley’s “color bleeding.”

One year, I carried purple with me, like that one part of the sunset, you can see a hint of purple.

Purple has meaning, it’s like an outcast, foreigner, or misfit, never at its best by itself, better with others, the most visible stain.

Purple lightning, one of the 3 main colors of lightning, which has its sound delayed, just like purple’s popularity. Like x or z, seen but never utilized much.

Treated like the math test when it’s actually the fire alarm, it’s a hidden hero.

Purple: beautiful and abstract. Nice light and dark, saturated and edited, the most meaningful color – purple.

– 7th grade poet

This year, these students have also imagined the potential impact of their words on others. Check out the forthcoming Willows 2019-20 Poetry Anthology to see how seventh graders responded to a model poem called “What I Want My Words to Do to You.”

8th Grade Poets: Beginnings and Endings

Everything gleams like rhyme

Images going through my mind

Past future present

They’re mine

– 8th grade poet

As in the lower grades, eighth grade poetry lessons take inspiration this year from the weaving curriculum in art. Each of these students also has the chance to reflect on themselves as a unique individual leaving The Willows (and, in a sense, childhood) behind.

I never knew I loved the tricycles I trip over on the yard

The frigid temperatures of Brian’s classroom

The sink that spatters on my shirt

And the sound of the bullhorn at carpool…

– 8th grade poet

In eighth grade, we still use Brain Sweeps, model poems and a variety of forms. We still incorporate movement warm-ups.

We also play with rhyme, rhythm, and the visual impact that fonts and formatting make on a typed piece.

Eight graders leave us with a lot to remember when they leave The Willows.

Poetry Night in Middle School

In Middle School, participation in Poetry Night is optional. And so, a “company of Willows poets” performs at the end of the schoolwide presentation in the gym.

This year, our company of poets is a mix of sixth, seventh and eighth graders who have been deeply (and playfully) engaged in developing and writing our piece. What a joy to be in the presence of such accomplished writers and delightful humans!

We’re also lucky to work with Liza, our theatre teacher, as we rehearse the piece and get ready to share it with all of you!

After the performance, more middle school students—and alumnae—gather in the Art Room for an Open Mic poetry reading that is a fun and special way to cap an evening full of words, ideas and inspiration.

Join us in the gym at 7:00pm on February 19th for Poetry Night at The Willows… and then afterwards for the Open Mic in the MS Art Room.

To learn more about what Deb does, feel free to check out her website at: www.debstudebaker.com

You can follow her on Twitter: @mindbodypoetry

Poetry Behind The Scenes– 3rd through 5th Grades: A Four-Part Series

3rd Grade Poets: Ordinary Magic

IN UPPER ELEMENTARY, Poetry continues to be an interactive experience. As children develop their reasoning skills, I give them increasingly challenging forms and techniques. The poet, the scientist, and the detective all share similar traits: they observe, they find clues, they experiment. Bit by bit, the pieces come together.

By third grade, students are familiar enough with poetry to start putting words together in surprising combinations. The results are often fresh and fascinating.

connected sentences

green moment

blue apartment

small life

fly, world

– 3rd grade poet

The idea of painting word pictures takes on a deeper emotional resonance now. We reach inside to feel our feelings and express our thoughts. Movement helps us wake up the brain and encourage such mindful awareness.

We take time to ponder where poems come from: what do we hold inside us that sources our ideas? Is it a place, a color, a particular landscape, a type of weather? Something else?

Third graders explore this notion and then write; under the guidance of Kristy, their art teacher, their words become calligrams, also known as “shape” or “concrete” poems.

After my five lessons with these students, they continue to write with their classroom teachers. Soon we’re getting ready for Poetry Night and working to create a whole-group performance piece! It starts with an original script, based on a style or form we used in class.

Creating the script is literally a hands-on writing and editing process. Third grade poets take their original words, lay them, out rearrange them, and piece them back together!

Poetry Night in third grade involves collaborating with specialists. This year, we’re working with Kristy and Susannah (art), Liza (theatre), plus the third grade classroom teachers on a piece inspired by the fall art curriculum: weaving.

We’re in rehearsals right now. Come see the finished product on Poetry Night!

4th Grade Poets: Exploring Different Voices




the mind

wants to make

– 4th grade poet

In fourth grade, we look closely at patterns, and how to compress ideas into a certain arrangement of words or syllables. Movement helps us feel the beat of the syllables.

We pair random words to see what new images they generate. This student happened to choose “inspire” and “universe” and wrote this poem:

Inspiring the Universe

don’t tell me what to do / says space. I have my own / ways. how about some stars? / NO! how about some light? / NO! how about a night sky? / NO! how about a life or a / heart? I don’t know? NO? YES? / then how about those stars? / share them. how about that / light? give it. how about the / night sky? open it. how about / a heart? show it. how? let / me free! stars, light, night sky / and a heart.

– 4th grade poet

As Poetry Night planning gets underway, we build the group performance piece on one of the forms we’ve already studied. This year it’s the lanterne style, a simple format with a specific syllable count.

The entire fourth grade builds the foundation of the poem, connecting it to their curriculum by writing about the environment. Next, a smaller group collaborates to edit and fine-tune the piece.

Soon we’re ready to work with Kristie (music) and Marissa (movement/dance) to stage a performance piece filled with speakers, movers and musicians.

We couldn’t do such a big production without the creative involvement of the fourth grade teachers!

We hope you’ll be in the audience on Poetry Night, February 19th, at 7:00pm.

5th Grade Poets: Free to Write

In fifth grade, I introduce the “Brain Sweep.” It’s a timed free-write; students have three minutes to put words on the page in whatever manner they choose. Some compile lists of bullet points. Some jot down what they observe in the classroom. Some reflect on what they’re going to do after school. Others pour their hearts onto the page in poetic style.

The only rules are to keep the pencil moving, to avoid editing, and not to think too hard. One more important element: we always begin with one minute of silence: it’s a time for daydreaming and settling the mind.

This year, without any prompting or coordination, a handful of fifth graders wrote frequently about the writing process.

I’m anxious. I’m scared. I have so many thoughts. I’m stuck. But there you are, you’re the thing that brings me up… I can write about anything, an alligator, a bee, but I choose to write about you. My love for poetry. You free my mind and I thank you for that...

– 5th grade poet

Before we know it, it’s time for Poetry Night planning! Our talented young poets contribute ideas, short poems, and editorial suggestions; the spirit of camaraderie and collegiality among these students is truly refreshing.

Soon we’re ready to put it all together with Marissa (dance/fifth grade teacher), Mike and Greg (music), plus Dakota, Liz, and Debbie, the rest of the fifth grade teaching team.

Fifth grade Poetry Night is quite the theatrical experience! This year, we’re going for a Beat Poets vibe with musicians, movers, and speakers, so come along and be prepared to snap your fingers…

Join us in the gym at 7:00pm on February 19th for Poetry Night at The Willows!

To learn more about what Deb does, feel free to check out her website at: www.debstudebaker.com

You can follow her on Twitter: @mindbodypoetry

Just About Boys? Girls, Too.

Monday evening I attended an event about boys, body image, identity development, and puberty in the digital age titled: “A Common Sense Conversation with Peggy Orenstein & Dr. Cara Natterson moderated by Steve Goldbloom.” The authors spoke about their new books and provided practical advice regarding navigating these topics with our children – advice that I intend to bring both to The Willows Life Skills Program and to my own parenting.

Sarah Bowman, from Common Sense, summarized well what I found most salient:

The conversations we have with our children are important, and they are, in fact, indelible. What you say counts. At Common Sense, we believe media literacy is a staple of parenting today, and our panelists did an excellent job of describing how to slip these conversations into your family’s daily life. Cara and Peggy urged us to initiate these chats earlier and surface these issues frequently, and to do it with humor. We instinctively teach our kids manners by gently prodding them to say “please” and “thank you” over and over; frank conversations about the body and a consciousness about media literacy likewise must become part of your parenting mindset. This past week provided two oversized examples of topics for conversation: Kobe Bryant’s death (men expressing grief and emotion) and the Super Bowl halftime show (body image).

The best advice of all? Trust your gut and remember to explain why you feel what you feel. This is what is unique to you and what your kids will cherish most.

While this talk and their books focused on boys, much of Orenstein and Natterson’s parenting advice and these conversations can resonate with girls as well.

These strategies may be used by families with both boys and girls.

~ Wendy Amster, Dean of Educational Technology

Poetry Behind The Scenes – 1st through 2nd Grades: A Four-Part Series

1st Grade Poets: Make Word Pictures

In first grade, I invite students to call upon feelings and sense memories to create word pictures. Word pictures with lots of details help our readers see what we saw and feel what we felt.

Creating similes helps first graders tap into memories, organize their thoughts, and differentiate sensory experiences.

Winter is silver like coyotes

It sounds like rushing waterfalls

It tastes like chai tea

It smells like eucalyptus oil

Winter makes me feel like playing in the snow

– 1st grade poet

As usual, first graders warm up to write with movement. Clapping games and other physical activities are designed to encourage whole-brain learning and build confidence.

I work with the classroom teachers to link poetry to their curriculum, and this year students also wrote poems that explored where they come from—not just as a geographical location, but in the sights and sounds and tastes all around them:

I come from rice and Bolognese.

I come from trips to Oklahoma.

I come from a red and white two-story house.

I come from my mom who works hard every day.

(Each line was written by a different 1st Grade Poet.)

2nd Grade Poets: Zoom in on Small Moments

“It’s time for Poetry!” There are excited whispers all around as 2nd graders filter into the classroom after yard time.

I’m greeted with lots of hugs and enthusiasm—I attribute this excitement to the wisdom of Lisa and Terri, who decided that, starting in DK, each Willows student would have Poetry every year.

When it comes time to writing on the first day of class, 2nd graders are primed and ready.

My voice is like a cat walking across a piano.

My imagination is like a soft blanket that just came out of the dryer.

My mind is like people at a meeting, talking, and debating.

My breath is a gargoyle trapped in stone.

Each line was written by a different 2nd grade poet

And soon we get to haiku – the perfect form for this age. As we work on counting syllables, we zoom in on important details that come from observation.

The study of haiku integrates smoothly with 2nd grade curriculum: especially the concept of the watermelon (big idea) and the seed (small moments). Plus, we can tie into their study of the ocean:

Marianna Trench

creepy, round and crescent-shaped

what could be down there?

– 2nd grade poet

Second grade poetry is a blast. It’s always inspiring to hear students’ ideas, and even more gratifying to watch them come up with images, count syllables in the 5-7-5 pattern, and master a form.

Watch for a Poetry Night performance piece based on haiku!

To learn more about what Deb does, feel free to check out her website at: www.debstudebaker.com

You can follow her on Twitter: @mindbodypoetry

Poetry Behind The Scenes – DK through K: A Four-Part Series

People have questions and roses have answers

– 5th grade poet

Poetry at The Willows

Poetry Night arrives every winter at The Willows! It’s an exciting event embraced by the entire school community. Yet long before the poets take the stage in February, poems are popping throughout the school.

My name is Deb; I’m a writer and movement educator who is privileged to teach poetry at The Willows. As I work my way through every grade level in a five-lesson time frame, each student has a chance to imagine, feel, and remember—then paint those pictures in words.

My goal is to make poetry a playful, interactive, relevant experience. Come with me behind the scenes and peek into our creative process. 

DK Poets: Move, Play, Wonder

How to teach poetry in DK? Read to the children, play with them, ask them questions! Questions and games facilitate the flow of words and feelings.  

Here, a crawl tunnel makes expressing creative ideas an engaging experience! First, I ask a question. Then I encourage the children to crawl through the tunnel like an animal. They pop out to share their answers in the voice of that animal!

Crawling is a developmental movement that primes the brain for learning; we’re building learning readiness as we build our poems, a line at a time.

Here, our youngest students are learning to make word pictures by drawing their answers to fill-in-the-blank questions, like sometimes I feel____. 

Kindergarten Poets: Play with Words

Silliness rules in Kindergarten!  I encourage the children to have fun with language, so we first explore poetry through nursery rhymes and books they may already know. 

Then we build on the sounds they’re learning in class, and turn them into silly sentences full of alliteration, like:

Taco’s Tiger taught a pterodactyl to talk too much!

Kindergartners also create individual poems, where I ask them to imagine, remember and add details. As in DK, the children respond to questions after lots of movement and play.

In this example, our “ties that bind” school-wide theme served as inspiration for a poetic form:

When I’m in 3rd grade I will remember

my blue Super Wings plane named “Jerome”

my blue sequined dinosaur shirt

my blue cotton candy

and eating spaghetti at home with my mom and dad.

– Kindergarten poet

It’s a joy to witness the excitement, the honesty and the clarity that these five and six- year-olds bring to their poems. Poetry isn’t some abstract art. We make it concrete as we play with our words.

To learn more about what Deb does, feel free to check out her website at: www.debstudebaker.com

You can follower her on Twitter: @mindbodypoetry

An Expression of Intersession – A Look into this Past Week.

It’s a wrap!

This first week back, the entire school departed from the day-to-day school curriculum and partook in a week-long adventure into Intersession. Intersession is an immersive five-day period, which offers a different approach to project-based, experiential learning, and an opportunity to fully integrate our disciplines in a fresh, illuminating academic experience. During this time, students take a break from regular academics to participate in a variety of classes that tie into the schoolwide theme of “The Ties That Bind Us.” It offers students another path to expand their learning beyond the classroom. While it is just one week out of the year, Intersession is a powerful way to strengthen curiosity, enhance cross grade level relationships with teachers and students, and expand the joyful learning that is central to The Willows’ mission and educational philosophy.

From creating a carnival from scratch to developing street art and street wear (and many things in between), The Willows’ Intersession program features a diverse and exciting line-up of experiential learning opportunities to open minds and hearts to possibilities.

Here are the general skills involved in the Intersession classes:

  • Cooperation and teamwork, planning, problem solving, collaboration, overcoming challenges, physics concepts, cause and effect, trial and error, evaluating and prioritizing, sequencing, interpretation of different possible outcomes, and design thinking.

Take a peek at some of the wonderful projects and learning that went on:

Carnival (DK-K):

Willows City (1-2):

Escape Rooms (3-5):

Create Your Own Sport or Board Game (3-5):

Bridges (3-5):

Become a Storyteller, Write a Radio Play (3-5):

World of Felt: Felted Food Stories (3-5):

Street Art and Street Wear (3-5):

Macrame and Ceramics (3-5):

The T’S That Bind Us (6-8):

Creative Design That Binds (aka Fancy Forts) (6-8):

Catapults: The Tie That Binds Science, Latin, and Math (6-8):

Band Together! (6-8):

Think Biggerer! (6-8):

On Wednesday, January 15 from 6 pm to 7 pm, The Willows will be showcasing many of the creative and technical projects that were created during Intersession at Family Ed Night.

Hope to see you there!

Once an Idea, Now a Reality!

Not only do Willows’ teachers possess the “Can Do” spirit, so does the facilities team.

Over the years, you may have seen some new additions at The Willows like the multi-purpose furniture between Buildings 4 and 6 or the free-standing sand sifter in the sandbox. What you may not know is that these were all made in-house by our talented facilities team.

The Willows’ facilities team consists of Treisha, Rocky, Gonzo, Eladio, Juan G., Juan V., and Daisy who have a combined 50 years at The Willows. They have embraced The Willows spirit, and when something needs to be done, they accomplish it!

Here are a few objects that have been created by the facilities team:

The multi-purpose furniture idea originated when students and staff noticed there weren’t enough outdoor classroom spaces on campus. They researched and found the best solution for The Willows would be a mobile outdoor classroom apparatus. The Middle School students interviewed teachers and students who would be using the space the most and collaborated with a San Francisco architectural firm, Thing One, to construct 2D and 3D models. The blueprint was then given to our facilities team to be constructed as a working product!

These Design Lab tables were made out of necessity–we had a wonderful design lab but no tables. The facilities team built tables to the dimensions that fit perfectly for the space for a fraction of the purchase cost!

It’s amazing to have a hands-on, talented facilities team, but more importantly, it’s beneficial for our students. By modeling the inquiry process and design thinking approach, students are able to see first-hand the ideas they formulated become a reality on campus in front of their eyes. Students then begin to understand that with the right amount of tools and resources, they can bring their own ideas to reality.

This collaboration and “Can Do” spirit is what makes The Willows a special place. As the saying goes, it takes a village, but in our case, it takes a community!