Three Minute Poems: A Lesson Sequence
One of the exercises that I consider to be an indispensable component of every class I teach is the one I call “Three Minute Poems.” I do it very early in the semester, often on the first or second day, because it's a low-stakes activity that lets me get to know something about where the students are coming from, and it also serves to establish some ideas about the exploratory nature of the writing process that I will be asking them to work with during the remainder of the course, and, ideally, the remainder of their lives. The exercise stretches over at least three days (most parts do not take up the entire class period) and has five parts.
Part One: Writing
I ask the students to take out a piece of paper and a writing utensil, and then I tell them they are going to have three minutes to draft a poem. (Some students my want to use their laptops, but I tell them that for the purposes of this exercise it will be better for them to write by hand. We'll talk more about the pros and cons of using or not using a keyboard at length later on.) I tell them it can be on any subject, in any form, structured or unstructured, rhyming or non-rhyming. The only requirement is that it should be composed in the present moment, not something they have written before. The idea is to get the pen moving and see what shows up on the paper. I tell them about William Stafford’s definition of a poem as a “reckless encounter with whatever comes along." I tell them, “Write first, think later.” If worse comes to worst, you can always just begin by writing something like "I'm sitting here with a pen in my hand trying to write a poem and I can't think of anything." Then I tell I'm setting the timer on my phone for three minutes. Then I count down “5-4-3-2-1 Go.”
Interestingly, I almost never have students who have trouble getting started. If I see someone not writing, I just go over and say “Just get the pen moving, don’t worry about it.” When the timer goes off, I tell the students to stop writing, and then give them the instructions for the second—and to me, more interesting—part of the exercise. “This time, I’m going to ask you to write another poem. But your second poem should be as different from the first poem as you can make it. If the first poem rhymed, the second one shouldn’t. If the first poem was a happy poem about flowers, the second poem should be a tragic poem about the invasion of spiders from the planet Xenon. If the first poem used lots of simple words, the second poem should have as many complicated vocabulary words as you can funnel into it. Ideally, when I look at your two poems it should look as if two entirely different writers had produced them. Ready? I'm setting the timer. 5-4-3-2-1 Go.”
Once the timer sounds for the second poem, I tell them they have a few minutes to make any changes they wish to make on either poem. When they're done with that I ask them to put a check mark next to the poem that they like better or find more satisfying, for whatever reason. I ask them to write their names on the papers and hand them in.
Part Two: Observations
Between classes, I type up a selection of the poems written in class. If it's a small class, I might type up one poem from each student. With a larger class, I'll select 8-10 poems that represent a variety of approaches. Here's an example of a typescript from a sophomore class:
The next day in class we go through a very structured process of debriefing the poems. I point out that I have included the name of the author with the poem. There's a reason for that. We're going to try to look at the poems objectively, as verbal artifacts, and practice making observations about what we see in each poem. I think it's very important, early on in any English course, to help students become more explicitly aware of the difference between observations, inferences, and judgments about quality. I say something like "For the purposes of today's exercise, we are going to focus on observations. I'm going to call on one person to read the first poem out loud. Then I'm going to ask for volunteers to make observations, which is to say, statements of fact, about what they see. If something is truly an observation, we should all be able to nod our heads and say, yes, that's true, I see that.
Observations about the first poem for example might include
• It's five lines long
• No line has more than six words
• Three of the lines rhyme
• It's written in the first person singular
• It describes a dog
• The description is humorously critical of the dog
If someone were to offer that last observation in class, I would point out that while yes, it's observational, it also begins to shade over into inference and some degree of judgment. Is the description critical? Well, yes and no. Is it humorous? Maybe we might not all agree on that. It's not that it's wrong to make inferences or judgments, that's part of the process of reading and thinking. But it's important for us to be aware of the degree to which we are on solid observational ground or entering into the more slippery territory of inference, or, in the case of an "observation" like "The writer has a dog and wrote a poem about him," something that amounts to little more than a guess. I could write a poem about my flying elephant. That doesn't mean that I have actually have one.
And we work through each of the poems, one by one. We make note of various authorial decisions, and pay particular attention to how they differ. I often will ask students to tell us what this writer has done that we have not seen anyone else do yet. Poem Number 3, for example, looks different on the page in that some of the lines are indented. A sharp-eyed observer might also point out that it's structured on the page as a haiku, complete with the 5-7-5 syllabic pattern.
Part Three: Quality Judgments
At the end of the observation exercise, I tell the students that we are going to switch hats. We're going to take off our scientific-observer, statement-of-fact-making hats and put on our let's-give-out-some awards hats. I ask them to imagine that have been asked to act as judges in the First Annual International Three-Minute Poem Writing Contest. The task is simple: take the handout with the three-minute poems on it, and put a checkmark next to the three poems which they feel, for whatever reason, represent a quality response. While they are doing that, I write the numbers of the poems (in this case, Numbers 1-14) on the board. When they are finished making their choices, I go to the board and ask for a show of hands: How many have a check mark next to number 1? Number 2? And so on.
Generally speaking, two things happen. Almost always, every poem gets at least one vote. And almost always, there are two or three poems which get a lot of votes. And so I ask the students about that. I say, "Okay, let's see, poem number five got eleven votes. Could someone who voted for that poem share with us what it was that made you vote for that? What was your criterion of selection?" (I deliberately use the word "criterion," and at some point talk about that word as denoting a quality standard, because it is going to come up a lot during the course of the semester.) As the students come up with criteria, I write them on the board.
Finally, I hand out file cards to the students and say to them, "We've been talking for the last fifteen minutes or so about what makes for good writing. You've identified some poems that exemplify particular kinds of quality, and we've written some criteria on the board. Now I'd like you to go back over the poems we looked at and the notes on the board and write down on the file card the two or three criteria that you feel are most important to you personally when you are making a judgment about whether or not something you are reading is any good or not." The students fill out the cards and hand them in.
Part Four: Universal Standards
I take the cards home and tabulate the results using a spreadsheet. The next day I come into class with a listing that looks something like this:
We talk a little about the criteria the students have identified, and then I show them another sheet which has the criteria charts from previous years and ask them to tell me what they notice. What they notice, of course, is that the criteria from class to class and year to year wind up being very much the same. In a particular class there might be a heavier tilt toward one or another of the criteria based on the poems produced on that day by that class. But it turns out, unsurprisingly, that students—and adults— tend to like poems that have good description, that convey a strong feeling or emotion, that are clear and understandable, that make them think, that have a strong or unique style or interesting word choices, and that make them laugh.
I think that's important for students to know and understand. Many students come into English classes assuming that judgments about good writing are completely subjective, and that whether or not you get good grades on your writing has more to do with whether the teacher likes you or not than with any objective standards of quality. But the results of this exercise demonstrate that 1) there are identifiable standards that make for good writing, 2) you already know what they are, and 3) so does everyone else.
At this point I usually introduce students to the sophomore rubric we use at my school, which is based on a listing put together by Critical Thinking guru Richard Paul of what he calls the Universal Intellectual Standards. There are different versions of this listing out there, but the one I've settled on lists eight criteria: Clarity, Specificity, Accuracy, Logic, Relevance, Significance, Breadth, and Depth. These criteria form the basis of the rubric that will be used throughout the course of the year to give students feedback about their writing. And I provide the students with a comparison chart that shows how the criteria they have come up with match up with the standards Richard Paul has identified:
Later in the semester the students will be given the chance to peer-edit and self-evaluate essays they have written, and to do so they will be asked to use the rubric I mentioned, based on the same Universal Standards:
Part Five: Application
Having gone through this whole sequence, it's time to turn it back over to the students to see how they can apply the techniques they have been observing and evaluating. "So here's the homework assignment," I tell them. "Go home tonight and give yourself the luxury of a little more time, say twenty minutes instead of just three, and write a poem that uses as its point of departure either one of the three-minute poems you wrote, or something that interests you from one of the poems written by your classmates. If you have seen something you like, try to write something like that. If you have seen something that you think isn't very good and you think "I could do better," then try to write something that's better. Write it out by hand, then type it and edit it—keeping in mind the criteria we have been looking at—and hand in tomorrow your typed draft stapled on top of your handwritten draft, so that I can get a sense of how the poem evolved. You may wish to include a process reflection if you think it would be helpful either to you or to me. The following day, I collect the poems. Reading them will give me one of my first opportunities how each person in the class writes and thinks about writing, and will thus give me the chance to determine what the next steps will be in class.
A few final thoughts about this sequence of activities. First, I am always surprised at the range and inventiveness of what gets written both during the three-minute segments, and for the follow-up homework assignment. There's something about this assignment which seems to free the students up. Maybe it's just that lowering the stakes—after all, it's only a three-minute exercise—makes it easier for students to just play. Second—and this is the real point of having the students do the exercise—is that the basic concept of the three-minute exercise is a useful strategic answer for both student and adult writers, a powerful answer to the classic question all writers must face: where should I begin? When faced with a blank piece of paper, an alternative to gathering ideas from the world around you is to gather or harvest ideas from the limitless recesses of the subconscious mind. You can begin by simply freewriting for a few minutes on the first thing that comes to mind, and then doing another freewrite as different from the first as you can make it. That gives the right brain something to play with, and the results are often surprising. And, of course, it's something that anyone can do anywhere. All you need is a pencil, a piece of paper, and six minutes. Finally, to repeat what I said at the start, I like that this exercise helps to establish the tone for the rest of the semester in terms of using writing as an exploratory process. (Most often I follow it up by asking the students to read William Stafford's brilliant and inspirational essay A Way of Writing in which he makes explicit the philosophy of writing which is implied in this way of proceeding.