Teaching Idea

Things to Do to Synthesize Content Knowledge and Creative Writing

Laura Purdie Salas

Abstract

The author of many books of poetry for children, Laura Purdie Salas travels throughout the country teaching school classes and other groups to write poetry. Many of these children have given very little thought to poetry and definitely have not thought of themselves as poets.  Ms. Salas shares one of her favorite poetic forms for children, the “things to do” poem. It is simple enough for very young children, yet has the flexibility and potential to allow the older ones to explore more in depth with ideas and creative expression. Detailed instructions for teachers and several examples are included.

I love to write poetry with students when I visit schools, and one of my favorite poetic forms is “things to do.” In it, the poet writes a poem about a topic, and the poem reads as a to-do list for that thing. Here’s a first draft example.

Things to Do If You Are Dandelion Fluff

Re – e – e – a – c – c – c - h toward sky
Wave in the breeze
High-five trees
Hold hands with soil and
Don’t
          Let
                    Go

Here are some student examples:

Things to Do if You Are a Knitting Needle With 1st graders at Hugo Elementary School (White Bear Lake, MN)

Wear a shiny silver coat
Play with your twin to make mittens
Dream of knitting a perfect sweater

Things to Do if You Are a Ship With mixed-grade elementary school group (Stewartville, MN)

Wear striped cloth and wooden shoes
Dance in swerves to the music of the waves
Hope for sailors to steer you
Fly across the water

I have written things to do poems with kindergartners through adults, on topics from magnets to airplanes to Hawaii. The form is easy to learn and is adaptable to any age student. Here’s how to write a group things to do poem.

 

  1. Share a few things to do poems as mentor texts.
  2. Ask students what they notice. Depending on the students, we discuss the action word at the beginning of each line, the use of figurative language/personification, the list form of the poem, the absence of rhyme, etc.
  3. Announce the topic, which can be a thing or a place or a process. It is easier to start with a non-living topic for your first attempt.
  4. If possible, display an up-close visually appealing image of the topic.
  5. Brainstorm some facts. “Tell me something you know or notice about this [pictured] ship.” These might include the parts of a thing, the steps of a process, sensory details, etc.

    Here’s a “ship” example:

    water
    sails
    cloth
    deck
    wood

    floats
    carries things
    carries people
    gets from one place to another

    ocean
    pirates
    sailors
    wind for sails
    storms are scary

  6. Tell students the group will use some of these facts, but not all of them, in the poem. I share If You Were the Moon, which started as a things to do poem. We talk about how a line can inform (the moon’s gravity causes earth’s tides) in a creative, poetic way (“play tug-of-war with the ocean”).
  7. Give students the first word of each line, and call on volunteers to finish lines. I start with wear.
  8. Prompt as needed. If I give hide as a word, I ask, “What would a ship hide from? Or what might a ship hide inside itself?” Students have seen diamond hearts inside mountains and BOOM inside fireworks.
  9. Progress through the poem using verbs unrelated to the topic. In a ship poem, sail would likely get “Sail across the ocean.” True, but boring. In a bee poem, sail might inspire “Sail across the summer meadow.”
  10. Finish up with an emotional verb, like wish or dream. Kids often synthesize the facts they know into really lovely last lines. Or not¾because you never know with poetry! But that’s ok.  It’s a process.

It’s up to you how much to emphasize facts. While I was writing magnet poems with first graders, a student offered “dance on the ceiling,” but the teacher wanted facts in every line. We celebrated ceiling dancing and brainstormed how to add a fact. We wrote, “Dance on a metal ceiling with a paper clip partner.”

Things to do poems are deceptively simple. They require students to be able to explain a topic clearly and also to convert it into metaphor. It’s advanced-level thinking, but the kids see it as fun and challenging. My favorite benefit is that students who don’t see themselves as writers, let alone poets, often discover their inner creative writers. 

Resources

Falling Down the Page is an anthology of list poems edited by Georgia Heard; in it Elaine Magliaro’s “Things to Do if You Are a Pencil” is one of my favorite mentor text poems to share with students.

More examples I have written with students are on my blog at laurasalas.com/blog. Just type in “things to do if” in the search box.

If You Were the Moon, my poetry/science mashup picture book, started out as Things to Do if You Are the Moon. Learn more at laurasalas.com/moon.

Former teacher Laura Purdie Salas has written more than 125 books for kids, including the Can Be... series (Bank Street Best Books, IRA Teachers’ Choice), BookSpeak! (Minnesota Book Award, NCTE Notable), and If You Were the Moon. Laura shares inspiration and practical tips with educators about poetry, nonfiction, and more. Visit Laura at laurasalas.com.