Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Brett Vogelsinger: Variations

One of the advantages of keeping a writing teacher’s notebook is that I have the opportunity to practice an idea or follow a thread more than once over the course of a day.  If I ask my students to respond to a poem or write in the manner of a particular poet, I will do so several times by the day’s end.

In my class we respond to a poem in a variety of ways.  Sometimes, we write “after” a poet, borrowing a first line and writing a sort of spin-off poem.  Here are my variations on the poem “Hope” by Ali Liebegott, experimenting with various first lines borrowed from the original.

In the following poem draft, I challenged students to write a line that sounds like it is from the poem “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye, almost like a “deleted scene” you might find in the DVD extras for the poem.  I challenged myself to also incorporates a vocabulary word from our study of the book Night to demonstrate usage.

And in this third example, I wrote lines in celebration of small victories or gratitudes in my life that the ending of “won’t you celebrate with me?” by Lucille Clifton drew out in my heart.

In all three cases, I see my writing change and sometimes grow throughout a given day.  

From this I have learned that the first idea is frequently not my best idea.  It gives me the opportunity to share that process with students the following day.  And it reminds me to have students create more than one variation on an idea. For instance, in the Lucille Clifton model, could students think of three different “come celebrate with me” statements to make about their own lives?  Might these be arranged into a poem of their own? Or might we evaluate which one has the best rhythm or the broadest appeal to an audience outside of the Writer’s Notebook? Or might this simply invite greater gratitude and cheer into my classroom?

Variations invite possibility, and possibility grows writers.  

Try it:  
If you are a teacher, find a poem or passage that inspires you and invite a class to write something that sounds a bit like it but also brings in their own voices.  Then, repeat this with several of your classes, writing something different each period. If you are feeling especially brave, write under a document camera! If you are not a teacher, then try this same process in your notebook across the space of three to four days, coming back to same prompt from a different angle each time.  Your first approach is seldom your best approach.

Real Brett & Wonderful Student Portrait of Brett

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School.  He is advisor of the school’s literary magazine, Sevenatenine, and runs an annual blog project, Go Poems,  promoting daily poetry reading in the classroom. You can find him on Twitter @theVogelman.

Please know that Sharing Our Notebooks welcomes all kinds of notebook keepers - of any age and interest - to open up their pages and share their process.  At the present time, I am accepting all notebook entries and am especially hoping to receive more entries from boys and men who keep any kind of notebooks.  If you are interested in writing in this space, please contact me, Amy, directly.

Please share a comment below if you wish.


  1. What a wonderful writing mentor you are for your students, Brett. One of my favorite times of the day in my Kindergarten classroom is sitting and writing alongside my students. They are always mesmerized as my pen glides across the page. Up until now my students have been responding to our weekly poem study through artwork, but now that they are beginning to write a wee bit more conventionally, we are learning to be inspired to write like that poem we are learning. Thanks to you and Amy for the peek into your notebook and process!

  2. I love that you write with your students, and that you, too, are brave enough to write "live" under the document camera! It's nerve-wracking, but it gives students such an authentic role model! I almost wish I taught multiple periods of writing so that my notebook would be as rich as yours.

    ...Nah, not really! I love me my self-contained classroom!

    Thanks for this peek!


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