New Lesson Plan: Random Word Challenge

Image courtesy of MinimalistPhotography101.com (flickr.com)

In this lesson, students will be introduced to a Printz- and Morris-Award winning novelist, John Corey Whaley; those who already know him and his book will be tickled to read his poetry.  They will learn a method of jump-starting their own creative writing in a low-stakes slightly-structured free-write.  And as a bonus, ambitious students might want to submit the poetry they write for this assignment to YARN!

What you’ll need:

  • A computer with Internet that can be viewed on an overhead screen.
  • The Random Word Challenge” by John Corey Whaley & Randi Anderson

Preparation & Homework:

  • Assign “Random Word Challenge” for homework, as well as John Corey Whaley’s own site, especially his Bio page.  If not all your students own computers on which to read, you might schedule some library or computer lab time for in-class reading.
  • Also ask students to peruse the “Learn About Yarn” pages.
  • Encourage students to take notes on paper as they read, especially jotting down specific lines in the poetry that move them.

In Class:

  1. After setting up the computer and screen, go to www.yareview.net and review YARN with the class, especially the “About YARN” page.  Then go to John Corey Whaley (JCW)’s site, and review his bio.
  2. Put the “Random Word Challenge” on the screen.
  3. Warm students up by asking what they thought about the assignment Corey and Randi created: What did they like about it?  How did it help them as writers?  What surprised them about it?
  4. Transition to asking questions about JCW’s poetry.  What words did he choose from the list?  How did he use the words?  Did he use the words in unexpected ways–how? What were his poems about?  Ask that students support their answers with specific words and phrases from the poems.  Write their thoughts on the chalkboard.
  5. This assignment was about creativity–Do students think JCW & Randi achieved creativity in their writings?  How, why?
  6. JCW gives his and Randi’s reasons for assigning the Random Word Challenge to each other, but can students think of additional reasons why a writer might want to engage in such an assignment?  Why would a writer of prose–JCW–want to write poetry for this exercise?  What about a student, even a student who prefers math and science–Why would ANY student benefit from such an exercise?    OPTIONAL/ADVANCED: How is Randi Anderson’s “Behavior” like and not like a poem?  What does she manage to accomplish with such a short piece of prose?
  7. Be sure to leave time to analyze the words on the list themselves.  What do students notice about the words on the list?  What parts of speech–noun, verb, adjective–are they?  What makes a “good”/creative/juicy/inspiring word for such an exercise?
  8. With students’ answers on the board, ask some synthesizing questions: What have they learned about writing and poetry from this lesson?

Assignment:

  • Put students into groups of 4 and ask them to brainstorm a list of 10 “good” words.
  • Then swap the lists between groups so that Group 1 has Group 4’s list of words, and so on.  No one should be writing from their own lists!
  • Ask students to copy the list of words into their journal, or onto a piece of paper they can take home.  For homework, ask them to write  1, 2, or 3 short poems using at least one of the “list words” per poem.  You can set other guidelines for the poems, like line minimums and maximums, and/or you could allow students to write very short pieces of prose, like Randi Anderson’s “Behavior.”
  • How far you take the assignment depends on your own classroom.  You could simply check the poems off in your gradebook when they are turned in (though we don’t recommend grading these, since, in the spirit of the “Random Word Challenge,” they are meant to be creativity-looseners, not formally analyzed poems).  You could host a fun “poetry reading” in which students read their poems to the class.  And /Or, you could have another class in which the students workshop the poems in small groups, or comment on them for homework, with the goal of students revising the poems and turning them in again.
  • We recommend having a short recap discussion after they have finished writing.  Ask them how it felt to do the Random Word Challenge themselves–Was it hard or easy to use the list of words, and why?  Would they do it again, and why?  What did they learn about writing from the assignment?
  • Whatever direction you choose, we hope you’ll encourage students to work more on their poems, and submit them to YARN (but be sure you ask them to review our Submission Guidelines!)

As always, we welcome comments and feedback from teachers who want to use–or have already used–this lesson in their classroom.   Thanks, and have fun with this one!

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