Teachers & Writers Publication

It has been a wild couple weeks for me, but wanted to take a second to share that I recently published “Found Poetry & Accessibility” in Teachers & Writers Magazine. The piece offers three ways to use found poetry as an accessible and inclusive entryway into poetry.

Give it a read!

Example of a black out poem. A page from a book about birds has large strokes of black blocking out specific lines of words, images, and design details. The remaining words form a poem and in the bottom left is the picture of a bird.

Example of a black out poem. A page from a book about birds has large strokes of black blocking out specific lines of words, images, and design details. The remaining words form a poem and in the bottom left is the picture of a bird.

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Sonnet Challenge

For Valentine’s Day I challenged one of my workshops to write sonnets.

This was my first time teaching a form in any of my workshops. I’ve done haiku scavenger hunts before, but those were more about the experiential nature of haiku than any of the form’s diction and thematic restrictions.

To start this sonnet lesson I explained that some poems have rules, which piqued the attention of a couple poets in the room right away. We’ve been writing together as a group for almost two years now and in that time I’ve pretty much let them free write, the exceptions being group projects like our holiday cookie tags, so this was something new.

I had Sonnet and the numbers one through fourteen listed downward on the board as a visual for everyone to reference. I decided to start with the basic rule, that a sonnet is a poem with fourteen lines. While rhyme and meter play a big role in the Shakespearean Sonnet (which is the form I was basing this introduction on) it didn’t quite feel right to dive into that. I wanted this to be a challenge for the poets, but not overwhelm them. Furthermore, I wanted them to be engaged and intrigued and bogging them down with all the details of form would have dimmed the excitement.

on a white dry erase school board the word Sonnet is written at the top with a vertical stack of numbers 1-14 underneath it. All the writing is in blue.

on a white dry erase school board the word Sonnet is written at the top with a vertical stack of numbers 1-14 underneath it. All the writing is in blue.

Next I talked about the theme, sonnets are about someone or something you really like. I got a lot of “blehs” from this as the thought of writing a love poem, or “love letter” as one of the poets said, was off putting. I told them though that it didn’t have to be addressed to someone, it could simply be fun and addressed to a video game the loved, a show, a book, anything is sonnet worthy.

Once that was established and no one felt like they had to write a love poem, the poets set to work and it was amazing! They tackled the challenge so well! Even the poet who was so opposed to writing “love letters” started with Sonic, but ended with an amazing ode to family, friends, and school.

One note, I started off just letting them free write, but it became quickly apparent that encouraging the poets to number one to fourteen down the side of their paper (like I had up on the board) provided a good frame of reference. Aside from this addition to their papers and occasional encouragement from the teachers and therapists supporting the group not much scaffolding took place.


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Class Environment

A big consideration in prepping for the workshops is the class environment, or how things are arranged and set up in the room to best support student learning.

One important component of design for the sessions I run is a circular structure.

I do this because I want the poets to be able to reference one another. The social-emotional and self-expressive aspects of these workshops are just as important as the academic and in order to facilitate these empathic aspects I need to set up the room in a way that promotes communication between poets.

A circle of classrrom chairs, black and one blue, on a tiled floor. In the middle of the circle of chairs is a smaller circle of colored cards. In the foreground is a classroom dry-erase whiteboard.

A circle of classrrom chairs, black and one blue, on a tiled floor. In the middle of the circle of chairs is a smaller circle of colored cards. In the foreground is a classroom dry-erase whiteboard.

For example, in my younger workshops where I use the movement cards I put the circle of cards in the center of the larger seating circle. This gives each poet a kind of performance for their turn and then I still keep an open space for writing on the board, trying to keep it so that the poem is a kind of part of the circle.

I like to keep the room clear as well, nothing but the seating and activity.

It’s important to note as well, that teachers, therapists, and other facilitators are sitting (or standing in the case of other workshops) with the poets. This equanimity in seating is twofold in that it’s a visual representation of the fact that all voices are valued, student voice on the same tier as adult voice, and it allows for seamless 1:1 support. Whether that support is because a therapist is using this session as a group mandate and needs to work in close capacity to fulfill goals or because a poet needs sensory support in a moment of challenge, this set up makes it so that there are no dramatic/run across the room/jump in the middle of the activity/ stop everything situations that arise.

It’s pretty simple, but taking small considerations can make big improvements in peer learning.

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Sensory Supports

Working with a population of learners who have a wide array of sensory needs means adapting the classroom space to meet those individual needs. As I reflect on this past semester I wanted to create a little list of some easy sensory supports to include as part of a workshop, or classroom, environment.

 One easy thing is alternative seating like a yoga ball. The bouncing of the yoga ball can help offer input for students to be more attentive and engaged in the lesson. The one difficulty is sometimes everyone wants a turn to sit on the ball, whether it’s right for their sensory system or not, so establishing it as special seat for an individual student right from the get-go is important. 

Tiled classroom with a white board. Black chairs arranged in a half-circle around the white board. In the middle of the chairs is a teal yoga ball intended to be a seat. On the board can be seen some writing.

Tiled classroom with a white board. Black chairs arranged in a half-circle around the white board. In the middle of the chairs is a teal yoga ball intended to be a seat. On the board can be seen some writing.

Another easy tool is a weighted blanket, providing deep pressure to help students remain seated and regulated who might otherwise want to move around to seek sensory input. I’ve found there isn’t as much temptation from other students around these blankets, so it’s a nice, low impact addition to the classroom space.

The student it’s intended for can keep it on their body, take it off when it’s their turn to go to the board and then put it back over them or have a staff put it over them as the other poets take their turns.

 

Teal and dark blue weighted blanket sitting on top of a black chair in a tiled classroom.

Teal and dark blue weighted blanket sitting on top of a black chair in a tiled classroom.

Another, subtler and smaller form of deep pressure are hand squeezes to rhythm. A colleague of mine offers this to a poet in one of the rhythm and movement based workshops I run. It’s a simple tactile cue that helps the poet stay attuned to the group activity while also giving their body a bit of support.

For the workshops that are doing writing on paper rather than the white board I like to offer writing utensils that have different sizes and textures. This way every poet should be able to find a tool that fits comfortably in their hand.

Clear mason jar of writing utensils on a tiled classroom floor. The Jar has plastic ball point pens with both smooth and rough grips, pens with cardboard wrapping, regular sized pencils, and giant pencils.

Clear mason jar of writing utensils on a tiled classroom floor. The Jar has plastic ball point pens with both smooth and rough grips, pens with cardboard wrapping, regular sized pencils, and giant pencils.

These are a few ideas I have, but I’d love to hear what else is out there and what other artists and educators use in their spaces!

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Snowball Dialouge

New article over in Whale Road Literary Review on “Snowball Dialouge” a writing technique I’ve used with students in the Sensorimotor Poetry Workshops.

While this article talks specifically about moments of peer learning in the workshop space, I've also used this as a strategy to help communicate and co-regulate with students in the day-to-day as well.

It's a good back pocket tool for any educator!

Black text on a white background. The top has the masthead for  Whale Road Review  with four lines right aligned indicating an online drop down menu. Below that masthead is the start of the article with “Snowball Dialogue” in bold, black title lettering and the article lettering beginning in paragraph form below.

Black text on a white background. The top has the masthead for Whale Road Review with four lines right aligned indicating an online drop down menu. Below that masthead is the start of the article with “Snowball Dialogue” in bold, black title lettering and the article lettering beginning in paragraph form below.

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Edupreneur: Productivity Plan

One of the hardest transitions to entrepreneurship for me was keeping a consistent schedule. I consider myself a pretty self-motivated person, but I still found it easy to waste whole chunks of time on the days I didn’t have workshops booked. Whether doing something actually unproductive, like scrolling through Twitter, or spending an inordinate amount of time on something that’s productive, but not directly related to my businesses, like photo editing for blogs or planning an instagram story.

I wanted to think about how I spent my days and figure out if there was a smarter way for me work. I decided I’d build daily itineraries for myself and be my own personal assistant for a bit.

I would schedules parts of the day for deep work like writing blogs, curriculum planning, and workshop prep. Other parts for meeting and communicating with clients. And still other parts for media work and less mentally intense effort.

But before I did that I wanted to know: when should these things happen? What’s the optimal time for each of those activities?

To help answer that question, I found this chart from UNC-Chapel Hill that would allow me to keep track of what I do, when, during the day.

While it starts at 8am, and I often wake up before that, I just tracked those first hours separately. It was a big time save for me to find a pre-made chart! If you’re adept at making spreadsheets and know all the short cuts, you could just as easily make your own with a broader time range.

Chart on white background with black writing and lines. The title is in large bold letters reading “Weekly Planner (30min intervals) and on the right most end of the header is a “Week of” area with a line for the user to write the dates. The cahrt is broken up across a week Monday- Sunday horizontally and vertically listing times from 8:00am to 12:30am in half-hour intervals.

Chart on white background with black writing and lines. The title is in large bold letters reading “Weekly Planner (30min intervals) and on the right most end of the header is a “Week of” area with a line for the user to write the dates. The cahrt is broken up across a week Monday- Sunday horizontally and vertically listing times from 8:00am to 12:30am in half-hour intervals.

I took a week to journal every half half, listing out everything did in that block of time.

What I found was really interesting! Admittedly, for the first two days I think just knowing I was journaling made me a bit more productive, but by Wednesday I had fallen back into old habits and the data I collected on myself proved useful.

For example, my most productive writing time is between 8am and 11am, so I decided I would front end my days with deep work in that morning slot and make sure to schedule meetings and client calls for the afternoon when, as my data showed me, I’m more restless and distracted so it’d be a good time for me to travel for a meeting or set up a phone call.

This is still very much a work in progress for me, but charting my habits has helped me optimize my days. Not necessarily to do more, but to respond to the way my body and mind (or attention span) prefer to operate and in doing so, ensuring that I’m doing quality work in for all the different aspects of Donnie Welch Poetry.

Try it yourself for a week and comment with any surprising results you find!

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Mural Poem

I’m finishing up my Fall partnership with PS 73 through the Bronx Museum and wanted to reflect on one of the final projects I did with a class there. The idea sprung from a conversation with a fellow Teaching Artist at the museum who had done a negative space project. They covered paper with tape to form various letters and shapes then after the paint dried had students remove the tape to reveal what was left in the white space covered by the tape.

I thought this could be a great project to display the final, collaborative praise poem that one of the classes made. In this way it would allow the letters to be the student’s own work without any writing or re-writing from the adults to help with clarity.

I started by tracing some letters on thick construction paper and cutting these letters out to be arranged into words on a piece of mural paper. Once the words were formed I taped them down securely so that they’d stay in place while getting painted over.

Three letter “E” “S” “E”on blue construction paper. One of the letters is an outline in sharpie, the other two are yellow stencils. The sharpie is seen in the top left corner of the paper.

Three letter “E” “S” “E”on blue construction paper. One of the letters is an outline in sharpie, the other two are yellow stencils. The sharpie is seen in the top left corner of the paper.

Gray work table with stencils, scissors, construction paper, sharpie. The stencils are organized alphabetically at the top of the table, the other supplies at the bottom.

Gray work table with stencils, scissors, construction paper, sharpie. The stencils are organized alphabetically at the top of the table, the other supplies at the bottom.

Eventually, I smartened up a bit and realized that I could arrange the letters in a way that would both save paper and time by using the very edges of construction paper.

Sharpie outlines of letters on blue construction paper. The letters come to the edges of the paper.

Sharpie outlines of letters on blue construction paper. The letters come to the edges of the paper.

Even this didn’t save me that much time though! This was an incredibly time intensive project! If I didn’t have the resources of the Bronx Museum at my disposal, I’m not sure I would have accomplished the vision. Not only was the abundance of high quality supplies important, but I had to recruit the help of the museum’s Education Intern to help finish the prep work.

If a parent or teacher reading wants to try something like this, I’d recommend doing it on a smaller scale! For example: maybe only doing four or five words or (if you want to get form specific) doing a haiku. The time needed for the prep on a large scale mural like this is unrealistic for what teachers are provided and for the time I imagine most parents have on top of their responsibilities.

Another thought would to get the poets involved in the tracing and cutting of the letters rather than have it be prepped. The way the timing worked out in my partnership didn’t really allow for it this season, but the more the poets are involved in the structuring and refining of their own work the better. Plus all the tracing and cutting is amazing fine motor work!

Large white mural paper. “These Are'“ spelled out at the top in blue letters cut from the construction paper. Below there are more pieces of paper with tracings and a pile of letters cut out not yet organized into words.

Large white mural paper. “These Are'“ spelled out at the top in blue letters cut from the construction paper. Below there are more pieces of paper with tracings and a pile of letters cut out not yet organized into words.

The next step was bringing it from the museum workspace into the museum classroom at the school. This involved me walking through a busy and blustery Grand Concourse, with the paper folded, hopping none of the letters slipped off and blew away to get crunched under morning rush hour traffic!

Fortunately, Patrick, the Bronx Museum Education Director, let me use some of the special mural paper the museum has on hand for their teen programs. This paper is made to withstand both a lot of media and material son it and some weathering. It’s composed of paper and cotton pulp and it feels soft to the touch, but is nearly impossible to tear. Part of the fun of this project was taking sensory, tactile, time at the start of the session to simply introduce and explain the material to the poets after they had all felt the paper and taken guesses about what gave it that texture.

White mural paper with the poem in blue construction paper letters laid out on tables covered in plastic. The poem reads “These are / our favorite / things in / class 303 / Singing / Dancing / Drawing / Math / And running / playing Minecraft / call of duty / PS4 / and Fun”

White mural paper with the poem in blue construction paper letters laid out on tables covered in plastic. The poem reads “These are / our favorite / things in / class 303 / Singing / Dancing / Drawing / Math / And running / playing Minecraft / call of duty / PS4 / and Fun”

The painting got a little (maybe lotta) bit messy. I should have come prepared with some smocks, but in all the excitement over the scale of the project it had totally slipped my mind! Rookie mistake! The poets weren’t particularly bothered by it, but their teacher’s were a little concerned over how some of the parents might react to paint covered clothes.

One of the teachers suggested rather than using brushes and giving every poet a spot of the poster, to have them take turns with paint rollers which I thought was a really wonderful idea and something I’ll implement when doing this project again. While there’s something fun about the unevenness of the paint, having a more linear structure from the pattern of the roller could be a cool effect and the class management side of turn taking with only 2 or 3 rollers is also appealing. The trick would be keeping poets not painting equally engaged and a part of the group activity. Perhaps a challenge for the Spring!

Poem laid out on the tables, but now the white mural paper is covered in various layers of paints: black, green, blue, pink, brown, red, and yellow. The blue construction paper letters have been removed so that now the letters come through from the empty space, white gaps on the mural paper. The poem reads The poem reads “These are / our favorite / things in / class 303 / Singing / Dancing / Drawing / Math / And running / playing Minecraft / call of duty / PS4 / and Fun”

Poem laid out on the tables, but now the white mural paper is covered in various layers of paints: black, green, blue, pink, brown, red, and yellow. The blue construction paper letters have been removed so that now the letters come through from the empty space, white gaps on the mural paper. The poem reads The poem reads “These are / our favorite / things in / class 303 / Singing / Dancing / Drawing / Math / And running / playing Minecraft / call of duty / PS4 / and Fun”

After drying, the mural was hung in the museum class space and recited as part of a performance for the entire grade. The poets also have an opportunity to read it at the museum as part of a closing ceremony for the exhibit we visited.

If you’re interested in trying this with your own poets I’ve supplied the list of materials below. As I mentioned, I was making use of some higher end museum supplies, so the list has the basic materials with no prices attached. Be aware that when using poster paper or butcher paper paint might bleed through and cause tears so make sure your poets don’t go as thick as some of mine! Also, keep in mind that different paints will have different results. I was using specific mural paints purchased by the museum, what’s available to you might apply and dry differently.

Materials:

  • Reference poem (what you’ll be painting)

  • Traceable Letters / Stencils

  • Construction Paper

  • Scissors

  • Tape

  • Paint

  • Poster Paper

  • Large table and/or work space

The poem hanging up on a brick school wall. Other pieces of art from other projects surround it: individual drawings and crafted ladders. The paint colors (red, blue, brown, black, yellow, green) have dried. The poem reads “These are / our favorite / things in / class 303 / Singing / Dancing / Drawing / Math / And running / playing Minecraft / call of duty / PS4 / and Fun”

The poem hanging up on a brick school wall. Other pieces of art from other projects surround it: individual drawings and crafted ladders. The paint colors (red, blue, brown, black, yellow, green) have dried. The poem reads “These are / our favorite / things in / class 303 / Singing / Dancing / Drawing / Math / And running / playing Minecraft / call of duty / PS4 / and Fun”

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Workshopping the Workshop

Today marked the start of a new project with one of the workshops. Rather than building a collaborative poem off of a few lines from each poet, we're writing, revising, and (eventually) publishing full, individual poems.

Image of a poem written in black marker on a school white board. Photo editing has given everything a slight burnt tint. The poem’s title says “Tornado Brain” by Donnie. Parts of the poem are circled in orange, and brown other lines have writing around them in blue and purple ink.

Image of a poem written in black marker on a school white board. Photo editing has given everything a slight burnt tint. The poem’s title says “Tornado Brain” by Donnie. Parts of the poem are circled in orange, and brown other lines have writing around them in blue and purple ink.

Before summer break, every poet wrote a full piece on the prompt Tornado Brain, myself included. In introducing the idea of editing and revising I wanted to use my work rather than make any one post feel picked out. This not only takes away the anxiousness of having a poem critiqued, but it gives me the chance to model, as facilitator, the way to accept and process feedback. It also allows the poets to tackle this new subject as a group and use the collaborating, social skills they have in place from the group writing projects.

The idea of finding something to change was initially off putting to some of the poets and, admittedly, I don't know what I would have done in school if a teacher gave me a lesson saying, "okay, what would you change about this poem I wrote?" Two strategies I found that worked: asking the poets to identify what they like and have them circle it and asking them to make additions to the text.

Circling was a good entry way into the text because once they showed me what they liked they were more equipped to talk about what they didn't. Whether that's because it helped them identify their preferences or because it's socially easier to give someone a compliment sandwich, I'm not sure.  In either case, it helped lead to productive conversations and, as you can tell in the picture, even the circled favorite of one poet proved an area of critique for another.

In asking for additions instead of changes, a couple poets were able to interact with the text and give it a personal sense of completion.  Once the additions were made, it was easier to talk about the full text, including their suggested additions. The explanations for why their additions made sense often highlighted elements of the piece they did or didn't like and served as nice opportunities for myself, other facilitators, and peer poets in the room to interject or agree.

Another technique that seemed to work for this lesson was having  every student use their own color marker at the start. While some overlap eventually happened (best laid plans...) this was nice while it lasted! It not only let me see the work of each individual poet, but it made it easy for them to see what each other thought and, in turn, to respond to each other's comment. Next time I'll try and keep the colors a little more carefully coordinated!

After the success of this, I was hoping the poets would be ready to edit their own pieces, but that was definitely a rushed thought. The poets hesitated and rightfully so. Not only is this something new, but it's something a lot scarier than any reading and/or writing exercise we've done. I think workshops are scary! I just know that the end result is a much better, tighter draft and these poets need to see that pay off before they put themselves out there.

I was focused on having this be a summer project, ending with a summer school publication, but I need to step back and enjoy the process. Next session I'm planning to bring my revisions so that they can see how I've accepted their changes and maybe I'll have them go at it again to get some more practice in and, hopefully, see that it can be a good thing to have other poets read and interact with your work.

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Supports for Nonverbal Poets

When I present about the workshops, people often ask how I support students with limited verbal skills. Here are three examples of tools I've used or am using.

White board with black expo marker writing. The writing is broken up into three columns. From left to right: Setting, Plot, Character. There’s handwriting under each column. Setting clearly reads “Sleepy Hollow.” The writing under Plot is more difficult to read. And Character has “Ichabod, Katrina, Brom, Headless Horseman”

White board with black expo marker writing. The writing is broken up into three columns. From left to right: Setting, Plot, Character. There’s handwriting under each column. Setting clearly reads “Sleepy Hollow.” The writing under Plot is more difficult to read. And Character has “Ichabod, Katrina, Brom, Headless Horseman”


"Setting / Character / Plot" is a chart for one of my reading groups. In the session, a student with developmental and emotional needs feels more comfortable writing out ideas than sharing aloud (often asking that no one watches while they write). I created this chart for the group to fill out together at the start of every session, giving all the readers in the group an opportunity to share their knowledge of the story and review it as a whole rather than putting any one of them on the spot.

Brown Butcher paper with writing and drawing in black, green, purple, and blue expo marker. The first part of the title is censored in black but the next two words read “Idea Board” the handwriting is difficult to read as are a lot of the drawings, though some are clearly of animals like a Guinea Pig and Turtle.

Brown Butcher paper with writing and drawing in black, green, purple, and blue expo marker. The first part of the title is censored in black but the next two words read “Idea Board” the handwriting is difficult to read as are a lot of the drawings, though some are clearly of animals like a Guinea Pig and Turtle.


"Idea Board" is a space for a poet with limited verbal skills, but who is often more regulated while drawing and writing. The poster paper's size gives them the opportunity to share their thoughts and contributions with the whole workshop while remaining more grounded and engaged.

On a school white board a chart is written in black expo marker. The chart has two rows and four columns. The title of the chart is “Movement Word Wall” The top row reads from left to right: “Fast Skip Run Left” with each of those words in their own column. The bottom row reads from left to right: “Slow Walk March Right” with each of those words in their own column.

On a school white board a chart is written in black expo marker. The chart has two rows and four columns. The title of the chart is “Movement Word Wall” The top row reads from left to right: “Fast Skip Run Left” with each of those words in their own column. The bottom row reads from left to right: “Slow Walk March Right” with each of those words in their own column.


"Movement Wall" is for a poet who uses a device to communicate. During a specific  movement activity I set up this world wall for them to go and tap (currently working to get the words programmed in) like they would their device to make their choice. This is also a nice visual cue for poets in the group who, while able to verbally communicate, might have difficulties coming up with movement ideas.

These are just a start and have had various successes and failures, if you test these out I'd love to hear how they work in your groups and how you've tweaked them to meet the needs of your students!

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