Burning the Old Year with Naomi Shihab Nye

Today’s post is by guest author Jessica Salfia. Jessica is the Co-Director of WVCTE and a teacher, writer, and activist.  Her writing has appeared in the Charleston-Gazette Mail, West Virginia Living Magazine’s Blog, the WVCTE Best Practices Blog, and multiple volumes of the Anthology of Appalachian Writers. She was the winner of 2016 and 2019 West Virginia Fiction Competition and recently had her poem, Rootbound, selected for the 2018-2019 Woman of Appalachia Project. She is the co-editor of the book 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike out now from Belt Publishing. Jessica currently is a teacher at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, West Virginia where she teaches AP  Language and Creative Writing and advises the Multicultural Club and the Literary and Art magazine. When she’s not teaching, writing, or advocating for West Virginia and public education, you’ll find her in the woods with her three kids or paddling down a creek somewhere. 

For many of us, the New Year is a chance to start over and begin again—a fresh slate, an empty notebook of pages yet unwritten. For our students it is no different. They return to our classrooms after winter break looking forward to new classes and a fresh start.

In my Creative Writing class at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, West Virginia we begin the New Year by “burning” the old one using Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Burning the Old Year, as a mentor text for thinking and writing.

Here’s what you’ll need for this activity:

  • a copy of Burning the Old Year by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • paper, pencil, annotation tools
  • a template of a fire for final drafts of student poems

**Feel free to use this handout I created for my students.

First, I pass out the poem and ask my students to read once silently. They may make any markings or notes on the poem that they want to during their first silent read through.


When they have finished, we then read it aloud at least three times, using a different reading method each time. I’ve used different strategies for this part of the activity, but some of my favorites include:

After each time read aloud, I ask students to make meaning of the poem. There are many ways into a poem, and some of my favorites can be found in this brilliant post by Susan Barber.

This year, I asked students to answer a different question after each time we read the poem aloud.

  • Round 1: What is the poem literally about?
  • Round 2: What is the central image, and how does this function both literally and figuratively?
  • Round 3: When does the poem move from the concrete to the abstract?

There is a lot to unpack here with students: the literal fire, the fire as a metaphor, the fire as the passage of time, the feelings of regret for things not done, the freeing sensation of literally burning the things you don’t need or want. This discussion can last a whole class period and then some.

Next, I have my students write three things down on three scraps of paper that they “want to burn.” These can be behaviors they want to leave behind, toxic people, memories, bad grades, etc. Then, they crumble up the paper and we “burn” them. (Ok, so we don’t actually burn them.  I decorate my recycling container with fake flames, and we dramatically throw them in there.)

Then, I ask them use Nye’s poem as a mentor text, and they write their own Burning the Old Year Poem. Here are the guidelines:

  1. Poems must be comprised of four stanzas and be of similar line length as Nye’s.
  2. Poems must use a central image (such as fire) both figuratively and literally.
  3. Poem must focus on leaving something behind (beginning) and embracing something in the new year (end).

They draft a rough draft, do one round of peer review, and then they copy their final drafts onto the flame template and color the flames.

This is one of my favorite lessons of the year, and a perfect way to start a new semester of writing and thinking.  And check out these beautiful student samples from this year’s class.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Thank you, Jessica, for this awesome activity! I tried it in my class and it went great! 

Thank you for reading! Do you have a story, lesson, activity, or something else to share with TeachLivingPoets.com? Be a guest author! Email me at msmith@lncharter.org. 

You can follow me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith and please tweet all the awesome things you are doing in your class with the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag! 

5 thoughts on “Burning the Old Year with Naomi Shihab Nye

  1. Pingback: Writing the New Year Together - Learning Education

  2. Pingback: Writing the New Year Together – Education Stage

  3. Pingback: Writing the New Year Together – Oline Classes

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