The need for human connection has never been so achingly present for me as it has the past few months of sheltering in place. All teachers are missing their students, their moments with coworkers, and the daily work of the classroom. It makes me remember how important forging relationships and actively engaging with those young adults who cross our doors remains. One of the greatest memories I have of moments like that is my first writing marathon with my students.
The words “Writing Marathon” inspire images of track suits, numbered bibs, water stations, and…a pen and paper? Yes. I first experienced a writing marathon at the Invitational Summer Institute for the Blue Ridge Writing Project on Virginia Tech’s campus. The backbone of the writing marathon is you are given a prompt, you write for a few minutes and you share what you wrote, if you feel comfortable, but nobody provides any feedback. Then you move on to the next spot and repeat. Aileen Murphy was my facilitator. She read a prompt at each stop and then set a timer. We could write to the prompt or about anything we wanted until the timer went off. Then she opened it to sharing for 5 minutes. You could choose to share what you wrote, nobody comments or discusses, and she always shared what she wrote, even if we did not. We would move on to the next stop and repeat. If anyone stopped us, our only response would be “We Are Writers!”
I brought it back to the classroom that fall, and ran them with all of my classes every year after. The excitement builds as students plan their running attire, and all the secret places we might visit while everybody else is stuck in their seats in a classroom. I let my fellow teachers and admin know ahead of time that we would be “running” around the school, writing, and maybe, sharing. I usually wrote the prompts around whatever text we were reading to get the juices flowing for discussion. The ideas that came out of our Their Eyes Were Watching God marathon were insightful, and poignant. It jump-started our discussions in ways I never dreamed.
I branched out from centering on novels for our marathons in 2016. I love poetry, and it broke my heart to hear the sighs and groans of students when poetry came up. I spent a lot of time the summer of ‘16 looking at poems I thought students would laugh at, relate to, and engage with. My classes are 90 minute blocks so I figured we could comfortably fit in six poems with 3-5 minutes to write at each stop. I wanted to use this writing marathon to establish community, and get to know each other some. I also knew college essays were around the corner for my seniors, and mentor texts would be important. Here is the recipe for my Living Poets Writing Marathon.
Note: These poems are interchangeable; teachers are encouraged to find their own array of poems that will work best for their students.
“The Lanyard” by Billy Collins
“Snapping Beans” by Lisa Parker
“Ode to Cheese Fries” by José Olivarez
“Knoxville, Tennessee” by Nikki Giovanni
“The Type” by Sarah Kay
“To This Day” by Shane Koyczan
A pen & journal
Loads of courage
Plan your route. There will be students in the hallways, maybe in the auditorium, the gym, and other locations (even outside!) you might desire. Find out ahead of time where you can go that will provide space and quiet to write. If anybody stops you or asks questions, you must all respond, “We are Writers” in true National Writing Project tradition.
Read aloud “The Lanyard” and then read this prompt: “Write about a gift you made for someone important to you. What was their reaction? Why was it important? Tell the story of your gift. Or, write about anything you want, but do not stop until the timer goes off.” You must write as well teacher-friend. When time is up, ask if anybody would like to share. Let the silence sit, especially if this is their first experience with this. You share yours as well. Nobody comments. Move to the next stop.
Read aloud “Snapping Beans” and then read this prompt: “Write about what you will miss most next year as you settle into life beyond high school. What are your dreams? What are your fears? What is a routine you will miss? Or, write about anything you want, but do not stop until the timer goes off.” Again, you must write as well. When time is up, ask if anybody would like to share. Let the silence sit. You share yours as well. Nobody comments. Move to the next stop.
Read aloud “Ode to Cheese Fries” and then read this prompt: “Write about a food you have an unrelenting obsession with. What is it that inspires such devotion? Describe the experience of eating it with all your senses. Who introduced you to it? Or, write about anything you want, but do not stop until the timer goes off.” Again, you must write as well. When time is up, ask if anybody would like to share. Let the silence sit. You share yours as well. Nobody comments. Move to the next stop.
Check out more Food poems here.
Read aloud “Knoxville, Tennessee” and then read this prompt: “Write about a place that is important to you- it could be your hometown, a spot you and your family go every year, the secret hideout where you read Reddit without restraint, any place that has a lot of meaning to you. Describe it as if you are opening the door, walking in, and noticing everything. What memories or emotions do you attach to this place? Why is it important to you? Or, write about anything you want, but do not stop until the timer goes off.” Again, you must write as well. When time is up, ask if anybody would like to share. Let the silence sit. You share yours as well. Nobody comments. Move to the next stop.
Read aloud “The Type” and then read this prompt: “Write about a relationship. It can be a romantic relationship, or familial, or friendship. Were you an advocate for yourself? How did your expectations match up with reality? What is love to you? What sacrifices did you have to make? Or, write about anything you want, but do not stop until the timer goes off.” Again, you must write as well. When time is up, ask if anybody would like to share. Let the silence sit. You share yours as well. Nobody comments. Move to the next stop.
**In my experience, this is the maybe the hardest one. I never got a lot of sharing until I shared my story of the complicated relationship I have with my mother. Don’t feel like you have to crack yourself open if it feels uncomfortable. I did because I thought it was important for me to show I trusted them before they trusted me.
Read aloud “To This Day” and then read this prompt: “Write about a time you felt misunderstood. Where were you? How did the incident come about? Describe your feelings, physically and emotionally. Or, write about anything you want, but do not stop until the timer goes off.” Again, you must write as well. When time is up, ask if anybody would like to share. Let the silence sit. You share yours as well. Nobody comments. Head back to the classroom.
The powerful thing about writing like this is it feels safe to the students. They don’t have to write about something raw and deeply personal; they can write about relationships with animals, being captive in a deer stand because the ladder fell, or their love of ketchup. It can be silly, and that needs to be made clear. It is all about what they want to write. And, what you want to share of yourself.
The other power comes in the lack of discussion. Nobody can speak unless sharing so, there is no judgement. It is a safe space. Back at the classroom I always tell students if they do not want me to read something in their journals, fold the page over. This shows them I respect their privacy, and makes them feel they can use their writing to work out issues in their lives.
I let the journals sit a couple weeks, and then I taught different forms of poetry- odes, sonnets, villanelles, sestinas etc. It culminated in students choosing their favorite writing marathon piece to develop into a poem. I gave them the choice of trying out a form or, free verse if they preferred and it fit. Once the pieces cycled through writer’s workshop, we selected a date for our Writer’s Chair Breakfast complete with pancakes and poetry.
Every year a different crop of young people grace your classroom. These poems and prompts may not fit for each class. As a teacher, I had to be flexible with that idea. Sometimes if you plan too much, you miss the spontaneous joys that can emerge. One class stands out; we forged a tight bond, and they were comfortable sharing their work. I remember a particular young man wrote an ode to dumplings that explored culture, family, and discrimination. There was also a sonnet about a popsicle stick birdhouse made for Mother’s Day. These small pieces of writing become great vehicles for larger college essays, or personal narratives.
Writing Marathons at their core are a forum where you write, share, and do not give feedback. They can be employed with novels, as precursors to “This I Believe” essays, for community-building, and as an avenue to #TeachLivingPoets. They are only limited by your imagination. Happy trails!
Today’s post is by guest author Carrie Honaker, a writer currently based in Panama City Beach, Florida. She studied Literature at Florida State University, but has worn many hats including restaurateur and teacher. Carrie is a voracious reader and kitchen sorcery addict who found her inner writer at the Blue Ridge Writing Project in 2010. Most days you can find her plowing through a book, writing or dabbling with a new recipe. Carrie’s work has appeared in ALCA Lines, Virginia English Journal, Write or Die Tribe, and Digital Is. She also regularly writes about experiences in the classroom, moments in the kitchen, and all things travel & restaurants on her site, StrawbabiesandChocolateBeer.com. Currently, she is working on a memoir encompassing themes of motherhood, food, and loss interspersed with family recipes. You can find her on Twitter: @writeonhonaker, Instagram: @writeonhonaker on Goodreads & Trip Advisor.
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