In front of the John Lennon Wall in Prague.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Writing Odes with Eighth Graders

You’ve all heard it over and over:  overcrowded classrooms, decaying buildings, reduced budgets, furlough days without pay and constant teacher-bashing by political pundits and the media.  These issues weigh heavy on the shoulders of all teachers -- even a 21-year veteran like myself.  More and more these days, I have to remind myself why I chose this profession and have stayed in the classroom – with 7th and 8th graders no less – all these years. 

And then, just when I start dreaming of early retirement, the sun shines through the dirty, cracked windows of my classroom, and I forget all the bureaucratic and political hoo-ha to fall in love with teaching all over again. That’s what happened when I spent the day writing odes à la Pablo Neruda with my 8th graders.  

I first fell in love with odes as an English major in college when I read Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode to a Grecian Urn” with it’s famous lines “beauty is truth, truth beauty,' – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  But it wasn’t until many years later that I  thought of odes as a genre for teaching poetry in middle school – they seemed too serious and formal to attract most young people. 

That was until I read Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things.  Neruda’s odes to everyday items such as tomatoes or socks or salt were just the thing to interest adolescents in writing poetry.  The ode’s extravagant praise for something important in their lives appeals to the emotional exuberance of 12 and 13 year olds.  They can swoon over their first love, kiss up to their mothers or proclaim their undying devotion to their iPods or basketball.  They love it, and so do I.   They play with language in a way that makes their voices come alive on the page, and when they read their poems during our poetry reading, every one of them is a true poet.

I wish I could print some of those poems here but there are privacy issues with student work.  However I can provide you with the next best thing:  a link to the odes posted on my classroom website –
You can check them out there if you want.

And of course, since I try to practice what I preach, here is my own ode "eighth grade style":

Ode to My Backpack

You backpack,
so worthy
of my praise.
Zippered one,
orange as the sun,
snug and secure
on my back.
I need you!

You are always
with me -
constant companion,
strong, expansive,
heavy or light,
your pockets
ready for my
every need.

Compared to you
suitcases are like
rocks in my hands.
Purses are as useless
as tiny boxes.
Only you, backpack
hold my life.

When we travel together
you keep me safe,
hold my memories:
evil eye from Turkey,
stones from Zanzibar,
shells from ocean waves.

I want to slip
your straps over
my shoulders,
slide into your
warm embrace.
You proclaim,
"We're on our way!"

For you I will
brush the crumbs
from your pockets,
shake the sand
from your seams.
Oh backpack,
lead me
again and again
through the world.


  1. O backpack, my backpack!
    Love it. I'm interested to hear that the ode form is good to use with kids. Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. How timely, Riz. I was just sharing that I cannot believe we're approaching a year since we went to Spain, where your backpack carried treasures from our travels...mondo sandwiches ad chocolate bars, your Kindle, IPhone, maps, and a cross-emblemed shell. Yes, an ode to your backpack is most appropriate, not only storing tangible items, but memories as well. :) Deb