Monday, March 25, 2013


I spent this past Friday at the OCTELA (Ohio Council of  Teachers of English Language Arts) 2013 Spring Conference.

I spent this past Friday in the company of other teachers, lovers of books, writers and authors and poets, old friends, new friends, and some I won't meet until next year or the year after.

I spent this past Friday talking, learning, thinking and...  wanting still more.

The OCTELA Spring Conference always inspires better teaching, higher learning, and critical thinking--always  presents new ideas and opportunities to revisit, reclaim, reaffirm or rework old ones, and always challenges us try something radically different.  Thanks Sarah Ressler Wright and the entire OCTELA 2013 Conference Committee!

I had the privilege of meeting J. Patrick Lewis  very early in the morning--he signed the book I had already purchased. (I visited Greg and Jan Michael's (Michaels Associates) table again later in the day to buy more books --no one who knows me will be surprised by that fact.)

We had an opportunity to talk briefly.  I now know what J. stands for --and his signature  was positively a work of art.  I told him he set the bar extremely high for book signing. I will need to rethink my whole approach to this art.

As the opening keynote speaker, his wise and witty words inspired many tweet and retweets. My own tweet from this session is below.

Poetry is... Sound of silence amplified. Daily clues to the ordinary. Subjects for poetry are everywhere. --J. Patrick Lewis.

He spends half of his life writing fun, humorous verse--what he calls ludic verse, and the other half writing serious historic or informational texts. Surprisingly, he has written 85 books. I must own about 20 of his books, but didn't realize just exactly how prolific he had been.

He talked with us about the importance of priming the pump with poetry that children will enjoy and the essential-ness of verbal play, the necessary-ness  of word play.  For more extensive information about J. Patrick Lewis click here  to read an article published Language Arts when he was awarded the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children in 2011.

Some J. Patrick Lewis Thoughts

Nothing succeeds like failure. If you are failing your are trying. Go on, go on, and keep on failing. only next time, try to fail better (Lewis quoting Thomas Beckett)
Our classrooms must be safe places where risk-taking is the norm. If we establish communities where it is safe to make mistakes, learning is multiplied exponentially.
Children are practicing. they are not poets 
What he meant, I think was that children were still playing and learning---not accomplished or finished.   This one, however,  I have to meditate on--- I always encouraged my students to think of themselves as writers and poets and to act like writers and poets.
I have written 85 books, and I still get rejected. Everybody gets rejected.
I always used to joke that I was going to publish a book of the rejection slips for my poems and poetry manuscripts--I guess in this sense we are all never "finished".
Subjects for poetry are everywhere.
I agree wholeheartedly with this one, thus my tweet above. I  also absolutely loved his several definitions of poetry. 

According to J. Patrick Lewis, poetry is:

Sound of silence amplified.
Daily clues to the ordinary.
Frozen fire. 
The midwife at the birth of the alphabet. 
A blind date with enchantment.

Bonus Writing Strategies to Try 

 I also learned two writing techniques --one quick and easy, one more familiar and serious

A tailgater is a couplet in which the first line is from a well-known poem.   The second line is your own. 

See J. Patrick Lewis's guest blog post on  David L. Harrison's Blog for some very funny children and adult examples of this form.

Mask poem--This is a poem that is written and read in someone else's voice. 

 Near the end of his session, he read the poem The Innocent, which is written in the voice of Mamie Carthan Till (the mother of Emmett Till) and included in When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders.

After hearing this new term at the conference, I was treated to a mask sermon this past Sunday as my priest, Fr. Karl Ruttan, for the entire duration of his Sermon,  took on the persona of the Centurion who was forever changed after  witnessing the crucifixion.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

J. Patrick Lewis defined poetry in poetic and metaphoric, yet concrete ways.  

How do you define poetry?  Write a sentence or two defining or describing poetry--several lines that create a visual definition or image in words.

Select a well-known poem.  Use the first line of that poem to begin a couplet in which you supply the second line to create a tailgater.

Try writing a mask poem.  Who will you be? Whose voice and perspective will you present in your poem?


  1. Robin from your post I was able to experience this presentation again. However, added to the delightful mix was your voice. Thanks, Kevin Cordi

  2. Thanks Kevin, As always conversations with you regarding this session also added to the presentation. I am jealous of you that you got to be there on Saturday as well. :-)

  3. I, too, am a fan of J. Patrick Lewis. I remember when he came to the Young Author's Camp one summer. Now, I think I'm going to look into a tailgater for one of Slice of Life posts. Thanks Robin!

  4. Julie, when I met him , he remembered working with our kids on the YAWP Camp. I am looking forward to your tailgater.

    BTW I appreciate your Slice of Life post about 'yet'. I, too, need to use this word for myself.