Big Ideas in Tight Quarters

By Emily Bedard, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Each class period at Roosevelt High School, where I’m a WITS writer, is 55 minutes long. You might think that would mean that transitions could happen tidily on the hour and that my planning might neatly follow accordingly.

But actually, for a host of reasons, the school has an intricately designed schedule, two lunch periods, overlapping 4th period bells, and staggered start times throughout the day. Let’s not even get into assemblies and early release.

I could blame the crazy schedule for how I always feel like we need 10 more minutes of class, but the truth is that my whole teaching life I’ve been trying to fit a 75-minute plan into a 55-minute period. When I was a new teacher, I always had backup plans in case we ran through the material too quickly. It didn’t take long for me to learn instead to earmark the steps I could skip if the hourglass was running out of sand.

Basically, I feel my students could always use more time to discuss, to read thoughtfully, to write, to respond to each other, to settle into the rich soil of their work. So, it was a bit of a triumph recently when they worked with even tighter constraints than usual and made great work under compression.

A few months ago on this blog, Erin Malone wrote about Halloween lunes with elementary students. Those poems are terrific, and if you haven’t read them, finish this and then go seek them out! But lunes aren’t just for the little ones. Though high school writers like wide-open freedom in lots of ways, they also respond skillfully to the challenges of a tight, tiny form.

The lune form has some variations, but as we approached it in class, it is a stand-alone three-line poem, with lines of 3 then 5 then 3 words. We looked at a few together and then, because we had other ground to cover due to my chronic overpacking, we took about 10 minutes to compose our lunes.

Here are a few written that day that are, by turns,

-philosophical:

What would happen
if you were the only
speck of light

Marie L.

-terrifying:

Light shone in
Masks outside waiting for me
Clubs in hand

Cavan S.

-surreal:

I saw myself
Standing in the bathroom mirror
It wasn’t me

Ramsey H.

-poignant:

Like a cloud
blown away, taking all its
memories with it

Isabel M.

-startling:

There’s a hole
A deep canal, running deep
Where teeth belong

Cormac L.

-searing:

Skyscrapers say nothing
They stand silent while the
Ashes say everything

Chris C-J

-uncomfortable:

The awkward silence
with the friend I thought
was actually not

Tatsu N.

-breathtaking:

Walking great heights
Painstakingly I cross the bridge
Fears whiz by

Madeline B.

-and funny:

I’m a boss
I’m such a boss that
I’m a boss

Isaac B.

When I teach the lune, I liken it to the shot clock in basketball. There’s not a lot of wiggle room, so you have to push yourself in order to get something done. But, as these examples show, it is possible to make a bright burst on the page in just three lines. It’s my wager that every one of these writers was a little more himself or herself at the end of the piece than before writing it.

The tiny poems above are just a few of the excellent little morsels created that day at Roosevelt High. I hope that their authors appreciate and cherish them. But, I also know that in the flood of paper and digital documents every student wrangles, a three-line poem might easily go missing. So even more importantly, I hope that the writers truly felt that you don’t need a giant canvas or a month of time to make art that matters. Even in the busy rush of our lives, who can say she doesn’t have time for just 11 words?

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