Creating Emotional Space with Words

By Imani Sims, WITS Writer-in-Residence

It was day five and my eighth grade students were still writing about an inside joke that had something to do with pears and noodles. As you can imagine, after the fifteenth poem about pears, I sat down with my classroom teacher to brainstorm how we could adjust Monday’s lesson to inspire some emotional response from these eighth graders. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to give them a list of emotions, ask them to silently reflect on specific times when they felt that way and simply write them down. We turned the lights off. Asked the students to close their eyes and simply think. After five minutes, we asked them to list all the instances that came up for them, during reflection. Hands flew across pages. It seemed to be working. Students were jotting things down and dumping real responses onto the page. After a few minutes, the chatter began and I knew it was time to move into the next phase of writing. I asked students to choose one emotion or one instance they had written down and begin to list details:

“What room were you in?”

“Who was with you?”

“Did you hear anything?”

“Maybe the cars outside or yelling?”

“What were the smells around you?”

A hand flew into the air, “Ms. Imani, can sterile be a smell?”

“Absolutely!” I responded.

“Keep working. What colors were around you? Give me as many details as possible. Put me inside of the moment with you.”

As the students crafted their moments, my classroom teacher and I circled the room like shepherds, gently guiding sheep to pasture. Each question was inspired. The eighth graders were finally coming into their own as writers and the bell rang. The next day, we took their moments a step further. I asked them how they could begin to craft these details into a poem. We displayed an example from a creative writing course their classroom teacher took, years before. She used provocative images to describe the day her father left. Everything from Legos to doors slamming placed the students in the moment. We asked the eighth graders to pick the imagery they thought would transport the readers to whatever moment they chose.

Over the next 50 minutes, the Broadview-Thomson eight grade class crafted some of the most beautiful poetry I had read in a middle school setting. For the culmination, I asked all of the students to present their work to the class. As students read, the eighth graders bore witness to their classmates’ stories with grace. They responded in a way that was supportive and loving. They held space for every emotion that surfaced. A few students cried, as some told tales about struggles with self harm and others boiled up with passion as they described the injustices the black community, in America, faced. These are the moments that inspire me to continue my work as a WITS Writer. Here, my work as an educator and artist has purpose.

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