Poetry for the Stressed out Student Soul (not chicken soup)

It’s midterms here at the New Community College, and the students are STRESSED OUT. This is their first time experiencing that unique version of hell that academia creates when there’s either a midterm or a final period and everything is due at once. They don’t know how to handle it. They lack time management skills and right now is when that becomes painfully obvious. I went in to teach my sweet Cohort 1 class yesterday and they were literally shells of themselves. They had just been handed the take home part of their Statistics exam, they were about to hand me two drafts of their “Who Am I as a Consumer?” essay, and they. looked. like. beaten. puppies.

I truly feel that my job as a teacher/professor is to not only nurture them academically but also to be attuned to when they need a little work on their social emotional development. I can’t be academically rigorous all the time with my students–that would kill them. Sometimes we need to pause and feed our creative sides. Not that academic rigor and creativity are mutually exclusive, but I feel that with rigor creativity pops in to surprise you when you learning and that with creativity rigor pops in to surprise you when you’re having fun creating. Different starting points, somewhat same results.

Yesterday I had a poetry activity planned because all we have been doing is summarizing, finding main ideas, writing paragraphs, and writing essays. The National Day on Writing is this week, and I wanted to talk with them about writing in your uncomfortable place (which, for me, is poetry) and also writing to just express what you’re feeling and thinking. I got this super cool poetry writing activity from a guy named Robert who completed the New York City Writing Project’s Satellite Institute with me, and it’s fabulous. I call it puzzle poetry; I’m not sure what he called it.

This is what you do:

Step 1: Take a sheet of looseleaf paper and fold/tear it into 8 pieces.

Piece 1: Write a name you like, identify who that name might belong to (ex: I wrote Felix, baby boy)

Piece 2: Write and answer “Sometimes I’m sad when….”

Piece 3: Write “Always, sometimes, never” (just those words. nothing else.)

Piece 4: Write the name of a place (could be specific or general) and one word to describe it (ex: I wrote warm beach)

Piece 5: Write one verb, 3 words maximum to modify the verb (ex: I wrote swimming slowly)

Piece 6: Write the first name of someone famous you’d like to meet, what they do (ex: Iwrote Florence, singer)

Piece 7: Write and fill in “I am most happy when….”

Piece 8: Write one verb, 3 words maximum to modify (ex: I wrote sleeping in the sun)

Step 2: Take your last piece with a verb, give it to the person next to you

Step 3: Person next to you: Rewrite part of their line. Either change the verb, or change one of the words modifying it. Rewrite the line underneath. Give it back to your partner.

Step 4: Write four sentences on the board. Students must choose one sentence, but change the words in it. This will either be the first or last line of their poem.

I run outside and dance under the stars.

I close my eyes and see only yours. (ex: I chose this line, but I change it to: I squint my eyes and see only light.)

I turn to nowhere but that too is gone.

Sometimes I hug myself because I am so happy.

Step 5: Get a clean sheet of looseleaf. Lay out Look at all squares. Each square is line of your poem (including your partner’s added line and the first and/or ending line). Rearrange them to make the poem that makes the most sense to you. Write it on your looseleaf.

Step 6: Class read aloud.


1. Don’t think too hard. Just write the first thing that comes to mind.

2. You can do some light editing as your piece your poem together, but don’t add anything substantial (like extra lines).

We did this in class yesterday with my catatonic, stressed out students, and it was magical. They totally loosened up, they loved each others’ work, and the entire tone of the classroom changed into a more relaxed, friendly community of writers. It was perfect.

Here is one of my favorites:

I turn to you, but that too is gone.

Sometimes I’m sad when I miss how

things used to be…

Pakistan, Homeland

Sleeping peacefully


Sometimes softly breathing

never breathing heavy

I am most happy…

when I am stress free.

I can be Carmen, little glasses girl


I can be Neil Armstraong…

the first man on the moon.



2 thoughts on “Poetry for the Stressed out Student Soul (not chicken soup)

  1. Love this project just reading it calmed me down from my crazy cobble day. It is last day of the marking period I believe I saw every senior starting with zero period ending after eighth, finishing assignments they were at the last minute.

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