Using good literature to teach writing is not an unusual practice, but it was not often done in our schools when we were children. We often teach as we were taught, so many moms have told me that teaching writing is their weak spot as a teacher. I think most classroom teachers would say that as well.
During this coming holiday season, you may have a copy of Clement Moore’s poem that most of us know and love. And you can find knock-offs of the poem:
The Night Before Thanksgiving, by Natasha Wing,
Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving, by Dav Pilkey,
The Night Before the 4th of July, by Natasha Wing,
Native American Night Before Christmas, by Gary Robinson,
Twas the Night Before Hanukkah, (author unknown),
Several night before Easter books (including a VeggieTales movie.)
I am certain that you can find more, even several Night before School books, but I have never seen one about homeschooling. Maybe your child could write that one.
This lesson will work best if your child is very familiar with Clement Moore’s original poem. Read and discuss the original poem first. Ask your children what they notice about the poem. Rhyming and rhyme schemes, stanzas, white space, meter, the differences in poetry and prose can each be discussed depending upon the age and understanding of your children. This is one of those times where the younger ones will definitely learn from the older ones as you discuss the familiar poem.
Read and Record
As you discuss the poem, record your observations. I like to use Post-It chart paper because it is easily hidden behind a door in a room or inside a closet door until it is needed again. You can also easily stick them up without marring the paint on your walls or doors.
After thoroughly discussing the original poem, it is time to read the books that have been written that are similar to the original. Discuss the similarities and differences of each one. Record the information to use over and over during your study of this poem. You can record your observations (again) with giant Post-its. You can also create a Venn diagram(s) with the information that you have gleaned from the literature. This should help your older children to organize their thoughts before they begin to write.
Create a Template
I usually create a template for creating a “Night Before” poem as a group. This demonstrates exactly what you are doing before you send your children off to write a poem on their own. In my writing class last week, we wrote a “Night Before” poem together, and then I sent them off to write their own. You will get an idea of their understanding of the process when you do it together. You can correct (Those giant Post-its are great for this.) any misunderstandings before they are off on their own. It also helps them to have the confidence to write a “Night Before” poem because they have already written one as a group.
For younger writers, I give them a blank copy of the template of the “Night Before” poem that we used as a group. They then only need to come up with a few phrases instead of writing out an entirely new poem. They may find it too restrictive and will ask if they can change whole phrases. To create the template, I type up the poem, replacing different parts with blanks. If middle school or high school children are doing this with you, they shouldn’t need this crutch. However, it could be a good start for them if writing is difficult for them.
Here is an example of the template that I use:
Twas the night before__________________and all through the___________
Not a ___________________was stirring, not even a __________________.
One of the advantages of this is that it gives the children a head start in the writing process. Writing poetry is not easy. Learning that is a lesson in itself. You can also require different numbers of stanzas for different ages. The first grader that I teach wrote a poem with only three stanzas, but it completely told her story. By middle school, a good reader should be encouraged to write a poem of the entire length.
Revise and Illustrate
Do not forget the revision process. It is the most important part of writing. After the first draft is finished, each day for a week, refer them back to the chart that you created together about your observations of the first poem. Does their poem begin and end similarly with the original? (For children of any age.) Does the poem have the same or similar rhythm? (Older students). Does your poem tell a story? (All ages.) Did you continue the rhyme scheme in your poem? Encourage revision to at least attempt to rhyme. Rhyming and keeping the same meter is difficult to do!
After a week of revision, encourage your children to create illustrations. Ask them again to look at the books you have been using. The illustrations and the words should go together. Even young children can do this. Let your children illustrate with whatever ability that they have. One child may do simple crayon drawings, and the talented artist might attempt stippled pen and ink drawings or watercolors.
As you can tell, this is not a one day, quickie writing lesson. You are creating a memorable piece of writing with illustrations. This will take about an hour each day from the time you introduce the reading and writing assignment through the time that the illustrations are complete. To create a really good piece of writing, it should take you three weeks in December to complete these lessons, and, of course, the finished illustrated poems.
End with a celebration! Christmas cookies and milk are fitting refreshments for a writing lesson that began with Santa.
With your middle and high school age children, I would also have them write a literary analysis of the original poem, or compare and contrast the original with one of the knock-offs. They could also write a paper on the illustrations of one of the books, just like a high school or college student would in a humanities class. The focus is on a sweet poem from our childhood; the possibilities are nearly endless for how it can be used.
Our kids are thinking about Christmas anyway (or Hanukkah, or whatever holiday your family celebrates). We may as well capitalize on that.
If your family is not familiar with this poem, choose a piece of literature with which your children are familiar. One of my nephews wrote a series similar to Bob Books for his cousin, who was just learning to read. Perhaps your child loves a specific series of books and would love to write like that author. Do that. Just start with the very familiar and then go from there. Have fun writing as you enjoy this holiday season.
You can find many different versions of the night before Christmas HERE.