What If the Mightiest Word is Love?

Posted February 12, 2013 & filed under Notebook.

What If the Mightiest Word is Love?

website-photoHRBy WITS Writer Harriet Riley

For the last few years, I’ve used a powerful tool called The Matrix during one of my first writing classes with students of all ages. This came from a workshop Community Word Project of New York provided for WITS writers a few years ago. This tool allows students to create new ways of using language and encourages them to “think outside the box” in different ways.After briefly discussing the structure of a poem, I read my students “Praise Song for the Day,” Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful poem written for Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. The poem asks, “What if the mightiest word is love?” First, we have a group “word storm” coming up with words relating to love, texture words and action words. Then, students use their “matrix” (a sheet with a large box with 12 squares inside) to randomly write down two texture words, five words they like the sound of and five words they like the meaning of. They are then instructed to transform words from their matrix into a poetic sentence. I read them guidelines, but the most important is to combine word pairs to create new and different meanings. 

The students each create one poetic sentence and then work with the other students at their table or grouping to combine their lines into stanzas. Then each group performs their stanza to create one combined class poem on love. I videotape their performance and share it with them at the next class.

Here are some of the amazing lines the students created:

Love is peace flowing in the air.
Love is freedom; it will run down a road of fire and reach your sweet heart.
Love is like a diamond in a firework sky.
Love is a courageous intelligent sparkle in my sister’s eye.

Love indeed becomes a life-enhancing proclamation when students try combining words in unusual ways.

Essay Contest: Lincoln and Obama

Posted June 4, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

Platt Family Scholarship Prize Essay Contest


1st Prize $1000 | 2nd Prize $500 | 3rd Prize $250

The topic for 2009: “Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln: Getting Right with Lincoln”

From his campaign announcement in Springfield, to his victory speech in Chicago, our new president has repeatedly made references to being inspired by Abraham Lincoln. Which other presidents have been inspired by the Great Emancipator?  What lessons can be learned from Lincoln’s presidency by President Obama?

Contest Rules

Please examine the rules below closely before contacting The Lincoln Forum or the contest coordinator with eligibility questions.

The scholarship essay contest is designed for students who are FULL TIME, undergraduate students in an AMERICAN COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY during the Spring 2009 semester. The July 31 deadline is designed to give these students time to finish their essays, if need be, after final exams.

You do not have to be an American citizen, but you do need to be attending an AMERICAN COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY during the eligibility period.

It is NOT open to high school students. Key question to consider; when we contact your college or university registrar will they be able to confirm that you were enrolled as a full-time college student during the spring 2009 semester? If the answer is no, you are not eligible.

The eligibility of entrants will be confirmed by the Lincoln Forum prior to the awarding of prizes.

Entries will be judged by the essay committee of The Lincoln Forum.

Deadline for entries is July 31, 2009

Entries must contain a minimum of 1,500 and a maximum of 5,000 words.

Essays may be submitted via regular mail (postmarked by July 31, 2009) or via e-mail (time stamped before midnight PST July 31, 2009) to the address below.

The essay must be typed and include a works-cited page or bibliography. End notes are suggested but not required.

There is no application form for the contest. The essay and your contact information serves as your application.

Applicants must include the name of their college or university with their entire and all contact information (regular and email address) must be put on the essay proper.

Judging will take place during the fall. The three winners will be announced at the Lincoln Forum annual meeting in Gettysburg on November 18th. Checks from the Lincoln forum will be sent to the winners in December 2009. The scholarship prize money is designed as a reward for academic excellence. It can be used for any purpose the winner desires.

The essay can be sent via email or regular mail to the address below.

Don McCue, Curator — Lincoln Memorial Shrine

125 W. Vine St.

Redlands, CA 92373

phone: (909) 798-7632

Don McCue, curator of The Lincoln Shrine in Redlands, California serves as coordinator of the Essay Contest. For more information, click here.

WITS Class Hears Back from President Obama

Posted May 28, 2009 & filed under Notebook.


As part of the Poems for Obama Project, the WITS 4th grade classes at Burbank Elementary  sent poems and letters to President Obama. Yesterday the students received a signed note and photo in return [see below] from President Obama. Here is an example of one of their poems:

To Honor the States

We all have rights.

We all have kindness in us.

So we need to share our dignity

and have a considerate mind.

We should never treat people wrong.

We know we need our education

to have a job and teach our own

children what we learned.

That is the only way to get by in life.

By John, 4th gradeObama Note

Houston Students Write Poems for Obama

Posted March 13, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

These poems were written by fourth graders at Pugh Elementary School in Houston.

Dear Mr. President
I would like you to
Know to help the homeless.
Give rich to the poor.
Then never start drama
At school.
Stay strong, love the people
All around you at all
Make this a new world.
“Yes you can!”

Dear Mr. President
Stop the drugs.
Give food to the hungry.
Do you like being
This country is protected.
Thank you.

WITS students across Houston wrote poems to President Obama on the occasion of his inauguration, January 2009.

Inaugural Poem by Elizabeth Alexander

Posted January 21, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

Elizabeth Alexander wrote this poem, and read it at Barack Obama’s inauguration yesterday in Washington DC.

Praise Song for the Day

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

By Elizabeth Alexander

for the inauguration of Barack Obama

published in the New York Times

Write a Poem for Barack Obama

Posted January 7, 2009 & filed under Notebook.


This week I was happy to hear from my friend Kristin Palm, a poet and teacher who works with California Poets in the Schools (CPITS). Kristin is inviting writing teachers and writers who teach to join her in a project that involves writing and sending poems to Barack Obama in celebration of his inauguration. Anyone can join in. Kristin would love to hear from you if you and your students decide to participate.

Dear Writers and Teachers—

I am writing to invite you to participate in a national poem writing campaign, Letters to Obama. This project was inspired by poems written by students in Detroit, Michigan, as part of theInsideOut Literary Arts Project, an amazing organization where I used to work (I now work through California Poets in the Schools). The idea is simple and fun: Have your students write “Letters to Obama” poems around inauguration time. Then, add a twist or two:

  • Send the poems to the White House with a letter thanking President Obama for his support of the arts and arts education
  • Hold a student reading or arrange for a display of student poems
  • Or come up with other creative ideas to ensure that our young people’s messages to this historic president are read and heard!

If you would like to participate, I can provide you with a resource kit that contains:

  • Writing prompts
  • Model poems (below)
  • Sample letter to the White House
  • Sample press release
  • Publication/display ideas

If you would like me to email you a resource kit, please email me at[email protected]. Even if you don’t need a resource kit, I’d like to ask you to contact me if you plan to participate so I can know how far this project reaches; please include the name of your school, grade level, and number of students participating. Please feel free to spread this post far and wide—I’d like to get as many students to get involved as possible.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Kristin Palm

[email protected]


Advice to our Next President


Never start drama.
We voted for you because
we believe in you.
Don’t forget to not put
pressure on yourself.
Be sure to be ready
to be president. When
you answer the phone
you can say, This is
the Obama residence.
Are you going to be
ready for all of this?
Are you going to try
to be better than
those other cats?

By Dishuna, 4th grade, Detroit


Advice to the Next President


Always help the homeless.
Watch out for pointy hats.
Remember to share cucumbers.
Give the rich to the poor.
Keep your shoe out of your ear.
Follow your instincts.
Don’t help half of the world.
Help all of the world.
Don’t bail on us.
Stay strong.
Love the people.
Make this a new world.

By Talandra, 5th grade, Detroit

–posted by Robin Reagler, Writers in the Schools (WITS)