Mentor Text Wednesday: Forging Dictionary Poems

Mentor Text: forge by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


  • Constructing meaning
  • Poetic form

Background: This week, I’d like to share another gem of a poem that came through my Twitter feed. One that lets me bring two things that I love into my class.

With a 5 year old and a 7 year old, I get to see how difficult learning language can be. I’ve heard it said that English is actually the most difficult language to learn because of the fact that so many words have multiple meanings. My youngest is especially enamored with words, and questions this regularly. As challenging as it can be, I really love the opportunity for wordplay that it presents.

I also love throwing a challenge out there for students. Mentor texts are a really good tool for this, as you can present a guide to how it can be done… “Do something like this, in your own words, of course!”

Slide1‘forge’ is a really cool poem in this regard. Essentially, Mcilroy takes the dictionary entry for the word forge, and, well, forges a poem from the variety of definitions of that word. The gorgeous thing that she does is to use these definitions to communicate an idea that isn’t necessarily what we think of when we think of that word.

Mcilroy’s poem is about how society makes women into something they might not naturally be. That’s one of the coolest things about teaching poetry, giving it to students and talking about what it means. It’s also really cool when you’re using it as a mentor text, because they figure out pretty quickly that you’re showing them something you want them to do.

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When my class did these poems, we started calling them Dictionary Poems. It was cool to watch the different ways that poems developed. There were students who started with a word that resonated, either because they had a topic in mind it was related to, and others who began with an idea, and went looking for the word. There were a few flipping through dictionaries, looking for inspiration.

This was a piece I asked everyone to try, and I wanted to see a serious attempt at. This writing class was asked to try a number of pieces throughout the week, ultimately selecting a piece to polish and submit for assessment. A couple of students chose this piece, and submitted fantastic poems inspire by this mentor text.

How we might use this text:

Constructing meaning – One of the things I love about this poem is the opportunity it provides for wordplay. Students need to consider the meanings of the word they’ve chosen, as well as the message that they want to communicate in their poem. It’s a challenge, but with my students, Grade 11 and 12 students, it was a push I wanted to give them.

One of the key aspects of constructing meaning this poem highlights is, in fact, the importance of word choice. Mcilroy chose the word forge, which mostly means some variation of making something. There is implied, in her poem, that the material, a woman, is forged in a manner that she isn’t happy with, which adds tone to the idea that society does this to women. It’s masterfully arranged and written, and lays a strong groundwork for our writers.

The students that submitted strong pieces based on this poem are students that have issues that are important to them, and used this poem as a way to explore those issues. I’m definitely keeping it in my file for social justice writing, or multigenre project work. Consider the words there would be to explore via this mentor text in that social justice area.

Poetic Form – Another poem that doesn’t look like a poem in the traditional sense, no stanzas, no line breaks and whatnot. Which makes me love it a bit more. I love that it works as found poetry of a different sort – instead of fitting found words and phrases to an existing poetic structure, our writers would be using a found structure, with some found words, to write.

There’s also great potential for innovation here too. These poems are written using the specific text features of a dictionary. What other books have unique text features that we could explore?

Though challenging, I think Dictionary Poems were a hit. ‘forge’ gave us a good poem for discussion and reflection, but it also gave us a good form to play with. Especially promising is that potential for a variety of excuses to play with this form. Really, in any case where we would explore vocabulary, we have a potential application for this poem. The richest mentor texts are the ones we look at, and see many uses for, like this poem.

So what other ways could we use this poem? What other texts have distinct text structures that we could work with?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!


1 Comment

  1. Have you ever read The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan or The Dictionary of High School B.S. by Lois Beckwith? Your post reminded me of other other fun ways to use dictionary entries as mentor texts. I’ll definitely have my students play with poetry like yours soon. Thank you!

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