Lesson Plans

Each lesson below is built on the basic principle of “charging the air” with a great model poem, writing as a group, writing individually, then sharing. Adjust this to your group’s needs. It always helps to try the prompt out on your own to find the places where you got stuck as well as the moments where it really clicked for you.


Use the menu on the left to jump to any lesson plan. In addition to the Model Poems, there are resources such as archival photos and model poems included within each lesson that you'll be able to follow a link to. 


What Does the
River Know?

This prompt is a good place to get started. It includes reference to this history, uses, and ecology of the Cuyahoga. The use of simple repetition makes getting started and keeping the lines coming easy. Before sharing the ideas of what the river knows, I like to ask students what they know about the river in order to build on the knowledge and memories they already have.


Write together. Charge the Air. Write individually. Share.


What Does the River Know
by Charlie Malone

The river knows when we got here
     and it knows who was here first.
The river knows about the signal tree
     pointing to warm homes, to summer.
The river knows how blood moves in our hearts,
     it knows where tears come from.
The river doesn’t know it is two parts hydrogen;
     it is three parts time and one part dream.
The river knows if a duck’s quack echoes.
The river knows the smell of iris blossoms,
     and the lick of cold silt. 
I think the river knows where we are going,
     and I don’t mean North and South. 
The river knows how to reveal and how to frolic
     these are lessons for a poet. 



Think Like a River

This is a great prompt to use outdoors. Encourage students to use their senses for a few moments. Have them find a spot to themselves and write down everything they hear, everything they smell, note things they can touch and see and taste. Read Karen Shragg’s poem, “Thing Like a Tree” and then ask: How does the river think? Who and what does it meet as it flows toward Lake Erie? How does it change with the seasons, or with the time of day? Notice the use of strong verbs. This is a poem that could benefit from a verb list where students choose strong verbs as starts to their lines.


Write together. Charge the Air. Write individually. Share.


Think Like a Tree
by Karen I. Shragg

Soak up the sun
Affirm life's magic
Be graceful in the wind
Stand tall after a storm
Feel refreshed after it rains
Grow strong without notice
Be prepared for each season
Provide shelter to strangers
Hang tough through a cold spell
Emerge renewed at the first signs of spring
Stay deeply rooted while reaching for the sky
Be still long enough to
hear your own leaves rustling.



River Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis is a description of a visual work of art through language. In poetry this takes on a number of forms from W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” to more experimental and personal takes to this project. This lesson uses archival photos of the Cuyahoga River to discuss specifically its cultural and environmental history.

Often when writing together to demonstrate ekphrasis I will create a model with a word bank. We collaboratively create a lists from one image: objects, actions, shapes, or feelings. After focusing on the image itself, I might ask what or who is outside the image.

Consider the image of the landfill on the bank of the river; a list of objects might include: water, earth, garbage trucks, sky, bulldozers, fish, birds, tire tracks, trees, dust, paper, plastic, metal, garbage. Collecting the action words of dump, crush, bury, run, reflect, carry, flow, move, pile, etc now gives you some great raw material to write with.

Obviously, there is an tone determined by the selection of images. This can certainly be done with beautiful landscape imagery for a different effect.


Write together. Charge the Air. Write individually. Share.


We dump and bulldoze the reflection on the surface of the river.
The fish don’t understand where all this plastic garbage comes from.
The gray sky watches us through dust and the trees walk away.

Examples of Ekphrastic Poetry

W.H. Auden, Musée des Beaux Arts
John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn
Adrian Matejka, & Later
Wislawa Szymborska, Two Monkeys by Breughel



What Does the
Dragonfly Wear?

Kathy Winograd’s poem “Dragonfly”, offers us a series of questions to get started:
What do I like?
What do I wear?
What do I have?

Students will often come up with more questions:
What do I want?
What do I love?
Where do I go?
What do I eat?

You can also choose the subject of the poem for them, or let them choose their own subject. What does the River like? Is one way to go, but students may find other aspects of the ecosystem to write about. What does the fish wear? What does the deer love? Where does the turtle go? Once you’ve worked through some model questions, a decided on your subject, this prompt will benefit from a little coaching towards figurative language, specificity, and senses.


Write together. Charge the Air. Write individually. Share.



Letters to the River

Poetry in letter form is another great generative activity. From the opening, “Dear River” writers take on a different orientation to the river. Students might write love letter or apologies. They may thank the river for the lessons it offers. This is a simple and direct prompt.


Write together. Charge the Air. Write individually. Share.


"Dear River" Model Poem Here



Tonight, I Mirror The River

One of our Teaching Artists, Mariah Hicks, came up with a great lesson that gets students out of their seats and into the movement of the river. She starts by having students stand up and close their eyes. She turns on a rushing river soundtrack and has the students imagine that it is 9 p.m. on a Saturday night and they are rivers. Ask them what do they feel like? What do they see? What do they hear, smell, taste? After a couple minutes of guided meditation, have them start shouting out some of their thoughts. Give them examples. Have them open their eyes and take a seat. Ask them how it felt to be a river. Read my poem and talk about it.


Write together. Charge the Air. Write individually. Share.


Tonight, I Mirror the River
by Mariah Hicks

Tonight I am the river soft and sanctified like the Sabbath
oh holiest of days.

Tonight I am the river
a graveyard for stones
and a womb for waning wishes of love.

Tonight I am the river
a bed for the moon’s reflection like a prayer that fades into the ears of God.

Tonight I am the river
where trees bend in harmony and the owls hum
a brief selection.

Tonight I am the river
flowing through Mother Nature’s arms and laying my head to rest
on her bosom.

Tonight I am the river carrying this current into the rising sun.



Without the River

One of our Teaching Artists, Carrie George, came up with the idea of asking students to imagine what it would be like without the river. She wrote the following poem to start this conversation. The magic here is turning the same sensory questions, what do you see, what do you smell, etc, over to students’ imaginations. You may also talk about how the river functions ecologically, or culturally. What would Akron or Cleveland be like without the river? What would summer be like?


Write together. Charge the Air. Write individually. Share.


Where Would I Be Without the River?
by Carrie George

Where would I be without the river?
Dry in the mouth and feet, thirsty
for a waterfall down my throat.

I would dream of fish kisses:
their blubbering lips brushing
against the skinned knees of my youth.

I would wish for music:
the slow tambourine whisper
of the foaming Cuyahoga current.

I would cry for the Susquehanna
in June, when my father and I would cast
out lines, hunting for bluegill and carp.

Where would I be without the river?
Would I wade through empty soup cans
and maggots to collect smooth rocks?

Would my father and I leave the house
in June, hunting for small puddles
to reel in a meal of leftover bones and skin?

Would I wake up to morning smoke
instead of fog? The smell of burning rubber
instead of crisp autumn water?

I would run sand through the faucet.
I would shower in gray dust.
I would open my mouth during rainstorms.

I would watch drops fill the empty
canals of my palms and flow
into the dried up ocean at my feet.


Here are some lines written by 4th grade
students in response to this prompt:

No Reflection
Group Poem from the 4th Graders at Walls Elementary

What would I do without the river?
I would go outside and see
dead fish and dried up sand.
I go outside to see nothing
but dried out divots.

I see all the animals
start to head away back to the woods.
All the people pack up to go to
another city,

When I stand at the dusty nothing everyday,
I feel calm, but the people around me
are watching me.
I think of my lost river.

Without the river it would be just boats,
without the river there would be no reflection
of the city.



I Pledge Allegiance
to the River

Gary Snyder’s ecstatic “For All” spins the familiar call of the Pledge of Allegiance into a commitment to the earth. He asks us to be aware of our place in a community of non-human life and vital materials. This is another prompt that asks to attend to our senses. Pairing this prompt with a walk by the river opens up great potential for imagery and detail.

Have your writers describe a recent experience outside. Be specific: When was it? Where was it? What did you do? What did you see? What did you feel and smell? What did you touch? What connections did you make? In the end, close your group poem with a pledge. To what do your writers want to declare their allegiance?

One of the fun aspects of this prompt is that it lends itself so well to a group poem. Lines from various writers’ poems can be threaded together to create a collective expression.

This is a nice lesson to write a group poem from and to end a series of Rivers Stanzas sessions with.


Write together. Charge the Air. Write individually. Share.


For All
by Gary Snyder

Ah to be alive
     on a mid-September morn
     fording a stream
     barefoot, pants rolled up,
     holding boots, pack on,
     sunshine, ice in the shallows,
     northern rockies.

Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters
stones turn underfoot, small and hard as toes
     cold nose dripping
     singing inside
     creek music, heart music,
     smell of sun on gravel.

I pledge allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the soil
     of Turtle Island,
and to the beings who thereon dwell
     one ecosystem
     in diversity
     under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.



Incantations to the River

This lesson is an opportunity for writers to look at the river as a teacher or mentor and to find qualities in rivers--and other aspects of nature--that are worth emulating. Through appreciating the river beyond the pleasure and sustenance it offers us, we can step out of a human-centric perspective and experience new kinds of inspiration from the world around us.

To loosen up the group and build some trust, I start by naming and writing on the board some challenges I have in life and qualities I would like to change about myself, let go of, or improve upon. I invite them to do the same--first privately, on their own paper, and then I invite them to offer any additional challenges/qualities for our group list on the board. I note that there are plenty of non-human teachers and mentors in the world, including the river, and then read the model poem. After noticing some lines and metaphors in the poem as a group, we make a list on the board of qualities the river has that could act as teachers/lessons. We write a few lines of a group incantation poem together, drawing from the two lists. Once it feels like they have the hang of it, I give them time to write an incantation poem of their own.


Write together. Charge the Air. Write individually. Share.


Incantations to the River
by Katie Daley

shining the world back to us
ladle me a bowl full of blue sky
Make my seeing sweet

Keep me company with your pebble chatter
Teach me how to carry a tune
and a red leaf
and an ore boat
with your deep-throated hum
Write a love song to my loneliness

Remind me to not second-guess myself
to go with my first current of thought
the flashes of silvery fish that dart up
from the muddy bottom of my brain

Show me how to transform my anxiety
into a drop of drizzle
water over the falls
mist evaporating into sunshine

I only live once, but you never stop flowing
even when you’re plied with sewage
and set on fire

Teach me how to sing while burning
how to come back whole



River Chants

This lesson is an easy, quick way to loosen up and have fun with different sensual and factual aspects of the river without getting too hung up on delivering a message or creating powerful metaphors. It can be simply descriptive, a conversation with the river, or both. Because of its repetitive nature, it’s also conducive to celebrating the musical aspects of both poetry and rivers.

I start the lesson by reading the poem twice (once in my voice, once in another’s) and asking students to name lines, words or images they remember. Then we jump right into writing a group piece by focusing on the five senses: What are some aromas you’ve noticed by the river? Some textures? Some sounds? Some tastes? Some sights? As with the model poem, we punctuate some of these observations with the word “river.” I ask students: Do you have any questions or requests for the river? Anything you want to say or confess to it? Do you have any wishes for the river? Any memories of the river we can make into a chant? Together, we shape some of this material into lines for the poem. After we’ve written several lines together, I give students time to write their own river chants.


Write together. Charge the Air. Write individually. Share.


Cuyahoga River Chant
by clients of the Cleveland Sight Center: Oreen Anthony, Carol Ann Arrington, Monica Avery, Sarah Bishop, Tammy Christmas, Cheryl Fields, Honey Massey, and Charles Scott

diesel and turtle breath river
perch sizzling river
pop pop pop of the oil river

mysterious, spooky, eerie river
something bad happened here river

what ales you, river?
is it the breweries brewing amber on your banks?
is it too easy going down?
are you drunk before and after the storm?
are you lapping at the shore for more, river?

crooked river
resilient river
everlasting river

may you always be buoyed by good company:
the ferrets who love to tidy you up
the fish who spiral from your belly to kiss the sky
the children who skip stones across your shine
the dogs who shake off your million droplets in the sun

please don’t ever stop dancing, river
keep slow dragging all night long with the moon
and twerking with the closest star come morning