Getting to Know You: A Fun Idea for a Writing Assignment

In one of my classes the other day, we were discussing writing assignments.  What makes them good or bad?  What's the goal of a good writing assignment?  How can we generate an assignment that will draw out different styles, personalites, and comfort levels within a class? How can we structure assignments help us get to know our students better? These are the kinds of questions we were batting around.  Unfortunately I am not bold or smart enough to attempt to answer those questions in this post; however, I will share one my favorite ideas for a medium-stakes assignment that came out of this class discussion. The following is a poem by Ted Kooser:

Abandoned Farmhouse

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

I love this poem and I think it is a fun and achievable way to encourage close reading and inference.  An assignment that we thought would be fun to accompany this poem would be to ask students to compose their own poems about a place that they spend a lot of time in.  What would that space say about them?  What things would a stranger find that would provide hints as to what they valued, excelled at, or struggled with?  Just to toy with the idea, I came up with a stanza for my own poem:
She is messy, say the little heaps of clothes from the floor
But she is careful with her books, point out the shelves full of neatly ordered volumes.
A row of colored glass bottles in the window throw colors around the room
While telling all about how she loves beauty and colorful designs.
She has a big dog, says the giant brown dog bed from the far corner of the room
But the white hairs in the bedsheets chime in to say that she prefers the dog to sleep with her.
She likes to be alone, the white door quietly suggests
while a wall of framed photos points out that she loves many different faces.
It is not too lonely here, say the dog hairs and the photographs.

It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be! The assignment could be used in a variety of different ways.  It could be used to get to know students better, to encourage regular writing and self-expression, or to investigate the genre of poetry.  I'm going to file this one away for a rainy day :)