Finding poetry

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It’s April, so my Grade 10 class is busy doing poetry. Many of these students are not enthusiastic about reading or writing in any form – yet. I have one semester to plant seeds that will, hopefully, sprout into a literate life for each of them over time, and if well watered. It’s an exhilarating challenge.

Many of these students are not yet poetry lovers. In fact, when I told them that it was Poetry Month, exaggerated groans erupted around the room. One boy mimed death by choking. I’ve suggested he take a drama class, but…

So why do I choose to do poetry with students who are not yet lovers of words? Jason Reynolds articulates it perfectly in this interview. The gist of what he says (if you don’t have 3:00 to listen right now) is that poetry is perfect for reluctant readers: it doesn’t overwhelm them with words; it has spacing, line breaks, and stanzas that break things down; and there is lots of white space. (It’s a great piece – not an interview exactly – but a mini-talk with a poem at the end.)

Our class started with a list poem (inspired by Richard Brautigan via Elisabeth Ellington) in part because a visiting poet had already introduced this form earlier in the semester. We had fun with it – I may have to share more on this later – but I knew I had only a few fairweather converts. Today, however, we hit pay dirt: the blackout poem.

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First, I showed the students some mentor texts – mostly Austin Kleon but also some random ones with images. (I cannot lie – I did a Google search for blackout poetry and showed the images. I like showing the students things that they can easily access without loads of specialized knowledge. Don’t know who Austin Kleon is? No problem.) They were intrigued but not hooked.

So I linked to The New York Times. We use their “What’s Going On In This Picture?” feature every Monday, so the kids are familiar with the paper. Today, we used an older post called Searching for Poetry in Prose. This pairs some NYTimes articles on the left side of the screen with a blacked-out version on the right. When you click on a word in the article, it gets un-blacked-out (that cannot be the way to say that) on the right. You get to choose up to 15 words and you can save your poem. We played with a few together, and more kids perked up.

Then – this is where things got good – I gave them actual books from our book room. You know, the ones where the spines have split and pages are falling out but someone re-shelved them anyway? Yup – I gave them those. And markers. Lots of markers. I suggested that they use pencils to outline the words they were choosing… some listened, some didn’t. If they couldn’t stomach the books, they used the website. Some were a little slow to start, but after a few minutes, the room was abuzz. They called friends over to share or used their hands to hide what they were doing. Words whipped around the room: “You are never gonna believe what’s in this one!” What does this word even mean?” “Look it up!” “Wait, no, I know that word!” (Someone learned the word “fornicating” – I nearly choked with laughter. It was a well-shared discovery.)

Eventually, a head popped up, “Are we allowed to do more than one?” Yes, yes you are. “Oh! I ripped it! Do you have tape?” Yes, I do. “Can I put mine up on the board?” Yes, you can. “Can I take this book home?” Oh, yes. Yes. You can take the book home.

I think blackout poetry won the day.

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by Simbi

 

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by Marta

 

13 thoughts on “Finding poetry

    1. Ooh – I still have some of those around and about. Oddly, most of the ones I have are in French. Wonder if I can scare some up in English and leave them in my classroom? This could get fun. (Today is book spine poetry in the library.)

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  1. What a great poetry adventure you have started. It saddens me that they do not love poetry. My kids are elementary and they love poetry. But maybe that’s because they know I love poetry. The teacher’s passionate presentation makes a difference. You are making a difference. I look forward to seeing more of what your kids can do.

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    1. I look forward to seeing what they can do as well. The group I’m teaching is not beloved by teachers, and they know it. It makes me sad that they have somehow been separated from reading and writing. I know that the teachers in our district are kind, caring people, but year after year these children show up, broken – and their brokenness breaks my heart. So we read the news and talk about our lives. We tell stories and read poems. We write. Every day. And I cross my fingers that they will come to believe that they are allowed to have a literate life. Poetry helps.

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  2. I love everything about this! I am wondering what other forms of poetry would appeal to them. Perhaps concrete poetry? Bob Raczka and Paul Janeckzo both have picture books of concrete poems. There’s a nice example in Love That Dog. Betsy Franco has some books of concrete poetry as well, I think. My students of all ages also really like some of the exercises from Georgia Heard’s Awakening the Heart. They love doing heart maps and writing from them. A few poems my poetry haters tend to love: “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too” (poem about a lisping Spiderman who is tired of being a superhero); “You Can’t Write a Poem about McDonalds”; anything and everything Tupac; some of Rupi Kaur’s poems from Milk & Honey; Denise Duhamel’s Barbie poems (not all are suitable for the classroom).

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    1. Thank you! I’ve spent the past few years teaching a totally different kind of student, so I’ve fallen out of touch with some of these great poets/ideas/books. Today, we’re heading to the school library (not their favourite place) to do book spine poetry in the stacks. The librarian said yes, and I’m excited to see what will come of it – tactile, kinesthetic, new space… could work. Then I’ll take your suggestions and head to the public library after school (because that’s faster than ordering them) so next week will be even better…

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      1. Book spine poetry = brilliant! Wonder if they’d like a project like Leigh Anne’s found poetry where she’s cutting the words out of magazines? Can’t wait to see how they do with book spine poetry!

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  3. Blackout poetry is a winner! Thanks for inviting me into your class. Blackout is very similar to found poetry. After I read about your students, I thought about a video I had watched several months ago on Teaching Channel. It is about creating a found poem as a group HS students… which Sarah says is a way to then look at textual evidence and as a precursor to writing a thesis statement. Here’s a link… https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/creating-found-poems-lesson .

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    1. What a great video. I am on my prep and just shared it with a colleague who is now really excited to try something new. I think I might circle back to this when we get to our next story or novel – see if we can *use* poetry after we’ve played with it for a while. Thanks for sharing this!

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      1. Oh, you are so welcome! Sometimes I hesitate to share… hate to dominate someone’s blog but it seemed like such a good fit. And it integrated so many skills. BTW, if you sign up as a member you can print the transcript of the video. Sometimes I find that helpful.

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      2. Share away! I’m definitely thinking of this blog as a space to learn – I have so much learning to do! – and the more others share, the more I learn. I’m actually grateful for all the ideas and thoughts.

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