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.
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.