Introducing Slam Poetry to the High School ELA classroom

Introducing Slam Poetry to the High School ELA classroom

I’m late to the slam movement, but I am fast falling in love.  I introduced two of my classes to it this semester, and several students and I now share new poems that we find with each other.  I’ll be honest though, slam poetry is risky.

slampoetrygraphic4 - CopyPart of what defines it is the fact that it is raw emotion about painful events–and such raw emotion is rarely pretty or grammatically correct or edited for polite society.  Slam poetry is equal parts performance, metaphor, pacing, story-telling, and advocacy.  It will sucker punch you when you least expect it, either with its painful honesty or its biting ironic wit.

Below are five of my favorite slam poems, all of which I have played in my classroom. Yes, the language is often sailor-like and salty, but that’s part of their power.  Slam poetry is about letting go, and letting people who don’t know your pain or frustration share it.

(1)  Taylor Mail:  If you’re a teacher, and you haven’t been privvy to Taylor Mali’s taylor mali“What Teacher’s Make,” you’ll want to bookmark this and watch it about halfway through test season (what we used to call ‘spring.’) It’s statement of what teachers really do, and what we really make.  Mali’s other work is great, but as a middle school teacher, he sums up why we do what we do, and does it with power and pizazz. Here’s the text of it, but you MUST watch him perform it.   Goosebumps. I promise. (You can find Mali on Twitter at @

(2)  Janette McGhee Watson:  If you’ve ever wanted to wander through a woman’s head janetteand find out what heartbreak and weak and absent fathers do to our psyches, “I Waited for You” by Janette McGhee Watson will take you there. Unapologetically and artistically, her poem is her wedding vows, and they are forceful and brutally honest.  I have so much respect for her; it’s a ten minute treatise on why she is who she is, and why she is marrying the man in front of her, and it is as beautifully painful as anything you’ll see in a long time.  You’ll need to watch this a few times to get all of it, as her rapidfire word play is sometimes difficult to catch, but oh, is it ever worth it! You can find her and more of her work here.

(3) Jesse Parent“To the Boys Who May One Day Date My Daughter” jesseparent.jpgis just flat funny. Teenagers will love it because it’s a dad’s message to boys who, as the title says, may want to date his daughter.  It’s a message every parent has thought at some point, and as a teacher, I think it’s a very cool thing for our kids to know that this is how we feel about them. Funny, threatening, loving, and hopeful, it’s great fun, with only a little bit of controversial content. (Jesse tweets @jesseparent.)

(4) Amina Iro and Hannah Halpern (@hanhalp), the two girls who perform this poem, have taken their personal experiences and differences and made the point that those things aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. With the Middle East still (always?) in the forefront of the news, their poem is and likely will be, timely for a long time. Check out their take on the Arab-Israeli conflict here.

(5) As a trans-racial adoptive mom, Javon Johnson’s “cuz he’s black”   broke my JavonJohnsonheart, and forced me to look at my son differently.  Every person of color in the room will nod and agree, even if their white peers don’t.  With so much talk about racism in the media today, it’s important to remember that you cannot dictate to another person what their own experience is.  This poem helps teach that lesson. You can connect with Johnson on Twitterat @javonism.

 

6.  Kai Davis:  This last one might require special permission to use in the classroomkai depending on where you are because of the ferocity of the language, but it is so worth it.  Kai Davis’s “I Look Like” has a lot of f-bombs and n-words, but the message and the performance and the wordplay are near perfection. It’s about the judgement faced by smart kids of color by both their white and black peers, and how this one spunky young woman refuses to sell out to anyone.  Kai tweets at @KaiDavisPoetry.

 

Slam poetry’s increasing popularity makes it an amazing classroom tool, and because of its tendency toward performance, self-evaluation and clever phrase turning, can appeal to a wide range of people. However:  as a teacher, be cautious.  These poems and their honesty and salty language are not for every classroom.

If I’ve missed a good one, let me know in the comments!

 

Respect the Verse: How to get the most out of the poems you read

Respect the Verse: How to get the most out of the poems you read

Understanding poetry truly isn’t as hard as people make it out to be.  With a little coaching, some jargon, and some practice, it’s a pretty easy thing.

And to appreciate it doesn’t mean that you have to learn every little thing about poetry.  Trust me, there’s too much. And even poetry nerds like me don’t have it all down.

Listed below are the basics you need to get the most out of the verse you read.

  1.  Read with the punctuation marks.  Just because a line breaks doesn’t mean there’s a pause.  Pause where the commas and end marks are.  If there’s no punctuation, it may take a few times through the poem to figure out where to pause. Look at this piece of Shakespeare’s “My Mistress Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.”   Notice that it makes WAY more sense if you DON’T pause at the end of the line!punctuation3
  2. Get used to re-reading. To really get a poem, you have to read it a few times.  Even if it appears simple on the first pass, there will be lots more to it on the second and third time through.
  3. Pay attention to line breaks, capitalization, and structure.  Lines are broken where they are on purpose to add emphasis or to move your eyes down the page. Words that the poet capitalizes are words that are Important, especially if it’s something that’s not usually given a capital letter.
  4. How it sounds helps create a feeling.  Lots of soft letters in soft sounding words-
    littlemetalbottletops
    You have to hear him say “little metal bottletops.”  Click here.  I’m not sure why this is so funny, but it is.

    -m, n, s, r, l–will help create a soft feeling.  Hard letters–d, t, k, p–create harsher sounds.  Those sounds can mimic water or wind, or weapons and warfare depending on their usage. Those sounds create feelings, which in turn help you as the reader, develop meaning.

  5. Make a connection.  You should be able to find some sort of connection with every poem you read.  Does it remind you of your Great Aunt Tilly?  Your favorite superhero? Make you question something you heard at church? Make you feel sad or angry or nostalgic?  Those connections are the whole purpose of literature; poets write to express thoughts and feelings, and we read to better understand our own.

Got anything to add? Let me know about it in the comments? Like what you read?  Share this somewhere!  Happy National Poetry Month!

 

Introduction to Poetry

Introduction to Poetry

 

Part of the frustration of any literature teacher is the groaning chorus of poetry haters who are not excited about the poetry unit. To help this, I try to introduce poetry via song lyrics and fun poems.  One of my favorite fun poems is Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” which presents the problems of teacher expectations running into students.

It is perfect for teaching assonance, metaphor, and free form structure.  And it nails #thestruggleisreal feeling teachers get when trying to get students to read beyond the surface of a poem.

I’m in the process of creating a worksheet for this poem geared toward high school students.  I’ll email the first five requests in the comments a free PDF copy of it when it’s done!  Everyone else will be able to buy it from my Teachers Pay Teachers store when it’s done.

Enjoy!

Introduction to Poetry

BY BILLY COLLINS

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Two funerals too many

Two funerals too many

They were very different girls, Altonise and Alexis.

Both were fun-loving, full of life, and feisty. Beyond that, their similarities were the color of their brown skin and the first letter of their names.

I taught them both, loved them both, and both were murdered.  IMG_0637

One was a senior, one was a junior.  Different high schools.  Different challenges in life. Different goals. Different styles.  Different attitudes.

Both were found dead in their homes, both of their last moments filled with violence and terror.

Unfulfilled promise that will never have a chance to bloom.

As a teacher, there are no things worse than the funeral of a student, except maybe the day when you and your students find out about that death.

I couldn’t go to Alexis’ funeral because my husband works weekends and I couldn’t find a sitter.

Altonise’s fell on Monday after a rainy Easter weekend.  The day burst with bright blue sky and a few dancing white clouds.  My heart wasn’t prepared for the beauty of the day nestled in with the tragedy of the funeral.

But even the funeral wasn’t gloomy.

There were songs of hope and the promise of salvation, and guarantees that, if we follow the right path, we’ll be able to see our loved ones again. The mourners sang and clapped along, and silences were punctuated with the keening of her friends and family.

There were speeches of forgiveness and admonitions against violence and revenge.

And there was pink.  Deep rich pink, like impatiens in the summer.   It was in the corsages members of her family wore, in the flowers around her casket, and in the headbands and hairstyles of her friends.

As a mom, there are no words I can offer for comfort. And as a teacher, there aren’t either.  Death is of life, and we must face it, but when it is a shocking death, a loss of the promises of youth, how do you find comfort or offer it?

Love.

And faith.

And so, for Alexis and Altonise, two spirited young women whose tenacity and spunk lit up the world around them, I can only offer words. One of my favorite poets is John Donne, whose poetry is by turns passionate and full of faith, lost and full of love. In one of his holy sonnets he says, “But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space.”

I will mourn the space that held these two girls, and hope that as the world turns on, those who loved them will live a little more, do a little more good, and experience a little more of life in their honor.

quote 1

Yes, I Just Emailed This to the Governor

Yes, I Just Emailed This to the Governor

Hello Governor Deal (and whichever staffer is lucky enough to be reading this),

I am what you call a “veteran” teacher.  I’m on the downhill slide toward retirement; and I’ve gotten to the point that I’m tired of keeping my mouth shut about issues concerning my profession.
The GMAS system stinks. The Georgia Teacher Evaluation system stinks.  The fact that my elementary school children do more to prepare for tests than they do play outside stinks.  Are you seeing a pattern here?
I love to teach. I love my students, and like parents all over this state, I love my children and want what’s best for all of them.  However, tests that aren’t reliable or valid are not what’s best for them. Tests that generate no useful data for teachers are worse than useless.  Tests that are compared to different tests for the purposes of evaluating me are even more useless than that.
Tests that are far beyond the abilities of a disabled child are not good for them. Having little to no recess is not good for elementary school kids, and pushing small children to do what they are not developmentally ready to do does damage that takes years to undo.
Governor Deal (and your dedicated staffer), if you want to know what teachers and students need, how about asking teachers?  How about asking parents?  Ask actual experts instead of relying on the corporate input that got us into this mess; wouldn’t it be nice to go down in history as the Governor who actually made genuine change for the better in Georgia’s schools?
If you want to know how to do this, ask the people who know. Ask teachers. Ask parents.  And when you do, listen to them.  Sending them a survey and then ignoring what it says is not sound policy, Governor Deal.  If I ran my classroom like that, I’d be out of a job.
I would love to be able to come talk to you and the legislature in person, but our grades are due this week, and school policy forbids me from taking the day before a paid holiday off, or I would be there early Friday morning to talk some sense into you and the representatives you’re leaning on.
Instead, I have to rely on the saucy tone of my letter to do that for me.  Please encourage the legislature to do what’s right by teachers, students, and their families and pass 355 and 364.  It’s the right thing to do.  And since I voted for you, I wouldn’t be doing my duty as a citizen of the state of Georgia if I didn’t ask you to do what your electorate wants.
Respectfully,
Tracy Saunders
18 Year Public School Teacher
Mom of Seven
Too Much Water in the Kool-Aid

Too Much Water in the Kool-Aid

Clear-Out-the-Dead-Wood-Thats-Holding-You-BackToday’s lesson on writing in 10th grade ELA was on eliminating unnecessary words and phrases.  My favorite high school teacher called it “eliminating the deadwood,” and in today’s class, my standard, “Don’t waste your reader’s attention span on words they don’t need to read” was not explanation enough for one of my students.

At issue was my admonition: Don’t say “I think.”  Don’t say “I believe.”  Say what you want to say like it is fact, and people will take your argument more seriously.  Z. kept insisting that there had to be more to it, a better reason.  And I couldn’t think of another reason or another way to explain it.  Then M. piped up.

“Do you ever make Kool-Aid?”kool aid.1

That got my attention.  “Yes ma’am. What does this have to do with writing  a paragraph?”

“Well, it’s like when you’re making Kool-Aid, if you put too much water in it, it loses its flavor.  You don’t want your paragraph to lose its flavor by cramming it with too many extra words.”

Best metaphor on revising ever. Good thinking, M.

Extra credit for you!

 

Colossus, Rusted?

Colossus, Rusted?

 

When opinionated teacher problems collide head-on with transracial family subject matter, cultural angst takes over part of my brain. As a trans-racial adoptive mom, social issues are always on my mind, even when I’m teaching.

This week in tenth grade literature, we reviewed sonnets, and I chose four of my favorites to read and potentially discuss, one of which was Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus.” You may remember it as the source of the famous “Give me your poor, your tired… your yearning to breathe free,” which is engraved on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty.

Here is the full text, shared because it’s beautiful, and passionate, and brilliantly naive.

The New Colossus 
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I love those words. I love the hope and passion and courage they embody. I love that they represent the dreams and aspirations of many of my ancestors. I love that they’re in iambic pentameter in a Petrarchan sonnet on a giant statue that represents the all the good America can do. I’ve always been an idealist.

One of my students asked why the sonnet was on Lady Liberty, and without thinking, I said, “It used to be sort of a motto for our country, it kind of represented what we stood for.”LadyLib

I didn’t think about the emotional or political impact of this poem or my quick answer as it spilled out of my mouth, but I have been tossing them around in my head for a few days now.

As soon as they left my mouth, I knew those words were going to start a discussion, one I would have loved, but wasn’t prepared to have.

And it did; here’s how it played out in about 27 seconds:

Student A: “You don’t think that’s true anymore?”

Student B: “Trump sure doesn’t.”

Student C: “What do you think it changed to?”

Student D: “Now it’s ‘We’re all offended.'”

I stopped it there, saying, “Guys, I would love to have this conversation with you, but we can’t do it during class time– maybe over lunch or after school.”

General moans and groans and objections were mounted, but gradually we got back to the business of the sonnet, the grand dame of fixed form poetry.

Five years ago, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to the political ramifications of that sonnet, and clearly, 36 hours ago
I hadn’t either.  Five years ago, I didn’t have black children, and the ones I had, while slightly tinted, didn’t inspire in me the angst and introspection my three youngest do. What’s my excuse for 36 hours ago? I don’t have one.

Why can’t I have a conversation about immigration politics as exemplified by the sonnet and current events with my 9th and 10th graders? Why must I worry so much about politically offending students by asking them to support their opinions with facts?

There are two schools of thought on this; the first, that teachers must be absolutely neutral about their political leanings and beliefs so as not to inappropriately influence the students.  Our jobs are to impart facts and let the kids figure out what they think.

The other, that teachers are not automatons and that what we think and believe comes out subtly any way, so why not discuss and hash through issues with logic and respect? Our opinions, with logical and respectful conversation are foils to our students’ developing ideas about how the world should work.

I am definitely in the latter camp; I’ve tried being a neutral presence in my classroom, but I would never want or expect my students to remain neutral.  To me, neutrality is a form of cowardice; when you fail to choose a side, you are giving tacit approval to whatever you’re refusing to deal with.  Think Switzerland circa 1943.

I tell my classes at least once a semester that they have to get the fence posts outta their backsides and take a stand. I don’t care which side of the fence they choose, but choose they must because life and democracy demand it.  Persuasive writing  requires that students take a stand and defend it, and address counterclaims to their ideas.  We require our students to take stands and defend them, so why was I so hesitant to do the very thing I expect my students to do?

When student B asked me why I thought we were no longer the country that embraced the poor, dejected, and needy from other countries, I realized there is no way to respond with the necessary detail in the ten minutes we had left in class.

The ideals embraced by “The New Colossus” only applied to those of Western European descent, and then only as long as you didn’t have dark hair and eyes or speak with an Irish accent. Only two students in this particular class fit this description; heck, half of my ancestry does not fit that demographic either; Italians were too dark, noses too big, and food too smelly. And the Native American part? Let’s not go down that rabbit hole tonight.

 

And why is it so hard for me to admit that as lovely as this sonnet is, our country has never really embraced the homeless of the world, let alone the homeless within our own borders?

In my class of 27, 25 of them would not have been welcomed no matter how much they huddled or yearned, because their complexions are too dark, their hair too coarse, or their accents too thick.  A painful moment of honesty, that; and I was unwilling to have the awesome conversation we could have had because of the political implications, and my own painful sadness about what all of that implies for me, my beautiful brown-skinned babies, and all of my students.

It’s easy for me as “an old white lady” (what I often call myself when we talk about issues of current politics and cultural differences)  to spout off about how great and welcoming Ellis Island’s Immigration might have been to some of my ancestors.

Except not really. Officials at Ellis Island dropped part of one of my ancestor’s names because of its complicated spelling and pronunciation–a historic microaggression that immigration officials were kind of infamous for.

I have always considered myself a patriot. But  patriotism is difficult when painful truths about the country you love,  and its history, are staring at you with dark brown eyes waiting for you to explain what they already know: that there are unspoken parenthetical limitations in the  promises our country has made.


In case you wondered, the other three sonnets were: