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!

 

The Seven Best Love Poems of all Time

The Seven Best Love Poems of all Time

It’s time we had the talk.   The love poem talk.

As a teacher, I love to encourage my kids to write, but Lord help me when they bring me their love poetry to look at .

When I make them write poetry, I tell them that they can write about anything they want, as long as it isn’t romantic love.  “If you can out-sonnet Shakespeare, then go for it; if not? Pick a different subject.”  Then I tell them that if they give me a teenage love poem to read, I will make confetti out of it.

If the poem has the phrase “there for me” in it, I’ll add glitter and use it at their next parent conference.

So, this being National Poetry Month, we’re going to get the obvious out of the way.  If you love poetry, there are love poems you love.  This is not complicated, unlike love itself, whose complication is infinite and ever-changing.

Here are my favorites, and why I love them so much.  Can I use the word ‘love’ again? I’d love to, thanks.

shakes

(1) Shakespeare’s sonnet 114.  Otherwise known as “Let me not to the  marriage of true minds admit impediments.”  One of Will’s best known, it basically says that love isn’t going to break if things get in its way. It’s not going to change for the worse when bad things happen.  If it’s real love, it’ll get stronger, and the fact that you’re reading the poem is proof of it. The fact that we study it is proof that The Bard was right.  When it comes to love poems, he wrote more than a hundred of them, and they are all worth reading, especially if you are both in love and a poetry geek.

 

(2) The Seafarer–This poem may seem like an odd choice for a list of love poems, but the Anglo-Saxon Bard who wrote it was no stranger to the heart ache love can cause, especially if the thing you love does not love you back.  The speaker’s one true love is the ocean, which we all know is capricious and unrelenting.  Not great traits for a lover to have, but we don’t pick who or what we love, do we?

(3)I Love You, by Roy Croft  This poem has some dubious origins if Wikipedia is to be bettermanbelieved, but regardless of who wrote it, it maps out why we love the people we do. It’s not just about them, it’s about who we become when we’re with them. Remember Jack Nicholson’s “You make me want to be a better man?” speech?  That’s essentially what this poem is.  It’s simple, free verse, and doesn’t require much reading between the lines to understand. I think we had it read at our wedding, because it’s just that awesome of a poem (and my memory is just that out of whack!)

(4) Annabel Lee, by Edgar Allan Poe  My favorite poem of all time, bpoey one of my favorite writers. It’s a sad fairy tale love story about love that goes on beyond the “sepulchre there by the sea” into eternity.  When I was in 6th grade or so, I figured out that “Annabel Lee” rhymed with Tracy Marie, and that made my little heart explode. Even now, when I recite it, I have to sub my name for Annabel Lee’s name at least once. And it still gives me a goose bump or two. Like much of Poe’s love poetry it mourns the loss of his love, but does so in a beautiful lyrical style with sound effects and rhythm as only Poe can do.

 

(5) 1st Corinthians 13:4-8.   These are the “Love is patient” verses, and might be the most recited passage in the history of modern weddings.  It is a Biblical definition of what love is and isn’t, and no matter where you are in your spiritual life, you have to admit that the definition is pretty spot on. Now, there are about a gazillion different translations for the Bible, and while some are better than others, your choice as to a favorite is exactly that.  The link I added here allows you to choose among MANY translations.

(6) Sonnet 43, Edna St.Vincent Millay  Many might argue against this choice for a great love poem, but hear me out.  Each of us has a lost love story.  A broken heart is good for someone because of all the lessons that come with it, but most sad love poetry is all “please come back, baby.” Millay is wise enough to know that such wishes only create more problems, and that broken hearts and loves that didn’t work out should stay in the past, sighing and tapping on the window pain.

(7) To Althea, From Prison” by Richard Lovelace. Love doesn’t hold us back, cage-gravure-2400pxaccording  to Richard Lovelace, it gives us the freedom of flying angels.  Perhaps best known for its “Stone walls do not a prison make” line, most people have at least heard of this poem.  He admits to loving the physical relationship with his beloved Althea, and offers the idea that true love is the most precious kind of freedom.  Plus, he uses the verb tipple.  How can you not love that?

 

 

Worksheets for some of these poems are in progress, and will be posted in my Teachers Pay Teachers Store when they’re done!

What’s your favorite poem?  Comment with a link below!

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.

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Testimony to the State Senate Education Committee

Testimony to the State Senate Education Committee

Tomorrow, the GA Senate Education and Youth Committee is meeting to discuss the Student Protection Act, the 355 Substitute Bill, which addresses the following:

  • tests will not assess personal attitudes or beliefs
  • test reports will identify specific skills not just general domains.
  • school readiness assessments can be ITBS
  • paper and pencil tests upon parent request
  • school system must have policies for student learning activities during testing if the child is not to take the exam
  •  no child is to be punished for non-participation
  •  2% cap on testing time as part of total instructional time
  • parent refusal for any child who is disabled or seriously ill
  • physician refusal including therapist
  • a student who fails the first time may take a different retest (ITBS) and/ or may be retested at functional level.
  • if a schools rating is affected by refusals that fact will be indicated in final report by DOE as well as the score the school would have received if not for the federal 95% mandate
  • no teacher or administrator will be penalized by any refusals
  • promotion may be determined by ITBS scores.
  • DFCS attendance policies will not include days during testing where a parent keeps their child home.  (copied and reformatted from FB post in a closed group)

Here is my testimony, which will be read by a stand in for me, tomorrow at the hearing.

 

To the Education Committee of the State Legislature of GA:

As both a high school ELA teacher and a parent in the state of Georgia, I have seen both sides of testing:  I’ve seen what it does in my classroom, to my students, and I’ve seen what it’s done to my children.

As a teacher, I am ever so tired of saying, “You might see this on the test like this…,” “On a test your options might be phrased like this…,” and “When you do this on the test you’ll only have this many minutes.”  I used to be able to connect the content to future careers and real life scenarios, or to art and music and college.

Now, it’s all about the Test.  This is capitalized on purpose, because it doesn’t matter what manner of alphabet soup they’re called, they all do the same thing. They mostly check to see how a student does on a small range of skills in a stressful set of timed circumstances. Then the scores are stacked up against all the other kids in the state unfortunate enough to have to endure up to a month’s worth of testing at the end of the school year.

This doesn’t take into consideration the practice tests or the benchmarks given based on the district’s need for data, or the school’s determination to produce the best results possible. I don’t fault the teachers in my school or my administration, because we all have to earn our paychecks.  But the policy makers? The ones who have never taught a day in their lives?

Here, have some blame.

Many of my students are brilliant writers, but can’t do math very well.  Some have math smarts, and do ok in ELA. Others can take apart, repair, and reassemble a robot with their eyes closed, but don’t handle test pressure very well.  Some are fairly balanced in their academic skills. Some have serious deficits. Some can sing, draw, paint, connect with little kids (or the elderly, mentally ill, homeless, etc) and work wonders.  They are all expected to pass the same tests in the same amount of time, despite their differences.  Teachers have been told to differentiate, but the tests don’t.

Most of the things we want kids to be able to do to be successful adults aren’t things that can be measured on tests, but they are the things that have been removed from our classrooms to make room for testing and test prep.  I wouldn’t complain so much about it if the things measured and reported actually meant something. But they don’t.

By the time we get to the GMAS, my kids have pretty much decided the following:

  1. They hate writing because the only kind of writing we focus on is constructed response (paragraph long answers structured by a formula that must be followed to earn the points on the test) short narratives, and argumentative essays. The three types of writing on the GMAS test.
  1. They hate reading because it’s always followed by multiple choice questions that are stacked so if you miss the first one in a set, you’re likely to miss the follow-ups.
  1. They don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, but they know they don’t want to teach.

None of this is good for students, teachers, or the future of public education.  It’s not good for parents who want their kids to be successful, but realize that the current environment created in our schools by corporate testing and data crunching is creating physically damaging stress for everyone.

I’m extremely lucky, blessed, and happy to be at a specialty school, where our students have to apply to get in, and keep their grades up to stay.  Testing at our school starts in mid-April, and ends about two days before school lets out.  Between end of pathways testing, GMAS, AP, etc, our school is in test mode for about a month.

This means that we can’t teach new content because on any given day, we’ll be missing half our students for a test, and the ones missing on Monday may or may not be the same ones missing on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  And if they haven’t tested for another class yet, most of us are willing to share our students for last minute cram sessions because we know what’s at stake. 20% of their grade in up to five classes at a time at my school.

What if 20% of your paycheck for a year was determined by one day’s worth of your work?

For my own kindergarten-aged daughter, N., I have seen the push to learn to read in kindergarten destroy my daughter’s love of school.  She used to get excited and yell, “Yay!” at bedtime when we said, “Yes, school tomorrow!”

Her big grin has been replaced with a deep sigh.  She spends a lot of her time at school drilling sight words in preparation for her next DIBELS test. She has a speech impediment, and that stopwatch is a mortal enemy.

How would that make you feel? The thing you have struggled the most with in your six years of life and someone is clicking a stop watch off and on in front of you as you try desperately to sound out an answer?  I work with my child daily, as does her awesome teacher (whose hands are tied by this craziness), and we can both tell you where N’s progress is in reaching the kindergarten goals.  DIBELS is unnecessary to our knowledge of her progress.  If you’ve never seen a DIBELS test, please consider looking up the test on YouTube.

I’m writing this tonight and emailing you because I couldn’t take the time off work to come see you in person; I have students and children who need me here, four hours away.  I seriously considered taking a personal day, and driving a total of eight hours in one day to come, testify for three minutes, and return home because I know you need to hear from real people, who are experiencing the real consequences of the direction our state’s education system is heading.  But I can’t.

So I’m pleading with you, asking you —one professional, one parent to another— pass the Student Protection Act.  It’s not the cure, but it’s a start; the children, parents and teachers in this state need it.

And, as much as I’d like to believe that you, as my representatives have our best interests at heart, I’m not sure I believe that.  You scheduled a hearing on an education bill at 1:30 on a Wednesday.  That speaks volumes.

 

 

They aren’t as grown as you might think

They aren’t as grown as you might think

Today’s topic: research.

My goal was to get them to see that research plays a part in just about any kind of writing, whether it is non-fiction or fiction, and the difference between cited and uncited research. We also discussed the importance of making sure our sources were reliable, and how to do that.

I used this meme to start the conversation.

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Several kids rolled their eyes, and gave me looks that screamed, “I am not falling for this, lady.”  That’s not what surprised me.

The surprise was in the number of students who didn’t make the connection that Lincoln did not have the internet.  One student even said, “That makes no sense.  Why’d he have such a hard time winning the civil war if he had the internet? I can’t believe no one told me about that!”   He was not being sarcastic.

In another block, the surprise response was, “Hey, that is true. They can’t put it on the internet if it’s not true.”  I shook my head.  I was so surprised at their naivete.

In another class, a student was shocked to find out that there was an “actual Titanic” that sank, but that Rose and Jack were fictional.  I am not making this up.

These are sophomores.  I love them, and sometimes, there are holes in their knowledge of what I consider “basic facts everyone should know.”  Where do those holes come from?  Shifting curricula? Working parents? Too many video games?

Who knows.  

However, to improve their ability to question what they’re reading, it might be time to bring out the Flying Spaghetti Monster again. Several years ago, leading up to a short unit on satire, I spent about two weeks slowly trying to convince my students that I was, in fact, a Pastafarian.  A few, who knew me outside of school, knew it was a hoax. But I think by the time I told them what was going on, about half of them had started to believe me.  My students think I’m odd enough that it sounded normal to a few.
But after today, and their gullibility and reluctance to question anything has me thinking that it might be time to break out my colander again.

In another part of discussion today, we talked about the difference between a search engine and the sources a search engine finds.  Some were surprised to hear that Google was not a source.  They were also surprised to learn that Google knows lots about them.

So we took a little bird-walk down Google lane to talk about data mining, the dangers of free wifi, and why Wikipedia is still not something they can cite in a research paper.

They really don’t get the permanence that is posting on-line.  In one class I shared with them the story of researchers who were able to track down specific, real, live people based on the data kept on them.  This article talks about one such situation.

“That’s more than a little creepy,” said one student.  Lightbulb!

My kids are writing research-based persuasive papers on the current crop of presidential candidates, and they rolled a 20-sided die to determine who they were persuading each other to vote for.  No one, and I mean NO ONE, was happy with the outcome. Yay! That means I nailed it!

And then this.

Today, one girl raised her hand and told me that her mother said she’s not allowed to write her paper on her topic because it’s against her religion.  I couldn’t stop my response from tumbling out of my mouth. “Sweetie, if you can prove to me that candidate X is against your religion, I won’t make you write this paper.”

I’m pretty sure I need to call her mom.