This week, my Creative Writing students are in serious drafting mode. We’re working on crafting partner slam poems, an assignment given to us by Terry Creech, artist educator and Executive Director and founder of BreatheInk. Watching my students workshop with Mr. Creech and getting messy playing with language, sounds, and performance ideas are the inspirations for this post.
In this post, I am going to share various ways I have extended my students’ learning beyond the classroom or beyond my own direct instruction. I have found that my students’ most meaningful poetry moments rarely involve me as a teacher. I’m just the one who leads them to the door.
Let’s start with BreatheInk since we are currently in the midst of working with them. While they are Charlotte-based, they have close ties with Brave New Voices, which is a nationwide poetry organization and competition for high school students. There’s also Louder Than a Bomb, which has roots in Chicago, but has grown into a national competition. And Urban Word NYC, and tons more, I’m sure, in all major cities. What’s so great about these organizations is that students can see themselves in these young poets – they are the kids on stage and in the videos. Check out these students performing “Beach Bodies” and consider how your students would relate.
They’re funny. They’re smart. They have a message. They craft their poem to relay that message in the most effective way possible. They’ve considered things like syntax, connotations, figurative language, allusions, volume and pace, rhyme and alliteration — aren’t these the very things we as poetry teachers want our students to consider? So let them try it! Give them poems they can relate to. Give them the opportunity to become a poet themselves.
Or give them the opportunity to talk to a living, breathing, real-life published poet. Being able to have a face-to-face conversation with a poet allows for a new level of student engagement. Skype and Google Hangout are two easy ways to invite a poet into your classroom. In order to have the most successful conversation, have your students read several poems (if not the entire collection) by the poet, learn about the poet’s biography, have lots of discussion in class, come up with quality questions ahead of time, and finally do a practice Skype with someone else first (it can even be a student in your class on their phone) to work out any technical difficulties. My class has Skyped (or will be Skyping with) RA Villanueva, Clint Smith, and Victoria Chang. I’ve never paid a fee for a Skype sesh, but I do always send a hand-written thank you card and a small gift to show our appreciation for their time.
Or level up and have a poet come to your school. Poet visits are typically not free, so you may need to get creative to make this happen. Some schools have instructional budget allotments, booster clubs, and/or PTOs you could ask for funding. You could set up a Go Fund Me or Donors Choose. You could do your own fundraisers, like bake sales, T-shirts, restaurant nights, etc. If a poet happens to be in town, you could get lucky with a volunteer visit like we did with José Olivarez last year. If not, you will most likely need to pay an honorarium and cover any travel and hotel expenses. The experience your students will get will be well worth it. (p.s. Please pay them something, even if it’s small, if they don’t tell you a specific amount. I took up a collection for José and paid for his hotel and dinner, even though he didn’t specify an honorarium.) (p.p.s. Look out for José’s new book coming out 2018!)
Or maybe you want to start more low key. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about Poetry Out Loud. This year was our school’s first time participating in this national competition, and we have a student who is advancing to States! POL is a great introduction to the power of poetry, and it’s a little easier on the nerves because students are not performing their own written work, but works already published by renowned authors. Their poetry data base covers works from the 1500s to present day and is filled with phenomenal works from living poets.
Or you could get out of the classroom and take a field trip. There are so many options–some free, some not. A couple years ago, I took my students to the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. It was cool; there were goats, but it wasn’t free. This past year, we attended a free Literary Festival hosted by University of North Carolina-Charlotte, which featured a reading and Q&A with Nikky Finney and Eduardo C Corral.
At the time of this event, some of my students were juniors, who I have now this year as seniors. I know this event personally affected them long-term because they are currently still reading these two poets and writing their poetry blogs on them (more on blogs in a sec!).
Local colleges and universities are great places to look for free events and readings. I usually find the best info on English Language Arts department pages. For example, I discovered Clint Smith is coming for another reading at Davidson College, his alma mater, during our spring break. My students read Counting Descent for summer reading and they (if they’re not heading to warmer waters on vaycay) are excited to meet him in person and get their books signed.
You can also check out local coffee shops or artist spaces for open mics. Some are hosted by literary organizations and may offer more of an educational experience than others, so I suggest looking into them and contacting the establishment to see if it will be student-friendly.
Blogs are a fantastic and easy way to connect your students with individual poets. When students create their class blogs, I let them know that they will be public and shared with a wider audience. One of my favorite things to do is send the student blog link (via social media) directly to the poet they are writing about. Some poets are super nice and respond with a comment, which completely makes the student’s day! It’s like they met a celebrity. Poets have even furthered bloggers’ learning with additional links or information about their work.
So how do you make this happen in your class? First of all, you need to do a little research. Check out local literary events and university websites. Look up your favorite poets’ reading tour schedules on their professional webpages for any coming to a location near you. Reach out to poetry organizations like Poetry Out Loud or Brave New Voices. Tweet @ a poet you appreciate. Give them some love on social media. And include the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag!
What other connections have you made for your students that I am missing? Please share in the comments!
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