Teaching a poetry collection with Clint Smith’s Counting Descent


Today’s #TeachLivingPoets post comes from Adrian Nester, educator extraordinaire with 17 years’ experience in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. She is passionate about equity in rural education and the power of Twitter. She currently teaches AP Literature, English 11, and Journalism. She is also a T-ball coach, Interact sponsor, and Sunday school teacher in her spare time. She enjoys traveling, spending time with her family, reading, and playing sports. Read more about Adrian’s journey on her blog The Learning Curve.


After studying Clint Smith’s Counting Descent with #thebookchat, I knew that I had found the first poetry collection that I was going to teach. Teaching an entire collection of poetry was something that I had considered, but did not see the full benefits from until reading and working through Smith’s Counting Descent from start to finish.

How to get started

I begin the exploration of Counting Descent by having students examine the physical text first. What is on the front and back covers? Take a look at the epigraph from Ralph Ellison and the dedication. Skim through the table of contents.

I like to explain the idea of the order of a poetry collection in terms of a batting lineup, a set list for a concert, or the order of the collection in a fashion show. Every items in these types of “lists” have a purpose, a reason for the placement for why they are in that particular order.

We spend some significant time with Smith’s first poem “Something you should know” in terms of an introduction to the collection as a whole.  We focused a lot on identifying who the “you” is in the title. Most students came to the conclusion that the “you” was, in fact, the reader.

Explore Clint Smith’s website

This website is such a treasure trove of goodness. Smith’Ted Talk “The Danger of Silence” is excellent to use early on or even before reading the collection and can be used to determine author’s purpose.

The video of “How to Raise a Black Son in America” is a very close transcript of the poem “Counterfactual.”  There are several other great videos of Smith reading and performing his poetry.

“The Lifelong Learning of Lifelong Inmates” essay and the corresponding video with Smith’s prison poems including “Beyond this Place” are a great opportunity for discussing contemporary issues along with exploring where the line in drawn between essays and poetry.

Reading poems in class

We used a variety of approaches when reading this collection including bringing in outside resources when appropriate and helpful. “When Maze and Frankie Beverly Come on in My House” lends itself very well to adding music from the named artists. I usually have the music playing as students walk in the door. Then as we read the poem, it all clicks.

“How Malcolm Learned to Read” the poem and “Learning to Read” by Malcolm X are an obvious pairing for students unfamiliar with the nonfiction piece  The next time I teach this collection, I want to do a better job of front-loading my students for reading the two James Baldwin/protest novel poems. There are several essays on Clint Smith’s site that reference James Baldwin and that may be a good place to start.

Silent discussions are a great way to really find out what each student knows about a poem without one or two more dominant voices taking over the discussion. The concept is pretty simple, take one poem and pass it every 90 seconds or so with each person adding to the annotations.  Set a reasonable time limit and possibly lead students with a few basic guiding questions such as: What do you notice? Do you see a shift? How does the title add to the poem?  How do the concluding lines help you understand the poem?

Small groups work great with one poem copied per group. They read, annotate, pass to the next group, and on and on. They eventually end up with their own poem back with all of the additional annotations. Students then read and teach that poem (with all the new insights) to the class.

Use Flipgrid or a back-channel discussion tool such as Today’s Meet to check for understanding while also giving students a chance to independently voice their opinions.

Mentor Text Poetry

One of my favorite assignments is mentor text poetry. For two years it has produced outstanding poems from students who would not call themselves poets. When I first learned about Mentor Texts I was skeptical, but it only took a few successful projects to make a believer out of me. I wrote about some of our classroom successes including using Clint Smith poetry as inspiration in The Making of a Mentor Text Believer.

Pauses for free writing at certain times helped to encourage students to find their own words while drawing on Clint Smith’s form as an inspiration. For “Counting Descent” I had students write their own story in numbers. After reading several “What the ____ said to the black boy” poems, students brainstormed their own stereotypes and what inanimate objects might have something to say to this stereotype. Some very honest poetry has come of these quick free writing sessions that some students published on their blogs.

Clint Smith’s concluding poem itself was inspired by Jamaal May’s “There are Birds Here” . When students learn that Clint Smith was influenced by another writer, it brings more legitimacy to the idea of writing a poem “after” another poem or poet.


After the collection is complete, it was important for us to look at the closing poem There is a Lake Here“There is a Lake Here” and its placement and message that is left with the reader. This poem was an amazing vehicle for a #TeachLivingPoets Twitter chat.  The questions from this chat can be used for a fantastic classroom discussion. Melissa Smith curated the results of the chat and compiled a mini-unit around this one poem in a post for her #TeachLivingPoets Blog.

clintsmithskypeFinally, there is no better way to end a poetry collection than with a Skype session with the poet himself. Poets are extremely accessible and are often willing to speak with classes. Contact them through their websites or Twitter. You will never know until you try.

How do you assess after reading a poetry collection?

We spent a significant amount of time with the collection and I needed some grades to reflect this. If your students have blogs, this is a great opportunity to have them provide an analysis of a favorite work.

I created a summative assessment, (this Google Doc should force you to make a copy and then you can edit to fit your needs) based on the concepts of constructing solid paragraphs for AP Literature which include the PEE method. (Yes, I said PEE.) Making a point (claim), providing evidence (short integrated quotes), and explanation (insight) were the building blocks of each question.  Students blew me away with their thoughtful analysis on four poems of their choosing focusing on word choice, imagery, poetic syntax, and tone.

The final question was a choice between a mentor text poem or discussing the title as it relates to the collection as a whole.

For an additional excellent resource take look at “For teachers who want to teach modern poetry” by Susan Barber on APLitHelp.com including a great final project in the way of a playlist from Karla Hilliard.

Thank you, Adrian, for your insightful and engaging post on teaching Clint Smith’s Counting Descent. 

For more strategies on teaching poetry collections, visit Teaching poetry collections: 3 engaging activity ideas to get your students thinking.

Thank you for reading! Please share any ideas and resources you find useful for the classroom on Twitter using the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag!



7 thoughts on “Teaching a poetry collection with Clint Smith’s Counting Descent

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