Line breaks, featuring poems by Gwendolyn Brooks & Terrance Hayes

This lesson of mine was originally posted on Wakelet, curated by Kristin Runyon for National Poetry Month in April 2017. Click here for more poem pairings by other teachers across the country.

Teach Living Poets LogoThis is my favorite poem pairing of all time for several reasons. First, I LOVE both of these poets’ work. Second, Hayes INVENTED a new form of poetry and how many people can say they did that?!? Third, I love seeing my students’ reactions when they realize… well, you’ll see. 

I pass out a handout with Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool” written in paragraph form without the line breaks–just a continuous line across the page, punctuation included. With a partner, students rewrite it as a poem and how they think Brooks wrote it. They discuss where she would break lines; most go for after the periods. 

After a few minutes of discussion, as students are in the throes of end-stopped lines, I play the audio of Brooks reading her poem. (I love how this recording also explains her inspiration for writing the poem.) Once students hear her read, there’s a lot of “Ooooohhhs” and side-cocked heads starting to reconsider their previous choices. As students reevaluate, they discuss how the meaning changes when lines break after “We.” Now, the focus gets placed on “We,” which garners a sense of community and identity. We chat about this for a bit, then I show them the actual poem.

Then we read the explanation of the Golden Shovel form and we check out Terrance Hayes’s biography.

hayesI give them the text of Hayes’s poem “The Golden Shovel” and I ask them to consider the line breaks as we listen to an audio of a Poetry Out Loud student reciting it. Some students will catch on fairly quickly, but for some it takes until they revisit the poem after listening to it. Once they realize the last word in each line of Hayes’s poem are the individual words Brooks uses in hers, they are like woooaaahhh that’s so cool. It was the best part of my day sitting back and watching their reactions as they made their discovery. 

Once the realization has been made, we get to talking about how the enjambment progresses throughout the poem, and how by the end of it, Hayes is breaking lines in the middle of words. This poem most certainly gave my students a new appreciation for the poetic line.

Thank you for reading! 

You can follow me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith

2 thoughts on “Line breaks, featuring poems by Gwendolyn Brooks & Terrance Hayes

  1. Thank you! I did not know you had originally posted this lesson. It was brought to my attention a year ago, I I have used it several times. Now I have the students find a favorite song lyric to use as their “right margin” anchor and create their own “Golden Shovel’ poem using Hayes’s technique. Great results!!!

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