Teachers from all over the country gathered together virtually to discuss Fatimah Asghar’s poem “If They Should Come For Us” from her collection If They Come For Us (Penguin Random House, 2018). I taught this poem to my on-level American Lit juniors and AP Literature seniors the week prior to the chat, and found it to be an extremely successful poem with my students, offering them opportunities for rich conversation and deep analysis. This post will provide you with an archive of the chat, and an explanation of how I went about teaching the poem in my classes.
#TeachLivingPoets chat archive
Every chat starts off with a warm up question that encourages participants to personally consider how a particular thematic element of the poem relates to their own lives.
Responses ranged from people who sit in the front row, to people with coffee spills on their shirt, to people who are by themselves, to fellow teachers. We only chat for a half hour, so we dove right into Question 1.
Question 1 highlights:
Question 2 highlights:
Question 3 highlights:
Question 4 highlights:
Question 5 highlights:
I love that last tweet from Tolly Salz, about recognizing and dismantling white privilege, and how several communities of educators are doing the work: #THEBOOKCHAT, #DisruptTexts, @ProjectLITComm, and #TeachLivingPoets. The canon is who we choose to bring into our classrooms. How diverse is yours?
If you are interested in joining a #TeachLivingPoets chat, our next one will be Jan. 29 at 8:30-9pm EST. Just search for the hashtag on Twitter. If it’s your first time, we especially invite you! This community is all about sharing ideas for teaching poetry by living poets, since there’s not really a ton of resources out there for poems that just came out recently. We are a community of educators dedicated to complicating the canon, and inspiring and empowering students through poetry. And it’s not just about the chat – post a class pic or fun idea ANYTIME with the hashtag.
Teaching the poem – one teacher’s approach
I taught this poem in a 50-minute class period a few days before the chat. Many of my students are tactile learners and digital natives, so I wanted to try to incorporate some hands-on learning and use of technology. There’s so many different approaches you could take to teaching this poem, as seen in the responses above to Q5; this is just one of them.
Read. Listen. Underline.
First, I print off the poem for students so they could each have their own copy to write notes on. We go straight to listening to Asghar read it (at minute 29:19 in this video). As they listen for the first time, they simply follow along, getting a feel for the poem. The second time, they underline key phrases/lines that stand out to them as important. They don’t need to explain why yet, just that it feels important to them and to the poem as a whole. Dana Huff would refer to these as “fire lines.”
Students then turn to the person next to them for a comparison of underlined lines. Do they have any of the same ones? If so, why do they both feel they are important? If not, which lines does the other person find key and why? Floating around the room, I find discussions to be rich and full of analysis, and students don’t even realize they are actually interpreting a poem (gasp!). Some students look up unfamiliar words , others don’t. Some are more interested in a particular metaphor or image. Volunteers then share their thoughts out loud for the whole class.
Whenever I bring the Plah-Doh box out, students — yes, even seniors — get really excited. Students pair up and use Play-Doh to create sculptures representing their interpretations of the poem. They only have one rule – they can’t make literal stick-figure people. I added this rule after about 90% my 1st period made people sculptures to represent “my people.” My goal with the sculptures is for them to think more symbolically, so I made the rule for the rest of my classes. And the results were amazing!
Once their masterpieces are complete, students use FlipGrid to record their explanations of how their artwork represent the poem. They are required to quote phrases/lines (textual evidence support) in their reasoning. The free version of FlipGrid limits students to 90-second videos, so explanations have to be concise and relevant. You can see all their videos here. (Not sure how long this link to the grid will work with the free version, so I’ll share one of my favorites here.)
We didn’t have time to get to it in class after FlipGrid, but I WILL show this TedTalk soon. It’s packed with goodness relevant to the study of life and literature. Identity, the power of language and poetry, and she performs three more poems!
And if you’re curious to know more about the poet and her work, you can listen to the Vs. poetry podcast (language warning, for those who care) on which she reads and discusses the poem (at minute 41:31). You can also visit her website that has tons more poems and videos.
Thank you to all who participated in the #TeachLivingPoets chat and to all who do the work in the classroom every day. I appreciate you.
And thank you, reader. I sincerely hope you share this powerful poem with your students.