Today’s blog post comes from Carrie Mattern, a high school ELA teacher in Flint, MI who has taught in Flint for the last eleven years and in Brown City, MI for her first four years of teaching. At Flint Carman-Ainsworth, Carrie greets students as freshmen in English 9 and sends them out into the real world after completing English 12. She loves to read, write, and do what most teachers do on their snow days—watch cooking shows in sweats while dreaming of becoming a travel writer.
After finding Clint Smith’s work last year on Twitter, and finally becoming a member of #TeachLivingPoets last spring, I decided that this year my weekly writing (more on that another day) would be based on all living poets with my English 12 seniors. Last year I dabbled with mostly living poets, but this year I wanted to disrupt the canon and allow students more depth with their connections and more relevance to their world. So with that stated, #TeachLivingPoets is a part of my daily classroom lessons and I have never, ever had someone is class yell, “Yay! FInally!” when I announced this philosophy to the class this fall.
Students were excited to read people who were alive, and dealing with similar struggles that they have to move through each and every day in their own lives. And they were not afraid to cheer for poetry—this was huge, and something I knew I had to commit fully to and live up to within the framework of that commitment to my students.
With that, I knew my choice for each weekly poem was one that had to be intentional and not just, “Oh I like that piece.” That is where Twitter has really helped solidify my following of living poets. That is also where I learned of the After Poem. I have used this technique in the past and called it an Imitation or Inspiration poem, but I really liked that #TeachLivingPoets had a chat in August on Jamaal May’s “There Are Birds Here” that included Clint Smith’s (I know! Right? A poet we know who is inspired by other poets?) “There is A Lake Here” after Jamaal May’s.
What was really interesting was when my students connected that famous poets like Smith write After Poems just like they do as weekly writing practice. It helped secure trust within my practice with them–if someone famous is doing it, we must be doing it right, right? So when the Twitter chat ended, Susan Barber, the host, challenged us with writing our own After Poems and I did. Then I gave the challenge to my students.
Read more about the Twitter chat Carrie refers to here.
Here is my poem:
There is More Than a Water Crisis Here
After Jamaal May
FOR FLINT by Carrie Mattern
There is more than a water crisis here (yet is still here four years later),
So much more than a water crisis here
Is what I was trying to say to the woman in the restroom who had made an offhand “joke” about if Flint water was safe enough to wash her hands in
And no, not a joke, but a dig. A slap. A shove. A dismissal.
“The kids here are,” I start, but she cuts me off with “doomed.”
There is more than a water crisis here
I tried to say again, with patience and grace,
Not like the grace that welcomes you on Sunday morning
But the grace that beckons you in for a hug when you know you deserve a slap.
The kids here are full of life,
I tried to say again
And no, not the life you see on some Netflix original series from the cop’s pov,
A life of hope, talent, struggle.
And no, the struggle isn’t real where you are from, dear ladies,
Standing up for a change just so you can return home to boast about it,
The struggle is what my kids face every morning
Trying to get their siblings to the bus stop on time,
Then themselves to school barely beating the bell.
But do they complain when they get yet another tardy?
No, not usually, usually they say nothing-
Struggling is silent
When you grow up in Flint.
But with struggle, also comes resilience,
And that is why you should know there is more
Than the water crisis here.
(30 mins since we read choice books for 10-15 to start class)
Pass out a copy of Jamaal May’s poem. Listen to it on You Tube. Ask students the four questions (Kelley Gallagher) to begin the discussion:
- What is being said?
- What is not being said?
- Who is saying it?
- Why does it matter?
- Add the fifth question if there are crickets: Is it a window, mirror, or sliding glass door (Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop).
Many students (I have three hours of seniors) really liked this piece after we connected it through tone and irony to a previous piece by Danez Smith: “Dinosaurs in the Hood.” Many students also wanted a symbolic meaning of “birds” and we discussed if there was more to it than flight or freedom or if the birds were actually just birds-that exist-in Detroit. And since we are so close being in Flint (we’ve been there, so yes, we know there are birds, especially seagulls near the river and in empty lots scrounging for food), we decided that it’s pointing out an obvious thing to try and rid of the stereotypes that society and the media places on locations that are downtrodden such as Detroit and Flint.
After making notes on our favorite lines and looking for meaning, we moved to Clint Smith’s piece, “There is a Lake Here,” which I had copied to the back of May’s poem. Coincidentally, we learned that one peer was in Katrina during the Hurricane so that enlightened all of us with a first-hand experience. Students liked that Smith continued with a similar structure and tone–yet many thought his piece less symbolic than May’s. We could not find a recording of this so we read it a few times and marked the contradictions and the imagery and how it resembled May’s, yet was still very much an “activist” piece with lines like “arms in surrender.” Since we began the year with “How to Make a Cardboard Box Disappear in 10 Steps,” many students continue to read and view Smith as a social justice educator then poet.
Days Two & Three
(30 minutes each)
We continued in small groups studying Smith’s piece, and moving back to May’s. Each group had a focus for reading today (tone, diction, structure, etc.) and shared out after discussing and annotating in small groups. Then I shared with them the Twitter Challenge: Write your own.
We moved in our notebook to our works in progress section and wrote down a place we felt at home, safe, comfortable, secure, and happy. I did this along with them and it was interesting. Many places turned into people. Also many students shared similar locations in the community and reminded one another of times where school felt fun and light-hearted. Others shared home from overseas as I teach in a district that is quite diverse. In one class, I have students from Lebanon, Syria, France, and Egypt.
After brainstorming, I shared what I had started writing the night before. It was rough, but I kept typing while they worked so they could see my process. They wondered if they could merge May and Smith’s to create their own and I told them if it works, try it. One student even brought in the ________ from Smith’s “How to Make a Cardboard Box Disappear in 10 Steps” piece and merged it with May’s. It was unique and inspiring. Students had time outside of class to work on this piece, then turned it in a few days later. They did not know what I had planned next.
I asked students if I could use their poems because they were beautiful. If not, see me after class. Everything will be anonymous, I said. No one stayed after–in any hour. Their interest was piqued.
“Why didn’t you pick my poem?” was a constant question as students filed into class. They noticed the Gallery Walk in the hallway of poems I had glued onto large pieces of construction paper without the names of course. There were fifteen poems hanging through two hallways for today’s lesson. I asked students to Gallery Walk in groups of three and choose their top five poems based on title (or number-as I had them all numbered). Once they had their top five, they were to take their notes on the discussion questions we normally begin with: What was said? Not Said? Who is Saying it? Why’s it matter? And is it a window, mirror, or sliding glass door? Then look for devices and writer’s craft. After discussing and note-taking, students were to write their analysis (part of the weekly writing process we do) on their favorite poem in the Gallery Walk.
Students were challenged yet enjoyed this and wanted another opportunity for a Gallery Walk so I am doing something similar with Fatimah Asghar’s “If They Should Come for Us” this week. I enjoyed the process but would allot for more discussion time as annotations typically lacked on May or Smith’s side which I suppose illustrated that students connected with one piece more than the other, but I still expect solid notes on both pieces. I am eternally grateful for #TeachLivingPoets. My teaching has grown with the collaboration and community that I have found online with such a tremendous group of dedicated, inspiring, collaborative teachers.
Check out the archives of the #TeachLivingPoets Twitter chat on “If They Should Come For Us” here
Here are a few student poetry samples from the Gallery Walk:
There Is Light Here
After Jamaal May by Khalil
There is light here,
so much light here
is what I was trying to say
when they said there is
an unforgiving darkness here. No.
The light is here to stop the
darkness. And no, there is not
just a water crisis here. And no,
there is not just crimes. And no,
there is not just poverty.
There are children playing here,
not dying from a poison. There are
children playing here, in
a college town,
not a war town.
There are children playing here,
in a cultural center,
not a poison center.
But they won’t stop saying
how lovely the ruins,
how ruined the lovely
children must be in that dark city.
The children here are
laughing and smiling. Eyes
cast out across the city,
in awe of how bright it is.
There Are Squirrels Here
After Jamaal May By Micah
There are squirrels here,
So many squirrels here.
Squirrels that chase each other
From tree to tree.
Squirrels who drop acorns
on us humans
and run away laughing.
No, these squirrels are not symbolic
of the innocent youth
who frolic around without a care in the world.
The squirrels are here
for us to admire.
For us to chase
and for the boys to laugh at one another
when we get close enough
to actually touch them
but are too scared to do so.
I’m trying to say
that the boys in the neighborhood
are full of adventure
Despite living there their whole lives,
In this neighborhood,
those boys can never predict
what the squirrels will do each day.
The boys will continue living their lives
oblivious to the reality
of the world.
The reality that
all good things must come to an end.
And they will finally understand this
upon the realization
that the squirrels
have been long since gone,
and they had long since changed
from the kindred spirits they once were.
There Are Trees Here
After Jamaal May by Sameya
There are trees here
so many trees here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those trees were metaphors
for what is growing inside this country. No.
There are trees here to oxygenate the air
from all the stress. No,
I don’t mean the air is filled with carbon dioxide,
I said oxygenate the air, and no
not the air floating around that help people breathe.
I mean the air
people can’t stop smiling in
and no their smile isn’t much like a skeleton at all. And no
this country is not like a war zone.
I am trying to say
this country is as brown and green
as anything else,
as a light shines
through a dark tunnel,
but they won’t stop saying
how lovely the ruins
how ruined the lovely
people must be in that treeless country.
There is Beauty Here
After Jamaal May By Sarah
For the creatives
There is beauty here,
in the art around us
is what I try to say
when people call musicians
and writers and actors and artists
people who waste their time
with pointless pursuits.
There is beauty here
when you turn on the radio
or when you watch a movie or read a book
or when you go to a gallery,
but you seem to forget that
we are surrounded by beauty,
not something pointless.
No, those people weren’t different,
they start off like we do, just
regular people with ambitions and dreams
but you say they’re “far-fetched.”
I mean that some dreams seem a little out there
but not impossible
and I don’t mean that it will be easy
but that doesn’t mean that they can’t try.
I’m trying to say that the arts
need more love and support
so we can create
but they won’t stop saying
that we need to give more and more
to the football team’s new stadium
because heaven forbid that
the team goes less than a decade
without a new place to
toss a ball and get concussions,
while the auditorium hasn’t seen
renovation since it was built.
I am trying to say that we need
to fuel the future of our arts,
support the actor who you could see on stage and screen,
support the singer who could top the charts for years upon years,
support the poet who writes their words to express,
support the artist who can fill a gallery twelve times over,
support those who seem to always be turned away,
for there is beauty here
in the art around us.
Follow me on Twitter for updates: @CMattern21
I occasionally blog at www.carriemattern.com but beware, it’s most often about my chaotic crew of six or something more political.
Thank you Carrie Mattern for your guest post and enthusiasm for #TeachLivingPoets! This lesson sounds incredible and I want to be in your class!
Check out these other related posts:
Guest post by Adrian Nester on teaching Clint Smith’s collection here
Chat archive & Teaching Fatimah Asghar’s “If They Should Come For Us” here
Resources for finding poets, poems, and how to teach them here
If you are interested in writing a guest post, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
As always, if you teach living poets in your classroom, please share on Twitter with the hashtag #TeachLivingPoets.
Thank you for reading!