Building a Classroom Community Through Narrative Poetry

Today’s #TeachLivingPoets post is brought to you by guest writer, Matt Brisbin. Mr. Brisbin teaches English at McMinnville High School in McMinnville, Oregon, and has been a high school English instructor for 12 years. Aside from reading and writing, his passions in life include spending time with his family and cheering on various sports teams at the high school, college, and professional levels. You can follow him on Twitter @Mbrisbin11.

logoFebruary is always the time of the year that my students’ energy starts to fade. There is something about the long winters, when the sun goes down early that tends to take a toll on all of us slogging through another school year. I usually save this activity for just these times, because it has been a sure fire way to not only increase my students’ morale and give them some seeds for writing, but it’s also is a great way to continue building a community of learners. This year, I added two spoken word poems by Phil Kaye to add another layer to this lesson, and I was really happy with the way it worked out.

The Set Up – Neighborhood Maps

I typically start the day with about five minutes of writing time. Sometimes I give students a prompt, and other times I just have them write about what’s on their mind. It’s a nice way to help them prepare their brains for class. For this lesson, rather than having them write, I ask them to think of the first neighborhood that they can remember living in. I then have them open to a fresh page in their notebooks and draw as good of a map of these neighborhoods as they can in five minutes.

Here’s a picture of mine:

1As they finish up their maps, I ask them to place a star in all the places on their map that have stories connected to them. In mine, you can see my friend, Scott’s house towards the bottom where I earned my first broken arm during a game of “ditchum” (a game that combines both hide and seek, and tag). At the top of the page is my house where many tree forts were built and pick up basketball games in the driveway were played. Just behind our home was a small modular house where my grandmother lived, and where my sister and I would visit for an hour each night after dinner time. This neighborhood was my home for the first eight years of my life, but those eight years have so many rich stories that go with them.

The Poems

After students have starred their maps, I show them this poem by Phil Kaye titledBefore the Internet. I also give them a copy to read along with, which you can find in Kaye’s latest book Date and Time (Button Poetry, 2018).

We don’t spend much time discussing the poem at this point. Instead, I  ask them to choose one star from their map and go around their table groups telling their stories. This is when the magic happens. Every time I’ve done this activity I can’t help but notice the huge smiles on my students’ faces as they share their childhood adventures. If you’re lucky, you’ll have students in the same class who grew up together and were there when these stories were happening. This is the time to just sit back and enjoy sharing the 2moment with your students. Try to bounce around to each of the groups and learn something about them. Share some laughs, and be ready to tell them some of your own stories from your map too. When they’ve had enough time to share, I’ll usually ask students to choose one more star on the map and to get up and find someone else in the room they haven’t talked to yet and share out their new stories. This is when you know you’ve sufficiently bated the hook.

As they finish, I have them go back to Kaye’s poem, and read it again to themselves thinking about how the story is told. We’ll notice and discuss devices like narrative perspective, pacing, anaphora, tone, allusions, imagery and specific details. And then I’ll have them write a narrative poem of their own, using Kaye’s as a mentor text and the tools we’ve just identified to tell their stories. All they have to do is choose one of the stars on their maps and go for it.

3I usually have them write for about 10-15 minutes, with the understanding that they’ll only have a draft started at this point. In previous years, I’ve given them the chance to read out a line or two when they’re done, but this year I gave them the assignment to finish the poem and be ready to perform a reading of it during the next class. For students who don’t like to read in front of the class, I give the option to record themselves reading their poem on a flipgrid video they will then submit to me (if they don’t want to share with the whole class), but some will still let me show the video in class, especially if they wrote about a story they’ve already shared with their classmates.

This year I ended class with this follow up poem,The Internet Speaks Back to the Author,also published in Kaye’s book, Date and Time. Depending on how much class time I have left, I’ll have several follow up questions ready to go, but I always start with this one: What message is communicated by holding these two poems up side by side and putting them into conversation with one another? What do they have to say about what it means to be human and how technology affects the way we interact with one another? The way we pass the time? The conversations will inevitably go in a variety of directions at this point, but before we leave for the day, I’ll try to circle us back around to this last point. I’ll ask them to think about how many stories like the first poem, like the stars on their maps, they live in a month, and how many stories like the second poem they experience in a month. I ask them to consider what this tells them about their own lives and how they want it to shape the experiences they have moving forward. I don’t ask them to respond, but instead I use the moment to emphasize the power of using poetry, literature, and art in general to inform them about their own lives and the kind of people they would like to be. And before they walk out the door, we read this one last William Stafford poem together:

You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?

How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?

What scent of old wood hovers, what softened

sound from outside fills the air?


Will you ever bring a better gift for the world

than the breathing respect that you carry

wherever you go right now? Are you waiting

for time to show you some better thoughts?


When you turn around, starting here, lift this

new glimpse that you found; carry into evening

all that you want from this day. This interval you spent

reading or hearing this, keep it for life –


What can anyone give you greater than now,

starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

Want to know more about teaching poetry? Join us for the #TeachLivingPoets Twitter chat tonight at 8:30-9pm EST hosted by the one and only Matt Brisbin! We will be discussing Phil Kaye’s poemMy Grandmother’s Ballroom.” And check out Matt’s other #TeachLivingPoets post on getting students engaged with spoken word poetry using José Olivarez’s titular poem “Citizen Illegal.” 

If you want to order a #TeachLivingPoets shirt, check out my awesome sister-in-law’s Facebook store Megan’s Makes. Shirt options are: gray unisex crew-neck S-XXXL, black unisex crew-neck S-XXXL, white women’s v-neck S-XL. All shirts are $20, PayPal accepted.

Thank you for reading! Do you have a story, lesson, activity, or something else to share with Be a guest author! Email me at 

You can follow me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith and please tweet all the awesome things you are doing in your class with the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag! 

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