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Transforming Silence: Poetry and Performance

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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Girl expressively speaking in front of microphone

Editor's Note: This is an updated version of the earlier post (Re)Creating Poets: How to Teach Poetry in the Classroom .

There are few experiences as powerful as bearing witness while students takes risks, push themselves beyond what they believed they were capable of, and publicly present and own their work. These experiences can happen when we challenge students to write, revise, and perform poetry. It can be joyful, scary, and is often transformational.

When we push the tables to the sides and set up rows of chairs facing a classroom stage, it feels as if inhibitions shrink and possibility explodes. I have seen reserved students spill over with passion, anger, and hurt as they share the words they've crafted and memorized. My students know that supporting their peers is an essential part of our classroom culture. Readings are accompanied by affirmations and the sound of snapping fingers, urging young and sometimes reluctant voices to continue. Performance can change the feel of a classroom and raises the stakes for students in important ways.

Young people write all day long: texts, tweets, blogs, and status updates. Exposing them to new ways of crafting language and encouraging them to see themselves as poets allows them to play, to see the everyday differently, and to explore ideas and experiences in new ways. The wonderful poet Naomi Shihab Nye first introduced me to William Stafford's idea that no one becomes a poet. She says that we are all born poets, and it's just that some of us choose to keep up the habit.

You don’t have to teach English to find ways of integrating poetry into classroom routines. Students can write a haiku to summarize what they remember from a previous day's lesson, write a six-word story to summarize a concept, or start the week by sharing something about their weekend in verse. Classroom poetry can be informal, insightful, or silly. There are times to focus on rules and conventions, and other times when the act of getting words on the page is the most important thing.

Below are ideas and resources for integrating poetry into the classroom. The ideas can be adapted to different contexts, used as part of a poetry unit, and/or integrated into other units of study.

1. Establish a culture of individual and communal observation and exploration.

A poetry unit can begin with poems about poetry. Billy Collins' poem Introduction to Poetry can get a class thinking and talking about the acts of reading, experiencing, and analyzing a poem. The first poems are opportunities to introduce students to the idea of marking up poems. To mark up, they use colored pencils and work with others to color code a poem using a group-created key that refers to form and content. They may mark shifts in tone, repetition, perspective, figurative language, or any other features they have designated important. We then share our findings in a way that is inclusive of the varied experiences of different readers. My goals are for students to be active readers who notice details and engage with the work on their own terms.

2. Read poems aloud and encourage students to respond creatively.

The experience of a poem is much different when heard aloud than when read silently. Each time we look at a new poem as a class, we listen to students read the poem twice before we start looking at it more closely. After the first or second reading, students give an initial response in the form of a one-minute sketch or sharing a word or phrase that stands out. I encourage students to bring in poems that resonate with them to share at the beginning of class. Recently a student introduced the class to this powerful poem from Joshua Bennett. And this collection of spoken word curated by VideoAmy includes a poem by Sinnea, my former student and spoken-word rock star with Philly Youth Poetry Movement.

3. Use a range of model poems to introduce students to new forms.

Students can read and then write memory poems, odes, I was raised by. . . poems, found poems, poems in forms of their own choosing, and others. In order to push them toward fresh, new writing, my rules are simple: no rhyming, use sensory imagery, and cut and condense. This style sheet from Bill Moyers' website is a helpful guide for student revisions. Poem a Day from the Library of Congress, the Dodge Poetry Festival video on Bill Moyers' site, Poetry Out Loud, and Ten Poems I Love to Teach from the Poetry Foundation are all great resources.

4. Create poetry portfolios and have a celebration of poetry!

Poetry portfolios are an excellent way for students to collect their work, complete detailed studies of poets, and focus on revising for a polished final product. I have used wikis for portfolios because they allow students to easily see and peer edit each other's work, and they can be shared with an outside audience. (Here is an example.) I write along with the students to share the challenge and excitement of the work. Closing the unit with a celebration of poetry, where everyone recites a poem they've written and memorized, is an affirming way to use the power of performance to recognize student accomplishments.

Ultimately, classrooms can be places of joy, play, insight, and creation. Helping students to (re)discover their poetic voices and discover new realities is powerful, vital, and invigorating. Equally powerful is the opportunity for students to deeply connect with the experiences and words of others. In her speech The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action (PDF, 34KB), Audre Lorde reminds us of the inherent human need for expression:

[T]he transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, "Tell them about how you're never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there's always one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don't speak out, one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside."

How do you explore poetry with your students?

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Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for sharing so much, Joshua. I found myself nodding along with almost everything that you've written here - and I could feel the enthusiasm for the written and spoke word that you bring to teaching poetry. One of the things that I find so powerful when teaching poetry is to start with where the students are at - whether they realise it or not, almost every teenager I have ever met responds to rhythm and rhyme - often in pop music. This can be the doorway to a deeper understanding of poetry.

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thanks for your comment Keith. I love your point of starting where the students are at... a great strategy!

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