by Amanda Leigh Cordes
West Chicago Community High School
West Chicago, IL
Tpt Store: Through the Doors of Room 304
I was wearing a black, knee-length skirt and a red sweater that fit an 18-year-old me awkwardly: too big in the shoulders, too lopsided in the waist, too short in the arms. A snow globe-light dusting of white powder remained scattered across the streets of Chicago’s downtown loop. Carefully curled brown locks swayed around my head as I nervously gazed out the window of our car at the scene. On this day in February 2004, I was about to be interviewed by the Golden Apple Scholars organization to determine whether or not I would receive a distinguished teaching scholarship as I entered my freshman year in college. I was eager, I was determined, and I was in love with teaching.
That day, the interview committee asked me many questions, but I’ll never forget when they asked me, “Why do you want to become a teacher?” My answer? Simple. Because I love kids and because I want to help kids learn how to become smarter, stronger, more open-minded people. If you’d have asked me that question a few years later, I would have simplified that answer: I love kids and I want to teach them empathy.
Empathy is the root of social justice - an end goal to many educational philosophies. We, as teachers, aspire to create a community that achieves social justice, which provides opportunities to all students regardless of their wealth or status, and beyond that, to nurture the kinds of students who desire a future where they also can create social justice. I also know that teaching empathy requires more than just reading To Kill a Mockingbird and telling the students to be like Atticus and “walk in someone else’s shoes”. Teenagers are smart, conniving, creative, manipulative, and most of all, they are seeking real, tangible experiences. After several years of teaching, I have found that the best space to create these authentic opportunities to experience empathy is through storytelling and poetry.
Every classroom has the opportunity to become a stage - a place where students can inhabit a space and share their stories. The more students are asked to speak about their own experiences and challenged to revise those stories artistically (through diction, tone, etc.), the richer the colors of the classroom become and the deeper the conversations about class content develop.
Poetry in my classroom happens all year long. The model is relatively simple: read, annotate, watch, discuss, imitate. I choose poems with a social justice punch to read together in class, for them to closely annotate, to watch, to discuss, and then to write their own versions. I also use a tool called “The Big Six” to help students explore poems (this is included in my TpT product called My Poetry Notebook). Some poets that I would highly recommend include: Bobby LeFabre, Lamar Jorden, Patricia Smith, Marc Smith, Robbie Q. Telfer, Tim Stafford, Buddy Wakefield, Shane Koyczan, Taylor Mali, and Sarah Kay. For more great poets, check out my YouTube playlist (screen for appropriateness) here.
Take Shane Koyczan’s poem “To This Day” for example. Shane, who in this particular poem is both the poet and the speaker, tells the true, yet fictionalized, experience that he had growing up being bullied. Every year that I teach this poem every single student engages and connects. We read the poem, we annotate the poem, we watch the poem (over and over again!), we discuss the poem, and then...we write our own versions of the poem. Some students imitate Koyczan’s style - they emulate metaphors and imagery like, “he was three when he became a mixed drink/ of one part left alone/ and two parts tragedy” and “she doesn’t think she’s beautiful/ because of a birthmark/ that takes up a little less than half of her face/ kids used to say she looks like a wrong answer/ that someone tried to erase.” Other students write reactionary poems about a time they were bullied or a time they witnessed bullying. By the end of the lesson, the students have not only analyzed poetic devices, but they have connected to another person’s story, developed empathy, and are now prepared with a story of their own to share with their classmates.
Through poetry, students zero in on a poet’s experience and connect to the emotional curve of the poem. Throughout the year, students in my classroom are exposed to a variety of styles, subjects, and voices and finish the year with a collection of wildly impressive poetry. About once a quarter, my team sets aside time to host a poetry open mic. Once the ice is broken, the line of poets waiting to read their work is out the door and around the corner. I’m not sure what the magic ingredient is, but year after year, the same thing keeps happening.
Through their storytelling, through their poetry, students break down the barriers that once divided them. We learned in our school that the student that lives in the only mansion in town has a younger brother with Asperger's Syndrome, the student that just moved into town was adopted, and the funniest kid in class has been living in his brother’s car for two weeks. They speak honestly about their losses, their struggles, their joys, their fears, and their relationships. Poetry offers a platform for students to get fired up about school politics and to demand that free and reduced lunches should be healthy and that prom tickets are just too freaking expensive. If there is one thing I can urge you to consider about the school year as you sit down with a brand new 2015-16 lesson plan book, it is: where and when can your poets speak?
Even if your classroom schedule can’t seem to fit a poetic space on a regular basis, consider starting a club. The Ink, our creative writing club at school, works together year round to organize after school open mics, larger stage productions, and goes to competitions for their poetic prowess. In Chicago, the place to be in March is LTAB (Louder Than a Bomb). It is the world’s largest poetry slam for teenagers. Over the course of six weeks, over 200 schools in the Chicagoland/Indiana area come together to share many stages all over the city. Teams of six to eight students compete in individual rounds and then, the most difficult of them all, a group round where four poets perform a choreographed poem. This “competition” called slam poetry is really just a hoax: founder Marc Kelly Smith began the poetry slam as a way to get all kinds of people in a room listening to poetry. When poetry became something that could be scored by anyone that could walk into a bar, the high-brow, literary pretense fell away and poetry became something for all people. Since the 1980s, slam has expanded across the planet, but here in Chicago, educators use this clever “hoax” to bring teenagers from parts of the city and suburbs that would never intersect in one of the most segregated cities in the country. In these beautiful moments on stage, students from the south side, west side, north side, and from the suburbs listen to each other. They experience just a few minutes of this person’s life and feel real empathy. At the end of the competition, we are reminded that “the point is not the points, the point is the poetry!” and students all gather on stage for hugs, hi-fives, and fist bumps.
The social justice definition that I use with my students is from the UC Berkley School of Social Welfare and it highlights four main components. Their working definition of social justice is:
“Social Justice is a process which
- (1) seeks fair (re)distribution of resources, opportunities, and responsibilities;
- (2) challenges the roots of oppression and injustice;
- (3) empowers all people to exercise self-determination and realize their full potential;
- (4) and builds social solidarity and community capacity for collaborative action.”
When I think back to that wintery, shook up snow globe memory interviewing for Golden Apple, I think about why I wanted to teach in the first place. As teachers, we have the opportunity this August to reset. To remember why we love this job. To plan a year that plans experiences first and Common Core Standards later. To seize opportunities to create an empathetic, authentic community of learners that can make real change and innovation happen on this bruised Earth. This year, consider how poetry might transform your teaching and the lives of your students.
To connect with me and learn more about how to infuse poetry and performance in your classroom, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about LTAB and how to bring it to your city, visit: http://youngchicagoauthors.org/blog/
For a great series of teachable Slam poems, visit my YouTube channel (please preview each video first for your comfort level): http://tinyurl.com/ng3apwk