Today is the last day of a 5-day middle school residency that has been a total delight. I have been with two 7th grade Literacy classes, two 8th grade English classes, and two self-contained classes with students with Autism and other special needs (these two classes had widely varied skills between the two groups and even among the students). The teachers who invite me into their classes put their curriculum on hold for the week so I can bring something different to their students. For this reason, I attempt to tie my lessons and my week’s scope and sequence to enforce what the teachers are responsible to impart on their young people in order to meet the needs of the grade level and, yes, the assessments.
These last two days we are working on reading poems and staging them as performance in a collaborative effort. I began yesterday with the activity that I learned from Quraysh Ali Lansana from his days in the mid-90s when he toured with Poetry Alive! and worked with Asheville poet and educator, Allan Wolf. This exercise involves a small group performance of Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” a poem just a pertinent today as it was when she first wrote it in the early 1950s. Quraysh has shared this experience in both of the professional development workshops we have presented together in the past month and two of the teachers I am working with this week were participants in one of those sessions so now they are teaching the same activity as well as seeing me model it once again.
After yesterday’s classes when we worked at making the poem real and alive, today I selected four poems of similar length: “I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes, “To a Poor Old Woman” by William Carlos Williams, Nikki Giovanni’s gem “Knoxville, Tennessee,” and an ekphrastic poem by my friend and colleague Phil Memmer called “Seven a.m.,” written to Edward Hopper’s mysterious painting of the same name.
The students are asked to count off to create three or four work groups, then a copy of the poem has been distributed to each group to share, listen to, read, discuss, and then stage for the rest of the class. After the performances, the audience is to offer what Ryfkah Horwitz, my dear friend, sister poet, and supreme classroom teacher has taught me as sandwich critique (a positive statment, a suggestion for improvement, and another positive statement).
So the first period I discovered that I need multiple copies for each group, as they took too much time passing the poem around and then they wrote on the poem in the blocking and staging process (although they were kind enough to use pencil so I could erase notes until where it was in the building that the additional copies printed to when I had a chance to run them!).
Some of the groups decided to create props and that was great. It was also an assessment of engagement for both me and the teachers. The students were making plums and corncobs; some students were blocking entrances from the hallway to illustrate Langston’s “…when company comes,” and some were developing southern or more formal accents to share their poems. Some students were assigning specific lines or stanzas. Other groups worked on choral recitations and discovered elegance and eloquence in the process.
I figured out the second go-through that it would be advantageous to have the poem projected on the Smartboard for both the performers and the audience. Revision #2 on the fly.
I also used the activity to point out some elements of poetry, such as the importance of the title. The title is the welcome mat to the poem and, as with the WCW poem, it can serve as the first line so the poem is a bit out of context without inclusion in the overall recitation. We looked at the line ends and what happens if you pause at the end when it is not the end of the sentence but also how the end words gain extra capital in the split second that it takes the eye to move from the end of one line to the start of another.
Revision #3…sometimes when you have students count out 1…2..3..4…all the class clowns wind up in the same group! Rely on the teacher to determine if there is a rough mix!
There were other moments of tweaking that my host teachers and I each added to our lessons thus far. There will be more tweaking I will do over the weekend so I may continue to use this as another building block of my practice. And I will think of 10 young men, all students with Autism, sharing the lovely list of the best parts of a southern summer day, articulately, enthusiastically, and with profound collaboration.
Another wonderful week and after two more class periods, I get to drive through this tease of spring to my home, where rumor has it the oppressive snowbanks in my back yard are melting, where I presume the blades of iris leaves and primroses are trying to reach through to the warm sun, and to sleep in my own bed for 2 whole weeks before I hit the road again. If it is clear, I may even be treated with the spectacle of the Northern Lights since this week was honored with a major solar flare. I can only hope. It is the perfect allegory of my life.
Thanks again for following my blog. I appreciate your consideration of my words and thoughts.