Maximizing Conference Time – The Task at Hand

This past weekend, my coauthor Quraysh Ali Lansana, and I presented a workshop based on some of the pedagogy in Our Difficult Sunlight at the Preemptive Education Conference in NYC. Thanks to Michael Cirelli and the Urban Word NY staff for the invitation and the event itself. And thanks to those who chose our session among the great offerings that day. We appreciated the talent and commitment of all who were in the circle.

During our workshop, we aimed to offer three different elements of our approach that could be adapted and used in the classroom by the participants upon their return. Quraysh opened with his sculpting activity of Gwendolyn Brooks’ timeless statement, “We Real Cool.” In this, seven volunteers work with him to quickly stage a performance of the poem of just 24 words that speaks volumes to the circumstance of drop-outs and losing one’s way, one’s motivation. The sad truth is that this poem is even more relevant now than when Ms. Brooks wrote it nearly 60 years ago.

I then replicated my poem-as-video-game method for investigating a poem in a tiered examination that reveals context and drives inference by repeated reading, listening, and discussing the language from different vantage points. This metaphor correlating the experience of a poem with the process of playing a video game has proven to be very successful in my own practice and it is a flexible method of inquiry that encourages engagement, as does the sculpting activity. Both of these can be adapted to any poem, any group of students, any age.

The third portion of our workshop involved Ms. Brooks’ construct of verse journalism, the poetry of events and news items, leading to poetic statements of not just awareness but social justice, and Q’s interpretation of his community awareness scaffold for creating a poem. In this, by taking conscious reflective steps to identify the smells, sounds, characters, physical elements, and personal connection to one’s neighborhood and relying upon these elements for inspiration; the prompts encourage a student to look beyond the expected, beyond habit, to examine the details of his/her world, even to identify beauty and pride where others may see despair. It is quite powerful and yields personal statements that are often quite moving.

There are inherent flaws in the conference model but this was a good conference nonetheless. As is generally the case, there is never enough time to do everything on the agenda. The goal of getting as much as possible squeezed into a single session is daunting. But we did offer three opportunities: one, a kinesthetic connection to a poem; the second, a deliberate method of reading poetry in a way that breaks down the barriers of self doubt and comprehension to empower readers to trust their interpretations; and a third that provides a platform for a panoramic view of one’s own world that is rich with imagery and sensory awareness.

Although Q and I know that there is so much more that each of these components could have been presented with much more depth if there had been more time, it is our hope that the individuals who selected our workshop over the others available to them in that session were fed well. We expect that the educators and teaching artists who attend any of our professional development sessions recognize the many opportunities for adaptation of our suggestions, rather than attempting a rote replication. We are only modeling potential based on our own experience and, often, our successes in the classroom. We give these prompts and activities to others so they can also witness success and keep the art of poetry alive.

Thanks again for following my blog. I appreciate your consideration of my words and thoughts.

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