I’ll start at the end: I’m in a car full of students from grades 7-12. It’s close to 10 PM. We’re listening to M.I.A. and talking about whether and how we can make space for people to grow when everyone at school thinks they know who you are. We’re talking about what it means to care about something in public, in front of strangers. We’re talking about how hard it is to be a human being. No one wants to go home, so we sit together at school to share our big take-aways from this incredible day.
Here is some of what I heard my students say:
I’ve never been in a space like that, where people snap for you and encourage you when you make a mistake.
I was surprised by all the different perspectives I heard.
The poetry was amazing.
I mostly act like I don’t care about anything. Today made me think it’s OK to care sometimes.
It reminded me how much I still have to learn. We’re all trying to unlearn what we’ve been taught by systems of oppression, and it’s a process.
We’d spent the day at the Hyper Bole, the largest individual youth poetry slam on the East Coast. This is my school’s third year participating. In 2016 it was me, one brave high school junior, and her father. Last year, because of that young woman’s leadership (shoutout to Tessa!), we brought five kids. This year we took eleven. Two competed, and a third shared a just-written poem on her family’s immigrant experience.
Here is the truth: to be an adult is to never have to take seriously the voices of young people. We have the power to avoid them, ignore them, exclude them, and silence them — and too often, we do. As a teacher — even one who strives to be student-centered — I know how tempting it is to always lead the discussion, deciding who can speak about what and for how long. But on Saturday, for ten hours, I listened. I listened to young people from Baltimore, D.C., Norfolk, and all over Northern Virginia make art, publicly declaring their experiences, their hopes and fears, their vision of a better world. And I was reminded why I need to listen more often.
Every poem I heard at the Hyper Bole was an act of seeing our deeply flawed world with open eyes and still insisting that beauty is possible when we show up for one another. The poets were unflinching in their critiques of injustice, yet they made space for hope. They reminded us that there are better ways of being with each other in the world, and that we can only get there by dreaming and acting together. Indeed, the choice to raise their voices and share their truth with strangers reflects that abiding belief.
In this sense, Hyper Bole participants offered all of us a model of collective action for social change: seek and tell the truth; envision a better way; act in the service of that vision, in solidarity with those different from you.
My students and I ended our day at Hyper Bole talking about how empowering and affirming this community was, and about all that becomes possible within such a space. This didn’t come together by accident; co-founders Joseph Green and Brian Hannon made purposeful decisions to create the conditions for a transformative experience.
To give a better sense of these conditions, here are some photos and videos:
10 AM – 12 PM: Welcome and Ice-Breaker
In the first moments of the day, Joseph Green said just what I was thinking:
There has never been a time in my lifetime when it was more important to create a space and then hand it over to young people.
This is in line with what our school founder Deep Sran says often: we adults can’t get out of young people’s way soon enough. This idea pervades our instructional design, our clubs and projects, and our broader school culture and civic mission. We want to help students become their better and fuller selves so that they can get to work changing the world.
We began the day by giving students time to get to know one another. Young people had the chance to connect with peers who lived within a few hours from them but nonetheless led very different lives under very different conditions. A set of questions about poetry and social justice — and the incentive of a $50 gift card — broke students out of their cliques.
12 – 2 PM: The Preliminaries
Organizers purposefully scheduled the competition early in the day so that poets could enjoy workshops, lunch, open mic, and dinner without worrying about their impending performance. Students competed in small breakout rooms, and judges did not announce scores. This year, LSG had two competing students: Cas (12th) and Hannah (9th), who also lead our Poetry Club.
2 – 4:30 PM: The Workshops
Split This Rock invites experts to lead small-group workshops on poetry and social justice. Here is a list of the breakout sessions kids could attend:
The Poem and the Immigrant Poet: Claudia Rojas, Split This Rock
The Art of Opinion: Peter Certo, Institute for Policy Studies
Art as a Core Element of Social Movements: Aaron Noffke, Poor People’s Campaign
Intro to Theater of the Oppressed: Annalisa Dias and Althea Middleton-Detzner, Theater of the Oppressed
Beyond Diversity and Community Building: GMU Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education
4:30 – 6 PM: Dinner and Open Mic
Over pizza, students performed poetry and music (this year, my kids were super excited to hear a song from Hamilton). Shailee (10th), who had never attended a poetry slam before, stood in front of this large audience and shared a poem she had written just moments ago in one of the workshops. We were all blown away by her bravery.
The Grand Slam Finals
The ten highest-scoring poets from preliminaries competed on the final stage. Students performed poems about homophobia, Islamophobia, the loss of a father, antiblack racism, albinism, bullying, friendship, love, and truth.
One of my students noted that there was at least one line in each poem – often far more – that was fundamentally transformative for her. We gain so very much from listening to one another.
Because scores were announced aloud, it was here that we all remembered how absurd it is to assign a number value to a poem – especially these deeply personal and consequential utterances. But the competition (and the $1,000 scholarship prize) matters in the sense that it affirms these poets’ craft and effort as any public competitive event would. The scores remind us that something is at stake here — and the photo reflects that — though what’s truly at stake is much more significant than the points.
It would have been worth waiting 9 hours just to see the feature poet this year, Elizabeth Acevedo. Here is one of her poems. Just before it, she speaks compellingly about her experience in University of Maryland’s creative writing program as the only student of African descent, the only Latinx student, and the only student who came from a working class New York City background. Her words remind us all why a space like the Hyper Bole is so crucial. And her poem – an ode to the city’s rats – affirms everything in us that exclusionary spaces and standards fail to see as worthy.
When I think about what it takes to make sure the future Elizabeth Acevedos currently sitting in our nation’s classrooms have every opportunity to share their voices with the world, the student-centered events of the Hyper Bole are a crucial model. My students and I are so grateful to have participated.
For more on LSG’s approach to enrichment, please click here.
At Hyper Bole this year, I attended a poetry teachers’ breakout session and got great ideas for making poetry accessible to all my students. One coach shared a whole-school cloze activity her poetry club members lead during lunch. Cloze is a strategy typically used in reading instruction: words are “rationally deleted” from an existing passage, and students use their comprehension skills and reasoning to select a word to fill the blank (click the link for examples and rationale).
The coach at Hyper Bole explained that asking kids to fill in the blanks is a lot less intimidating than giving them an open-ended prompt. The mad-lib-style exercise also makes silliness and fun possible. Although humorous answers may feel transgressive to students, it’s exactly the point of the exercise: kids are having fun with words, word order, and sound.
We tried this out today during Advisory, and it went well. Here is how we prepared.
Finding the Poem
I chose a section of a poem that I thought would offer a broad array of options to students: from straightforward, literal, or autobiographical to whimsical, abstract, or figurative. Audre Lorde’s “Movement Song” seemed like a great choice for the following reasons:
the use of a first-person speaker is accessible to most students
the lack of rigid rhyme or meter leaves everyone free to complete the blanks as they wish
the parallel grammatical structure provides an appealing, impactful rhythm
the opening sentence of the second stanza is interesting (“Do not remember me as a bridge nor a roof”)
anytime I can get students to read Audre Lorde, I will take the opportunity
Preparing the Poem
I decided to eliminate most of the noun phrases but retain prepositions and some verbs. What remained of the poem became an open-ended skeleton that could become what the student wanted it to be.
To make the exercise less daunting, I placed most of the blanks at the ends of the lines.
I retained only part of one visual image (“hanging on the edge of…”). Students had to supply the rest through their imagination.
Getting Student Buy-In
For this to feel like a fun writing game instead of classwork, students needed to lead the exercise.
In advance, our poetry club read my example cloze poem and then created their own. We put all three exercises together in a two-sided handout.
Then we had to test it: we spent about a half hour trying to complete each cloze poem, retooling the blanks as we stumbled. When we felt like we had the wording right, we discussed how to make the exercise successful, and students wrote the instructions in their own words.
Of all the advisory writing prompts I’ve tried to orchestrate this year, this was by far the most successful. Tessa, our poetry club leader, led the whole thing with poise and graciousness.
Kids wrote with enthusiasm and focus for over ten minutes, and six willingly shared their work aloud in front of the whole school. Our English language learner students were able to complete the handout (in part by using Google Translate), and kids produced really cool work. Even though we all started with the same poems, everyone’s pieces were unique.
It seems to me that the scaffolding, the whimsical and nostalgic nature of Mad Libs, and the student-led structure of the activity were the main reasons kids did such great work today.
The new “Creative Writing Bookshelf” in the student lounge.
Anne Lamott offers lots of wisdom in her memoir/writing advice classic, Bird by Bird. The title refers to advice her father once gave her brother, who had procrastinated completing his long-term research report on birds. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird,” Lamott remembers her father saying. She goes on:
I tell this story again because it usually makes a dent in the tremendous sense of being overwhelmed that my students experience. Sometimes it actually gives them hope, and hope, as Chesterton said, is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate. Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. It is no wonder we sometimes take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously.
In the interest of not taking ourselves too seriously with the sometimes-overwhelming work of writing, I’ve been trying to create spaces outside the traditional classroom for experimenting with language. This creative writing bookshelf is one of those attempts.
Over the weekend, I nerded out and ordered a bunch of creative writing books and materials: writing prompt books like Start Where You Are, Rip the Page, The Daily Poet, and 3 AM Epiphany; writing advice from Annie Dillard, Steven Pinker, and William Zinsser; genre-specific advice for screenplays, novels, and short fiction; and two kits of magnetic poetry (full list with Amazon hyperlinks below).
A couple of students from NEHS helped me arrange everything in the student lounge, a high-traffic area (thanks Meghan & Tessa!). We also left pens, scraps of paper, and (forthcoming once it’s dry) a decorated box for submissions to our literary magazine. We’re hoping this encourages kids to try out new ways of using language outside the confines of the classroom.
I’ll update this post noting which books are the most popular with students. So far, Magnetic Poetry is the clear favorite. It’s pretty amazing how this kit of tiny magnetic words inspires kids to write poems during their free time, just for fun.
Shyla (7th) writing a poem during independent study
Langston (6th), Taz (7th), and Sten (7th) making poems for fun with Magnetic Poetry
A list of books and resources currently on the Creative Writing Bookshelf:
Slam poetry attempts to dissolve snobbish barriers between “artist” and audience by knocking pomposity off its perch and making poets recognize their humble yet noble role– as servants to their culture and community. Slam poets learn early that they had better be tuned into their audience’s sensibilities to have any hope of surviving their stay onstage, let alone winning a competition.
Over the past two years, I’ve watched Tessa and her poetry club recruits use their love of language to engage the world around them. For these kids, poetry became a way of working out the human condition, of creating space in the day (and on the page) to reflect on what they find urgent or worthy of care. Just as important, poetry also became a way of working out how to enlist an audience in these acts of reflection and care: how to get people to listen, wonder, rage, and rebuild alongside them. Poetry’s public function — its power to compel a recognition of our shared humanity — was at the center of students’ workshops each week as they crafted deeply personal and broadly resonant pieces.
Last weekend, Split This Rock brought together adults and youth from the DC, Maryland and Virginia area to share in poetry’s public function. Tessa (and 15 other teen poets) took the stage to perform works engaging issues of social justice and personal experience.
Tessa’s poem reflected on her grandfather’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her performance was flawless; to watch her was to watch a young woman who found her voice and wields it with power. Her careful control of her tone and gestures, along with her bold sensory images and alliterative monosyllables, all demonstrated a well-crafted and strategic ability to engage the audience. She was just mesmerizing.
Every time I hear the poem, these lines stand out to me most:
there’s time for goodbye but never the right time no second or minute big enough to tuck a farewell into
Her pauses and breaking voice around these words perfectly exemplify what poetry can do, because every time I hear them, I’m knocked out of my complacency and reminded of all the things I don’t give myself time to say.
I’m so glad spaces exist like the ones Split This Rock and Poetry Now DMV create, and I am even more thankful that young people like those sixteen poets exist – kids who are willing to use their voice to invoke our shared humanity.
Thirteen semifinalists stand in front of the stage with educator and Split This Rock administrator Joseph Green.
Joseph Green announcing the winner of Virginia’s largest youth poetry slam, Hyperbole 2017
If there’s anybody here who doesn’t believe young people have something valid to say about serious issues confronting our world, you gon’ learn today! – Joseph Green, poet, educator, and co-organizer of the Hyperbole
Five students and I spent nine and a half hours experiencing, writing, performing, and discussing poetry last Saturday at the Hyperbole (cleverly pronounced Hyper Bowl – as in “Super Bowl”).
Loudoun School’s poetry club – representing grades 7 through 12
My students could have done anything with their Saturday, but they chose to use poetry to connect with young people from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia whom they likely wouldn’t have met otherwise.
They mingled during ice breakers, supported each other in the preliminary slam round, participated in two hours of workshops, celebrated music and poetry at an open mic, and watched the ten finalists (plus performers from Ushindi) on the big stage.
In the morning, students mingled with kids from other schools during an ice breaker.
It was cool to see my students overcome the inevitable awkwardness of meeting new people.
The bravery and brilliance of my two students who decided to compete are simply legendary; they each had lines that knocked the breath out of my chest (and I saw the audience respond the same way).
Hannah, 7th grade, performing “How to Write a Poem in Six Steps (a guide by an inexperienced and unqualified writer)
Tessa performs her poem, “For the Boy Who Killed Himself in December”
Tessa and I attended last year’s Hyperbole alone, and she vowed she would build up our poetry club and bring more students this year. The fact that five kids from different grades, genders, and backgrounds came with us to Hyperbole 2017 is a testament to Tessa’s inclusive, compelling leadership. Each week, she chooses prompts, leads exercises, and moderates workshops to help her peers craft their poetic voices. She’s willing to put herself out there first, and to make mistakes in public, to give the rest of us the courage to follow suit. And at Hyperbole, she gets to meet likeminded risk-takers from across the DC, Maryland and Virginia area.
My experience at the Hyperbole drove home Joseph Green’s point about the urgency of listening generously to the voices of our young people. I re-learned what I knew as a kid: teens are paying attention to the words and deeds of their elders; they care about justice and beauty and human dignity. They are willing to envision a better world — and able to articulate those visions powerfully through language and performance.
I am so proud of the kindness, openness, brilliance, boldness, and beauty these students shared with the world and one another.
Poem created by Katie (9th) using MagneticPoetry.com
I hated teaching poetry until I finally understood that poetry’s grand function is in reminding us that our lives and our world can be different. By using language in new and unsettling ways, poets confront us with new ways of experiencing; they denaturalize us from the ordinary and shake us into a keen awareness of our vast, terrifying, beautiful possibilities.
In her 2013 address to the Yale Political Union, Meena Alexander tells us that
language that is used all the time and all around us—in sound bites, advertisements, political rhetoric, newsprint—needs to be rinsed free so that it can be used as the stuff of art.
So even language itself — or especially language itself — can confine us to the familiar, seemingly settled order of things. Poetry exercises refresh our minds like a palate cleanser. Words expose their power anew. Relationships between apparently unrelated concepts become clear, opening up original insights and challenging questions.
Magnetic Poetry offers a free online version of its popular word kit. I hooked it up to my projector and let my AP lit kids play around. Some worked in a group to build collective poems with the projector; others used smartphones or laptops to work quietly where they sat. I offered Telescopic Text, blackout poetry, and Boutes-Rimes as other possible activities. Most gravitated to Magnetic Poetry since we had never done that as a class. I think lots of the kids viewed it nostalgically, remembering the magnets in elementary classrooms or on their own refrigerators.
Sometimes, the structure or confinement of being limited to certain words, syllable counts, or rhyme schemes can paradoxically free us to create in new ways. I saw that happening in my classroom during this activity.
Here are a couple of the collective poems my students authored: