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Make Poetry 'Fun and Cool.' Author Kwame Alexander Tells How

AAA_Kwame.jpgKwame Alexander won the Newbery award in 2015 for his sports themed novel-in-verse The Crossover, and is now touring the country to promote its prequel, Rebound. Next spring, he'll begin publishing books "that explore the beauty, hurdles, and hopefulness of life" for his new imprint, Versify, at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.Alexander has taught poetry in high schools, summer programs for teens,  libraries, and juvenile detention centers. He says poetry offers students freedom "to express themselves in many different ways by experimenting with different styles and forms. [This] can create enthusiasm that then makes other writing tasks feel more manageable."

Here, he shares strategies for putting the power of poetry in students' hands. And, as with everything that Alexander does, he makes it "fun and cool." The tips are taken from his latest book on teaching poetry, The Write Thing: Kwame Alexander Engages Students in Writing Workshop (And How You Can Too!), which is set to be published by Teacher Created Materials in June. His text has been edited slightly for length and clarity:

Pull a Poem Out of Your Pocket

Teaching poetry is often a balancing act between the technical aspects of form and the creative aspects of writing. Reciting rules and stressing form can stifle creativity or turn students (and teachers) off of poetry. That's why Broadway is so important. (Yes. I just said Broadway!) Start your workshop with an activity that lets the words leap off the page, and onto the STAGE. Make the words come alive. The best way for you and your students to see that poetry is fun and cool, is to see it. To listen to it. Live! This is where I believe we must begin our poetry lessons with our students. Pull a poem out of your pocket. An accessible poem. A relatable poem. A poem that you like. Even better, a poem that you love.

Pull a Poet Out of Your Pocket

There are hundreds of poets in your city (check your local writing center, cafe open mic, or independent bookstore for recommendations) who would love the opportunity to come to your class and read/perform. Poets from faraway places might even Skype with you. Of course, you can read your own verse, or recite a favorite.

Set the Tone

Play some instrumental jazz while your students are writing. Research shows that people who listen to jazz are more creative and way cooler. Seriously, Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at the Rotman Research Institute  in Canada, says 'when you hear music that you find intensely pleasurable, it triggers a dopamine response. OK, so maybe don't play too much, lest you end up with a ton of awkward love poems!

Prompt Freewriting

Allow students to write about whatever they want for 10 to 20 minutes, just enough to get their fingers dancing on the page. It can be a journal entry, it can be a poem, it can be a response to something they heard or read during the activity. Some students will not know what to write about, so have some prompts ready. Here are ideas you can steal:

  • Write a letter to your dog or cat.
  • Write a letter to the 'you' of last year.
  • Write a six-word memoir about your summer.
  • Write about your favorite movie. Do not tell me about that movie, just write about how it made you feel.
  • Write about a terrible dream you've had.

Some students will want to share their work at the end of this exercise, which should always be encouraged and praised, not necessarily for the content, but for the effort. In addition to building excitement, we are also trying to build confidence.

Write a Poem

Ask students to write a poem based on the free-write. Rhyming poems and haiku work well with elementary students. Borrowed poems [original poems that incorporate a line from a favorite poem] and haiku work well with middle school students. List poems [(inventories of people, places, things, descriptions or ideas on a particular theme] and haiku work well with high school students. You really can't lose with haiku!

Photo: Courtesty Kwame Alexander


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