Sunday, July 17, 2016

Practicing Poetry

Flickr image the from TED Conference
I was fortunate to be able to attend both Eric Johnson's and Sarah Kay's poetry workshops at the TED Summit in Banff a couple of weeks ago. Both workshops invited participants to delved into the performance aspect of poetry, and for those of us in the classroom setting, consider how we might bring these lessons back to our students. I walked away from both sessions not only with a notebook filled of excited, albeit nearly illegible, reminders of the exercises both presenters lead us through, but I also left with a few drafts of new poems.

High school English teacher Andrew Simmons wrote about the importance of bringing poetry into the classroom in an article published not long ago by The Atlantic:
"Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes."
I couldn't agree more. Bringing perfomance poetry into the classroom, whether via YouTube channels like Button Poetry or through live performances, can help student voice and choice take center stage in our learning communities. Poetry builds bridges; it helps readers and writers to connect and empathize with the particular experiences that connect all of us. Poetry brings into focus our humanity.  So here are ideas I learned while attending the TED Summit workshops to help bring performance poetry into your classroom.

Erik Johnson's session began with Willie Perdomo's poem titled "Where I Live." Erik asked workshop participants to listen for the sensory details the words and phrases of the poem evoked. Using this poem as a mentor text, we then were asked to imagine our homes and make a list of what a person would see, smell, taste, hear, and feel.  I could easily picture this exercise being used in conjunction with George Ella Lyon's "Where I'm From" poem. In a similar way that I've used Lyon's poem, we created a list of concrete images and details which we then crafted into a poem, sharing our favorite lines aloud. The idea Erik presented was about giveing students mentors for their potential slam pieces and deconstructing those models into smaller chunks in order to give the novice poetry performer a place to begin.

Sarah Kay's poetry masterclass workshop also focused on the inclusion of sensory and figurative details in the craft of poetry performance. She started her workshop by inviting participants into a safe-space, asking that we refrain from engaging with social medial during the session in order to focus our attention on the stories unfolding in the room. Our writing began with a prompt which had us creating a list. Why a list? Well, most people don't spend hours each day crafting poems, especially poems for performance. It can be an overwhelming task to ask of students, or in our case, a crowded room of adults. But a list, a list is something we all know how to do. We don't need instructions on how to create a list.

We listed out three things we knew to be true, an activity she used to craft the piece she perfomed for her 2011 TED Talk titled "If I Should Have a Daughter." As we created our lists, Sarah asked us to be as literal as possible, adding in concrete details to help listeners understand the particulars of our truths. Here are mine:
  1. I know that teaching without heart is not teaching at all.
  2. I know that homemade pickles taste better than any pickle you will ever find on a store shelf, especially if the cucumbers are homegrown.
  3. I know there is forgiveness in gardening.
After sharing our favorite truths, Sarah walked us through why this type of list works so well as a starting point for poetry. Lists, whether they are about three things we know to be true or 10 things I should have learned by now, help us access and illuminate all that stuff that is just floating around in our brains. It is being able to toss a baited hook into our conscience and come back with potential writing ideas. Without that starting point, we're standing on the shore and simply hoping an idea will jump out at us. Writing rarely works like this.  A list gives writers a starting point.

So, you've got a list, but now what? Sarah lead us through a discussion and activity meant to elicit more sensory details in our writing.  It is those details and particulars that help readers connect to our writing.  This time we started with an abstract concept - regret. Sarah explained that regret, as a concept, can mean so many different things to different people.  Instead, she challenged us to think about what regret looks like, sounds like, tastes like.  Participants came up with such powerful metaphors to define regret. Regret looks like a trash can filled with crumpled notebook paper. Regret stutters, trying to grasp for words you should have known in the first place. Regret tastes like bitter chocolate. Challenging us to use more sensory details helped reveal a more particular and descriptive experience of an abstract idea. This same exercise could be used with any of those lofty ideals that emerging writers struggle to make sense of - justice, hate, love, sorrow.

After completing this exercise, Sarah had us dip back into our original list and select one truth to add sensory details to. I returned to my homemade pickles. As we added sensory details to capture what we knew to be true, Sarah paused to challenge us again, this time to try to include figurative language as well. How might our descriptions and metaphors do double duty? As I wrote about planting cucumber plants with my youngest son, I challenged myself to describe small moments in novel ways. Sarah asked us to picture a single moment. For me, it was the dirt collected under my son's small fingernails.  And that one moment is where I think my new poem will start:
The smell of earth collects under small fingernails, changing waning moons to full eclipses.
But Sarah's workshop didn't just include writing poetry. We also spent time talking about the art of perfomance. How do you get students comfortable performing their original work for others. This is not a simple task. In fact, the fifty or so of us gathered in Sarah's workshop all tightened our shoulders a little bit when she introduced that we would be standing to share our work.  However, what made it easier was the fact that we started with an improv game. Performance, Sarah stated, is anxiety-producting, but it should also be fun. These two feelings aren't mutally exclusive.  So we pushed our tables to the side of the room and stood in a large circle. She asked us to pick our favorite word from our writing.  Standing in a circle, we were to make eye contact with someone across the room, and at the same time as all other participants, we said our word to the other person. Then we all shouted our word at the same time. Gradually we added movement to showcase our word and send it across the circle. Because we were all shouting and moving at the same time, people in the group didn't feel nervous. It was a game; it was fun. Finally, we went around the circle and one by one shouted and acted out our word.  The catch was that after each person said their word, all other workshop participants had to do the same movement and say the word with the same intonation. However awkward we might have felt, all the other participants had to act it out as well.  And by starting our performance in this manner, we were able to talk about using our voices and body to impart meaning in a playful way.

I am grateful to both Erik and Sarah for sharing their expertise. I'm looking forward to bringing these ideas back to my high school English classroom in the fall.  I'm curious about how other teachers incorporate performance poetry into their curriculums. Please share your ideas and resouces!


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