Why (and How) We Should All Be Teaching Living Poets

Why (and How) We Should All Be Teaching Living Poets Graphic

This past weekend, I had the great joy of participating in the VATE Conference in Orkney Springs, Virginia. One of the most impactful breakout sessions I attended was one in which the hosts explored ways to integrate effective poetry activities into secondary ELA classes. 

For some time now, I have been familiar with LMS Voice and its curriculum resources. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that a key figure at LMS Voice, a website which I have been engaging with regularly, is a Virginia teacher, Brian Hannon. And now imagine the joy of getting to hear him and his co-presenter, Jennifer Stuckey, share their strategies with us live. 

Brian Hannon and Jennifer Stuckey at the 2022 VATE Conference

Why Teach Living Poets

The idea behind teaching living poets is that students will be more engaged with (and therefore more likely to learn from) poems if we introduce them to poems which are modern and relevant. To support this vision, the creators at LMS Voice and LMS Curriculum regularly curate poems from living poets and provide teachers with a variety of resources and approaches they could use to incorporate those poems into their ELA curriculum. 

The showcase poem for our event this weekend was Adam Falkner’s, “The Year the Wu-Tang Drops” and, as one of our sample activities, we were directed to Flippity.net where Brian had uploaded every single word (emphasis on single) from the poem into a digital platform that allows users to manipulate the words however they would like. 

How to Teach Living Poets—a Sample Case

In this case, we were tasked with sorting the words into categories that could capture the complex emotions experienced by the speaker of the poem. By breaking the poem up into individual words, viewers no longer see the words in relation to others or in their original space and sequence. The result is that it becomes considerably easier to evaluate each word as just that—a stand-alone word. Suddenly, a task that may seem daunting, hunting out diction from within the poem, becomes manageable—a simple sorting activity rather than an analytical one. 

Only after students have gathered their words into discrete groupings do they start to see the connections between them. These words, they realize, create a sense of mystery and power while these other words create a sense of danger and unease. Ah. Complexity! And just like that, students are able to see how, specifically, the poet uses diction to develop the speaker’s complex emotions. 

Found Poem Inspired by Adam Falkner’s “The Year the Wu-Tang Drops”

Leap
Andrea Yarbough

Scared, not sorry— 
dangerous secrets mumble, 
quietly pulsing. 

Each new grenade private. Winged. 
Words lurking, 
chipped slips pound until one 

	leaps, 

discovered inside your mouth. 

Extending the Lesson to Incorporate Creative Writing

The activity itself was brilliant both in its effectiveness and its simplicity. But it had another happy side-effect for me. As I was staring at the words, extracted from the original poem but completely detached from their original meaning, new meanings began to take shape. The manipulative design of Flippity.net meant that I could move the words in ways beyond what Brian had suggested and, as I listened to the presentation, I found myself moving the words around in new sequencing, creating a Found Poem in the process. And it occurred to me that it would be incredibly easy to extend Brian’s activity to weave in a creative writing task as well: Found Poetry. But unlike my usual Found Poetry exercises, this one would not require students to black out the unwanted words, trapping the poet’s original words in their original sequence. Instead, the words could be arranged and rearranged at will, giving voice to a new poet in the process. 

Freed from the original structure, fragments float without the weight of expectation, waiting to be revealed, waiting to “leap” and be “discovered inside your mouth.” 

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