The Poetry Service Project

Let’s party, English teachers! This is our month. Let’s break out the form and meter and read the night away! But before this gets any verse (couldn’t resist), here’s how my AP students and I celebrated National Poetry Month.

Earlier in the semester I received an email from a teacher asking if I’d like to do some classroom collaboration. She happens to be one outstanding educator and the mother of one of my very talented students, and I was thrilled to begin thinking about what she’d proposed.

The gist of it was this: Want to get our kids together and play?

My 40-some AP students were tasked with teaching five poetry mini-lessons to the entire 4th grade class of our neighboring intermediate school, which is made up of a whopping 280 eager and excited 9-10 year olds.

So, how’d we tackle this? With some sneaky Jedi teacher tricks and plenty of risk-taking, hard work, and organization.

Here’s how it went down in my classroom:

After lots of emailing and coordinating with Mrs. Casimir, who was an integral part in making this thing a success…

  • I put a name on it.

I loved that my seniors were going to have the opportunity to not only use their smarts, but to give back. So, Poetry Service Project it was. This might seem arbitrary or silly, but as soon as it had a name, it was a thing.

After that, it was all about planning. At the time, we were finishing up Othello, taking a field trip, going on Spring Break, and gearing up for AP exam prep. I had to figure out a way to meet my students’ needs, prepare them to be successful for their afternoon of teaching, and not waste a drop of instructional time.

  • I told my students to prepare for some new AP Lit “experiments”, which is code for “you might be outside your comfort zones.”

After a few inspiring and serendipitous conversations and experiences (shout out to Amy Adams and Dr. Gonzol of Shepherd University), I knew what we needed to do. We needed to eat blackberries and play with words and make rhythms and write poetry. My students needed to learn and internalize what they would eventually share with these eager 4th graders.

  • We played. For one week, we traded in our standard journaling time for these wackier class warm-ups:

Monday: An imagery lesson with blindfolds + blackberries + Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking” + a guided imagery journal

Tuesday: A creative writing lesson using “Fog” by Carl Sandburg as a mentor text

Wednesday: Another creative writing lesson featuring magnetic poetry

Thursday: A lesson on rhythm and poetry using “This is Just to Say” by Williams Carlos Williams and a sweet class beat

Friday: The reveal. I explained these warm-ups would be the lessons they would be teaching for their Poetry Service Project.

So this past Friday, that’s what we did. Check out some of my students in action…

The Rhythm Lesson

A few reactions to the blackberries

And a beautiful recitation of “Hope is the thing with feathers”

And here are a few photos from our day:

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A few loose ends and reflections:

  • Connecting with other teachers and students in the community matters. These 4th graders melted our hearts with their enthusiastic, “Have you scored any touchdowns?!” “Are lockers better than desks?!” “Do you know my big brother?!” questions.
  • My students were a bit outside their comfort zones, and that was a good thing. They worked hard, extended themselves, and they were kind and generous. It was an exercise in maturity.
  • The preparation provided valuable learning opportunities for my own students. I’d tied each warm up to a standard AP Lit specific question like, “How do poetic devices convey the experience?” Although we were “having fun”, students were still challenged by questions they’ll encounter on the AP exam.
  • My students did a lot of the leg work. They pitched ideas, created handouts, cut hundreds of slips of papers, stuffed envelopes, prepared supplies, and created minute-by-minute lesson plans.
  • Poetry genuinely excites students of all ages. We’d given the 4th graders a “station tracker” for our day together, so they’d have a place to jot notes. At the top, it said, “Poetry is…” Some of our favorites from the 4th graders? Poetry is a feeling. Poetry is someone’s story. Poetry takes you to a special place. Poetry is awesome.

I know no one who loves poetry as much as every English teacher I’ve ever met. I’m endlessly inspired by teachers’ poetry stories, their deep connection to it, and their tireless and passionate pursuit of poetry in the classroom.
The Poetry Service Project is certainly a celebration for teachers and students alike.

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