Book Recommendation: Teach Living Poets by Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith

If you teach English, get this book!

If you follow me on Twitter or have read through some of my previous blog posts, you probably know I’m a huge fan of #TeachLivingPoets. In fact, I’m not exaggerating even a little when I say the #TeachLivingPoets community has revolutionized the way I teach poetry. I cannot recommend Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith’s book Teach Living Poets highly enough. Lindsay and Melissa share a wealth of teaching ideas that will help you get started.

The book begins with recommendations for discovering and reading contemporary poetry. I love the protocol for reading poetry in chapter 3 (see how I used it with a lesson on “She Walks in Beauty” by George Gordon, Lord Byron and “To the Girl Who Works at Starbucks…” by Rudy Francisco). Next, Lindsay and Melissa explain how to approach teaching poems and single-author collections. They discuss how to invite poets into the classrom—this section of the book made me so envious, and it really made me want to figure out how to bring poets to my school. Lindsay and Melissa offer ways to teach poetry writing and poetry projects (including poetry blogs and podcasts). They end the book with discussion about how to connect with other educators.

I was really excited by the activities and ideas that I could bring right into my classroom. I am trying the tone bottles activity described on pp. 49-52 the week after next. I’d originally planned it for January 4, but we had to be remote because of an increase in COVID cases, and the activity is hands-on. 

A few years ago when I decided I wanted to do more with contemporary poetry in my classroom, I reached out to Melissa on Twitter, and she graciously offered me a list of poets to start with. She’s an evangelist for poetry, eager to share her expertise. Every book she recommended was an absolute winner, and I gradually learned more about the contemporary poetry scene on my own and was able to identify collections to purchase for my classroom. I’m lucky in that I have the ability to purchase poetry books out of my department budget. Since that’s not true for many teachers, I would recommend trying outlets such as Amazon Wish Lists, DonorsChoose, or grants for educators so you can build your collection. You will not be sorry. However, it’s also possible to access the work of many of these great poets online at sites like Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets (poets.org) as well as some of the poetry presses.

Before COVID, I went to a poetry reading given by Eve L. Ewing for the benefit of MassLEAP, a poetry organization serving Massachusetts youth. I wore my #TeachLivingPoets t-shirt, and when Ewing saw it, she asked me, “Oh, are you one of the #TeachLivingPoets people? I love you guys.” She went on to tell me how I could access free audio versions of her collections and ideas for teaching her work. Ewing also taught me how to use the burst feature on my phone to get good photos!

If not for #TeachLivingPoets, I’m not sure if I’d have discovered Eve L. Ewing—or Kaveh Akbar or José Olivarez, or Jericho Brown, or… the list goes on! And what a world these poets have opened up for me.

Anecdotally, I know I’m a better poetry teacher and that my students enjoy poetry more (and their course surveys often attest to this fact) since I have incorporated the voices of contemporary poets in my curriculum. Lindsay and Melissa’s book gives English teachers a great place to start to #TeachLivingPoets. Thank you, Melissa and Lindsay, for sharing your knowledge with us all!

Buy Teach Living Poets from NCTE or Amazon (unfortunately, I couldn’t find it for sale at Bookshop.org).

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