Tag Archives: poets.org

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).

blessing the boats

Do you get the newsletter “Teach This Poem” from Poets.org? If not, you should definitely go sign up. I don’t always find time to implement each plan, but they are great for tucking away to fill in lesson plans at times. What I like about the plans is they incorporate other disciplines, such as art, history, or science. Students have a chance to discuss and write in each lesson.

Some time back, the lesson plan revolved around Lucille Clifton’s poem “blessing the boats.” Please check out the poem at Poets.org.I don’t want to reprint it here without permission. I have even set the link to open up in a new tab, so you don’t lose your place. Come back, because I have more to say.

I think Monday is an important day to teach this poem, and the final instruction in the lesson plan caught my eye:

In recent weeks, students around the country have become activists and are leading campaigns to change minds and laws. Ask your students to write about how this poem might relate to the context of student activism today. Ask for volunteers to read their writing to the class.

Yesterday, I joined student activists and their allies at the March for Our Lives in Boston. It was a powerful and meaningful event for me. I haven’t ever done something like that before, and that was one of the reasons I went. I feel strongly about the issue of safety and schools, and I have ever since I was in college, preparing to become a teacher, and we first started hearing about school shootings. The organizers asked that adults hang back and let the students start the march, which began at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury and ran mostly up Columbus Avenue, ending with a rally at the Boston Common. During the rally, speakers included Leonor and Beca Muñoz. Beca is an alumna of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who now attends college at Northeastern and her younger sister Leonor is a current MSD student who survived the shooting. Leslie Chiu, another MSD alumna who also attends Northeastern, spoke as well.  Harvard University student Reed Shafer-Ray lost a friend to suicide and spoke about a couple of bills before the Massachusetts legislature that might have helped save his friend’s life. Graciela Mohamedi, a teacher who was a former US Marine spoke on behalf of teachers, including highly trained teachers such as herself, who do not want a gun.  A former child soldier from the Democratic Republic of the Congo also spoke about escaping from violence—I regret I didn’t get his name, and it would seem none of the news outlets covering the event did either. If someone finds it, let me know in the comments, and I will update this post.

This was my view as I began marching.

It was heartening to see so many people coming out to support our young people. These adults were, as Clifton describes in her poem, “blessing the boats.” This is not going to be an easy fight for them, but based on what I’ve seen, they have got this one. There were volunteers registering people to vote at the rally. I can remember being in college and being fired up to act politically for what I believed in. There is a lot of energy in these young people. There is some energy in their allies, too.

I could barely keep up with this guy, who started out right in front of me at the march but outstripped me somewhere along the route.

Some of the signs were really clever, and there were a few I wish I’d been able to capture. One, for instance, had a great drawing of Angela Davis along with her comment, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

The English teacher in me was happy to see literary references.

There were definitely a lot of teachers there. I was behind three teachers talking about Paulo Freire near the beginning of the march.

I’ve been criticized before for being political on this blog. I’m supposed to shut up and share lesson ideas, I guess. Freire says, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” I’m not going to side with the powerful against my students. Freire also says, “This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” As far as I’m concerned, I’m with the kids. I’m just here to bless their boats.

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