This past Friday we held our very first War Eagle Writing Studio Poetry Reading. While I have a larger poetry reading event planned for later this fall, I decided on the fly this past Wednesday (9/28/16) that it would be a good idea to do a few small-scale poetry readings in our studio room for several reasons:
- We were coming to the end of our 2nd week of our poetry unit, and I felt it was of utmost importance to give students the opportunity to share the poems they have written aloud to their peers.
- These small scale poetry readings are a great way to scaffold the students to the big end of unit poetry reading where we’ll invite parents and stakeholders in our Chestatee community to join us.
- I wanted my students to experience the power of reading their poems aloud to their writing community (classmates). We have been knee deep in drafting, writing conference, working with writing partners, and individual work, so while students have had glimpses of each other’s work, they have not had a whole class/community opportunity to read and share together.
My strong feelings about the importance of sharing poetry aloud comes from my experiences in my graduate level course on teaching poetry that I took way back in 2003 with Dr. JoBeth Allen at the University of Georgia. I’ll never forget the feelings and the experience of our entire class reading and hearing our poems as a group; there is something extraordinary and transformation about this kind of poetry experience, especially when you have worked together over an extended time. The collective experience of each person contributing his or her own poem to the group poetry reading was one that changed how I perceive poetry and elevated the importance of the oral sharing of poems. For my students, most of whom have read or written very little to no poetry, I think the act of sharing poems aloud is especially important to capturing both their hearts and their minds as fledgling poets.
I announced to the classes on Wednesday that we would be having a poetry reading on Friday, September 30. I gave them a brief overview of what it was and told them they needed to finish their second poems (we were working on poems off a list and “old/new” poems; please see my previous blog post for more information) so that they would have a choice of poems to read. Our wonderful school secretary Kathy Clifton helped me find a tablecloth and enlisted the help of our custodian Tim in moving a high-top cafe table plus two barstool chairs from our school bistro to my classroom. In addition, Ms. Clifton connected me with our chorus teacher who knew the perfect AV setup I wanted—a wireless microphone with a speaker that was super easy to set up with the help of our media specialist, Ms. Kell. Several of my fellow teachers let me borrow their floor lamps so that I could have enough additional lighting to turn off the fluorescent lights and create a cozy atmosphere. I took possession of an artificial Ficus tree from the adjacent workroom that the 6th grade team no longer wanted to have a tough of greenery; I also borrowed a bouquet of artificial flowers from the same workroom to add a festive touch to my studio room. I had hoped to round up some clear lights to weave into the Ficus tree, but that didn’t come together in time; however, I am now stocked up as this weekend and prepared for the next reading with two sets of lights! I also threw down a throw rug from Target and re-arranged the room after school on Thursday to create our atmosphere.
Last but not least, I invited all of our administrators, our media specialist, Ms. Clifton, and our Title I Instructional Coach Sarah Widincamp who has been a wonderful sounding board for me this school year. Ms. Kogod, our principal, invited the Language Arts teachers at their content area meeting on Thursday afternoon.
My students stepped up their efforts on Thursday to finish crafting their poems, and the stage was set on Friday morning! Most students expressed either extreme excitement, extreme fright, or some combination of the two. My 4th period class of 7th graders were the most excited as they broke out spontaneous high-fives on the way out of class Thursday shouting, “We’re having a poetry reading tomorrow!”
I decided it would be helpful for the students to have some kind of graphic organizer to help them jot down their favorite moments from the poetry reading so that they could do a reflection at the end of the poetry reading. In addition, I set up two basket areas for them to turn in their latest poem drafts and their poetry reading reflections. Last but not least, I borrowed a whiteboard on wheels from the media center to post instructions for the students as they came into the room (put your bookbags on the back four tables on the curve of the room, get your poems out, get your writing folders from the class bin, grab a poetry reading reflections graphic organizer, and have a pen or pencil.)
On Friday, many students were both excited and incredibly nervous. A few asked if they had to participate or if they had to speak into the microphone; I responded “yes” in a firm but encouraging tone of voice. As students arrived, I steered them to the whiteboard with our “warm-up” instructions as they gasped in delight; nearly every student commented on how beautiful they thought our classroom/studio looked. One student exclaimed, “Look at our magical room!”
Students sat randomly in a semi-circle, and I simply picked a side of the semi-circle to begin the reading, and students took turns in the order they sat. This choice seemed to help facilitate the reading. I quickly reviewed our reading and listening procedures; I also emphasized the importance of lifting up our classmates with love and support by being respectful listeners and showing appreciation with claps and snaps. Period 6-3 decided that doing the dab in their seats was their special way of showing class spirit for each other!
What happened over the course of six classes was nothing short of astonishing. I could see my students gaining confidence and feeling the power of the spoken word just as I did in the coffee shop warehouse where I had experienced my first poetry reading long ago on a spring day in April 2003 in Athens, Georgia. The administrators, teachers, our media specialist, and instructional coach were blown away by the depth and heart of the students’ writing. Adults and students alike were happily surprised to see a side of many students that had been hidden until now but was emerging just as a butterfly does when it emerges from its chrysalis and begins to flutter its wings. Nearly every student participated; in my first sixth grade class, nearly every student volunteered to read two poems instead of one after we finished the first round of reading and sharing. I am proud of all my classes, but the emotional investment I saw from one of my 7th grade classes and both sixth grade classes was particularly exceptional. I saw students encourage each other, especially when they could see someone was particularly nervous or apprehensive. I heard comments like, “You’ve got this” and “Way to go!”
Below is a collection of statements and feedback I gleaned from the student poetry reading reflections graphic organizers. Students got to pick three favorite moments (favorite readings, favorite lines, instances where students showed courage in their readings, and/or surprising moments); they did a final reflection in the last box where they shared their big take-away from the day. These reflections capture a snapshot of student growth and learning that will never be measured with a constructed written response on a state Milestones test. I encourage you to take time to read every statement from my students.
I wish I could share more photos and videos of the readings from the day, but I do not have permission to post student photos and videos through social media for many of my students. However, I am hopeful I can get permission for students to publish their poems as part of a class anthology/eBook I have planned.
In closing, nearly every student wanted to know would we be doing more poetry readings. I would be happy to hear this kind of request from any group of students, but for my students who have not had many successful writing experiences, this level of enthusiasm is significant. I am curious to see in the coming weeks if the poetry reading impacts how they take on the next round of poems we’ll be drafting and our work in the writing studio. I will always look back on this day as one of the most memorable in my teaching career, and I hope we have more like this to come in the next few months! This first poetry reading was definitely a milestone for my writers, and I am hopeful it will be a catalyst to fuel a passion for writing. I leave with you some of the readings I videoed and that I have permission to post publicly through social media.