Some years ago I participated in a poetry reading activity with literacy leader, Penny Kittle, in which she shared the spoken word poem, “Shake the Dust,” by Anis Mojgani. Penny asked us to respond to the performance by adding our own lines to the poem. Participants formed a circle and took turns reading their lines. I remember the closeness I felt after sharing a piece of my heart and listening to everyone around sharing as well. I loved the warmth that permeated head to toe and the connectedness I felt, not only to the present group, but to the larger world.
I am currently teaching seventh grade English students and I wanted to see if this activity would create the same warmth and connectedness I remember feeling. Realizing opening your heart honestly among peers is not something most middle schoolers seek to do, I carefully constructed the activity as a celebration to our comparative literary essay. Some of the texts students had read or watched, were as follows: “The Queen of Katwe,” by Mira Nair, “Wings,” by Macklemore, “Fish Cheeks,” by Amy Tan, What do fish have to do with Anything?” by Avi, Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary Schmidt, Those Shoes, by Maribeth Bolts, Each Kindness , by Jacqueline Woodson, “White Privilege,” by Mackelmoore, “The Treasure of Lemon Brown,” by Walter Dean Myers, “The Power of the Dinner Table,” by Douglas Brooks, “The Undefeated,” by Kwame Alexander, “Famous,” by Naomi Shihab Nye, and various news articles.
After my students accepted the fact that celebrations do not always involve food, we began by watching Anis perform “Shake the Dust.” The second time we watched, I provided copies of the text so students could follow along. Next, it was time for students to respond by writing their own lines. A few students hesitated but after glancing around the room at peers scribbling fiercely in notebooks, they bent their heads and began to write as well. I explained the next part of the activity would be sharing one or more of their lines. I added that after every fifth student read their lines, we would all join in with, “Shake the dust.” Not one student asked to “opt out’ of sharing and the class poems were both honest and heartbreaking. (Listen to a class poem below.) Some of the lines reflected texts the class had read and some of the lines shared were like peering deep inside a flower blossom, seeing the fragile stamen and tiny flicks of pollen dust. The fragile voice of the student who was homeless this fall, the student who deals with attentional issues, the student who wishes to meet her birth mother, the student who struggles to fit in. The response of the students was overwhelmingly positive. “Can we do it again?” “Can we record ourselves?” “Can we hang our poems in the hall!” (Sample poem)
Middle schoolers want to be recognized and listened to. . . They are finding their voices. Poetry allows their voices a channel to be heard . . . when they feel ready to be known. When asked if this was a good way to celebrate the end of our unit, the answer was, “Yes, but next time bring cookies.” (Click to listen to a sample.)