A poem can be more than a set of witty words arranged in lines on a page. It can also be an out-loud, rhythmic performance not unlike rap lyrics or a heartfelt confession, 7th graders at Lawrence School learned when about a dozen poets from the Mass Poetry organization visited the school last Friday, January 10.
Falmouth Education Foundation gave $2,200 to fund the Poetry Day event, now in its second year, and other poetry-related activities at the school.
In the fall, a different group from Mass Poetry spoke with teachers during a professional development session, said Sarah Cox, chairwoman of the Department of English Language Arts for grades 7 to 12.
“The students had two workshops of about a class period long, and a half-hour open-mic performance after,” English teacher Krista Hennessy said. “The goal was to expose them to different ways of writing poetry and the possibilities in life that could be poetry. They were exposed to different teaching styles and different ways to access and play with words.”
Visiting writers from Mass Poetry included Alice Kociemba of Falmouth, founding director of Calliope Poetry for Community, along with Erica Charis-Molling, Meaghan Quinn, Laura Brown-Lavoie, John Bonanni, Anthony Febo, Jamele Adams, Erich Haygun, Michelle Garcia, Hannah Baker-Siroty, Joseph Spece and Kim Berner.
While figurative language, such as simile and metaphor, is often associated with poetry, Ms. Hennessy said that students will also encounter those linguistic devices in prose.
“So it doesn’t take poetry exactly, but poetry has winnowed down the language into a few phrases, whereas in a Charles Dickens novel it might take three paragraphs to say perhaps the same thing,” she said.
During the open-mic performance, students have the chance to share a draft of a poem, Ms. Cox said.
“If they’re feeling brave, they’re encouraged to get up in front of an audience and share their drafts. Some students have written poems with a partner, and they took turns reading the lines,” she said.
Students sometimes shared silly poems to get a laugh or more heartfelt poems to express their emotions and inner truths.
“All of that is admittedly pretty rough at this point because they just wrote the poems that morning,” Ms. Cox said. “We’ll have a later event when students will revise their poems, and they can take part in a poetry slam this spring.”
A poetry slam is a competition in which poets perform spoken-word poetry before a live audience and a panel of judges.
There is still funding to invite a few poets back to the school to help out with the poetry slam, Ms. Cox said.
Teachers encourage students to submit poems to the Falmouth Public Schools Quills & Quotes Student Poetry Contest, the Katharine Lee Bates Community Poetry Contest and the Voices of Peace Poetry Contest.
“This is a way to start generating poems that could, with some revision, make their way toward those contests,” Ms. Cox said.
One workshop focused on “found poetry,” or poems that can be taken from words and phrases found anywhere: another poem, a book, a newspaper story, a recipe or an instruction manual, to name a few.
“Students were doing ‘blackout poems,’ where they pick and choose words someone else had already used and transfer them into their own poems. That was a neat way of looking at poetry that they had not done before,” English teacher Charlene Johnson said.
In some blackout poems, a writer takes a marker to a text and crosses out certain words until a poem is formed from the words that remain.
Some visiting poets are primarily performance poets, writers who focus on reading their work aloud on a stage rather than for a printed page, Ms. Hennessy said.
“We encourage our students not just to write their words down, but to get up there and say your words and ‘speak your truth,’ she said. “That really engaged the kids. They got very inspired by these young poets up there saying what they feel. It connected with them emotionally, which is how we get them to like poetry.”
Another workshop focused on helping students embrace their own identities, as well as the people and places that are meaningful to them, English teacher Jillian Jewett said.
“The whole goal was putting those things together into a poem about yourself,” she said.
English teacher Natalie Galligan said that one student, after hearing a poet perform, said to her, “That’s not poetry. That’s rap.”
“It was a good conversation to understand that rap is a kind of poetry, and about how important word selection is. The performance of poetry was something that was new to some students,” she said.
“We’re trying to train ourselves in what’s new and what relates to kids,” Ms. Hennessy added. “It’s easier to get them to go to where the language is difficult through language that is familiar.”