Tag Archives: spoken word poems

Writing Heals. Writing Assignments Do Not

Last week I learned a valuable truth:  Even when we think they are not listening, sometimes students get it.

Let me back up.

The week before last I attended a department meeting where our district ELA coordinator shared the National Writing Project’s Case for Good Instruction, information I learned at my National Writing Project Summer Institute in ’09. It details the differences between When Writing is Assigned and When Writing is Taught. The discussion around me was interesting and peppered with excuses. I left wondering how teachers would answer these questions if they were on a quiz. How would you?

In your ELA class, do students:

  • have opportunities to create topics that matter to them?
  • understand audience and purpose for papers because they are specifically identified in assignments?
  • see you spending time teaching writing skills and strategies?
  • get writing models, assignments, and strategies to guide each of the different writing tasks?
  • reflect on significant growth — or lack of it — in specific writing skills?
  • hear words of encouragement cheering them on to revise, edit, and improve — and to correct drafts and then resubmit?
  • think about what they write through brainstorming, free writing, role-playing, discussion, or other prewriting activities?
  • celebrate what they, and you, write and make efforts to display and publish it?

I think the biggest excuse we give for leaning on assignments rather than acting on instruction is TIME.

“I can’t let students choose topics because they don’t know what to choose.”

“I can’t teach this novel if it takes so long to write a paper.”

“I can’t do my research paper if I give them time to resubmit. It already takes so long to grade the finished product.”

Maybe you are right. Maybe we have to give up things that we think are best practices for things that are better practices.

Student choice in writing topics is better practice.

Writing instruction with effective models, strategies, time to talk, and time to write are better practices.

Helping students revise, edit, and improve their writing during the writing process with a keen sense of audience and purpose are better practices.

conferringwithjulyssaOur students need time. They need our time. They need our attention and our careful consideration about the things that matter to them. We may have to let some things go in order to give our students what they need.

We learn valuable truths when we do. Last week my students performed (or presented) their poetic arguments. We spent weeks choosing topics, watching video performances, analyzing lyrics for structure and craft, thinking, drafting, talking, revising, studying models, reading each other’s writing, giving feedback, practicing mini-lessons on concrete details and using abstract language to create jaw-dropping imagery.

We were a community of writers, united in a task uniquely our own.

And that is the difference between When Writing is Assigned and When Writing is Taught.

During all that time, I didn’t think Stephanie was listening. She sat at her table, barely talking, sometimes writing, always sad. Then right before Christmas break I sat down and we talked. She showed me her draft, and it scared me. I knew she’d been depressed — her grandmother died at the beginning of the year, and the light left Stephanie’s eyes. I listened to her share her sorrow, her anxiety, the weight of her world , and I gave her my cell phone number with the promise she would call if her boots got too heavy. Thankfully, they didn’t.

Every one of my students who presented their poems sparkled with pride as they faced their classmates, even the ones whose knees knocked in fear. They wrote from their hearts about issues that matter to them personally. They wrote the most important arguments about mistaken perceptionholding grudges, self-hate and self-love, parental control and uncontrolled parents, lying and how we’re programmed to labelBlack Lives Matter and dying white privilege. They wrote about better education and the stress of getting educated, absent fathers, loving fathers, and parentless children and alcoholics who should have put down that drink at 21.

They wrote about sticking together.

And they wrote about self-destruction and depression and monsters. So many of them wore grooves in the floor with the spikes that hold them in place until the sadness drags them down under. They broke my heart.


Writing to heal is better practice.

Please enjoy Stephanie’s poem. She calls it “Smile.”


Many students chose video presentations over live performances. I published several this morning on the 3TT Facebook page. Take a look.

Please share your thoughts on teaching writing. Leave a comment.



Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love higher and harder than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.



Poetic Rhetoric — Spoken Word Poems in AP Lang

For a long while now, I’ve wanted to write spoken word poems with my students.

I use Sarah Kay’s “Hands” at the beginning of the year to start students thinking about their lives and the important moments that shape them. We draw hands in our notebooks and fill them with words that represent our memories. Like many of you, I first did this myself with Penny Kittle, and now I draw a hand in every notebook as one of the first pieces I write in it.

I use Shane Koyczan’s “To This Day” and ask students to write a response to it. Sometimes they tell me things that break my heart. Like the fall on the first day of school when two different girls in two different classes wrote about the abuse they experienced from their fathers at home.

These and other poems students find interesting and inspiring, and while they’ve always worked as never-fail quick writes, I wanted to challenge students to use all the skills we’ve focused on this year to write their own poetry. My student teacher, Zach, and I finally figured out how.

And students wrote some powerful poems with some perfectly poetic language.

We called the assignment:  Poetic Rhetoric. what-matters-most-in-life-are-quotes-and-stuff-that-tell-you-what-life-is-really-about_motto

The initial task read like this:  Craft a spoken word poem that addresses a personal conflict and/or a social issue, include rhetorical techniques and literary and rhetorical devices to convince your audience of the need for positive change. Perform your poem for the class live, or create an automated slide show with visuals, or a video recording as a way to digital.

Every day for a week we shared a different spoken word poem. Sometimes we wrote responses as a way to mine for our own ideas for topics. Sometimes we studied the lyrics, closely reading and analyzing structure, tone, and literary devices. We encouraged students to use the work of these poets as their mentors:  “Remember, we learn to write when we study good writing.”

We listened to “Paper People” by Harry Baker, and we talked about theme and sentences that hold the most weight, ones that might be his position statement.

We listened to “Education” by Aadil Malik, and we talked about evidence and examples that support the main idea.

We listened to “Touchscreen” by Marshall Davis Jones, and we talked about repetition, puns, and other literary devices that make language clever and meaningful.

We analyzed the structure of “To This Day,” and we talked about how Koyczan moves from self, to another, to another, to everyone as a way to finally get to his moving plea “to get a better mirror.”

Zach taught mini-lessons, reminding students how to use personification, puns, allusions, and fresh figurative language. We gave students time to write in class, and time to talk with one another, and time to talk with us about their process and their product.

We provided resources on how to write performance poetry like this and this and this.

And students wrote beautiful and meaningful arguments.

Most students performed their poems live in class. (I did allow for a teleprompter since I am the worst at memorizing myself.) We have a slam poetry night coming up on our campus in April. I hope many of my student will perform their poetry again there.

Here are the lyrics to some of the ones I personally enjoyed. I wish I had video of the performances. You’ll have to trust me — they were awesome.

Nefertiti Franklin:  WelcomeToStereotypesAA

Jennifer Melendez:  Find Your Charge, which includes an evaluation of her writing process

Kennedy Jenkins: Use Your Mind

Fabian Gutierrez: ADPoem

And here is an example of one of the poems published digitally. I love her language.

Jessica Ortiz:  People Love to Talk

Reminders to self for when I do this writing unit another year:

A. Take more time with topic selection. As with any writing, if students choose topics that are too broad, or they do not know enough about, the writing is harder to revise.

B. Meet with students more often. Conferring is essential to helping students find what they want to say. Too many students procrastinate and then think they can produce quality writing at the last minute. I must remember to confer at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the writing process. Schedule time for this.

C. Allow time for students to provide one another more targeted feedback. Although they met in small groups and talked about their writing, they did not use their time as effectively as they could have. If I will be more purposeful in modeling what a helpful feedback group looks like, students will be able to help one another more.

I love teaching students to write. I’m not sure there’s a better gift than reading their published work and seeing that they understand the power of their voices. Sometimes they blow my socks off with the force of their wisdom. I love it when they get it.

Have you used spoken word poetry in your writing class? How? What are your favorite poems?

Mini-lesson Monday: Taking on the Thesis Statement

Right now, my students and I are writing spoken-word poems. I’ve wanted to play with language this way for a long time now, but finally mustered the courage — and figured out a way to make this kind of poetry fit into my AP Language goals and the needs of my students as they prepare for the AP Lang exam.

While watching and listening to many spoken-word poems, I realized that most of them are an argument, filled with not only beautifully crafted language — devices galore — but they also show craft in the use of the appeals. With the help of my student teacher, Mr. Zachery Welch, we designed a unit that centers around the rhetoric in spoken-word poems. And we are all writing our own. (This is a challenge for me, but I absolutely believe the the importance of a teacher writing beside her students. Thanks, Penny Kittle, for teaching me that!)

The performance task for this unit reads:  Craft a spoken word poem that addresses a personal conflict and/or a social issue, include rhetorical techniques and literary and rhetorical devices to convince your audience of the need for positive change. Perform your poem for the class live, or create an automated slide show with visuals, or a video recording as a way to digitally perform your poem.

This lesson stems from our work  — and the need for students to include stronger thesis statements in all of their argumentative essays.

Objective:   Using the language of the depth of knowledge levels, students will identify powerful lines in a spoken-word poem that serve as position statements. They will discuss and then categorize these statements in order of importance as it pertains to the poet’s overall theme. Students will then formulate three powerful thesis statements of their own and revise their drafts to include these powerful thesis-like lines.

Lesson:  Watch and listen to “Paper People” by Harry Baker. Ask students to pay particular attention to the lines of the poem that hold the weight of the poet’s position. They must listen carefully because Baker’s poem is primarily crafted with the alliterative “p”. Give students a copy of the lyrics, and on the second listening, having them mark specific lines they think represent Baker’s position. Then, ask students to discuss the lines they marked with their small groups. As a class, determine the line that best serves as Baker’s thesis.

Next, instruct students to write three thesis statements for their own poems. They should discuss their thesis statements within their groups and help one another develop powerful statements that hold the weight of the meaning in their poems. Then, instruct students to revise their poems, including all three of their new strong lines.

Follow up:  Students continue to revise and strengthen the arguments within their spoken-word poems. They should also remember to write three powerful thesis statements in their argumentative essays and challenge themselves to use all three in their writing.

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