#TeachLivingPoets: Activities for Equity in Poetry 

Melissa Alter Smith is a high school English teacher in Charlotte, where she earned the 2017 District Teacher of the Year, as well as an AP® Reader and AP® Consultant. She is the creator of #TeachLivingPoets and TeachLivingPoets.com. Melissa is co-author of Teach Living Poets, and the Norton Guide to AP® Literature. Melissa was on the advisory board for Library of Congress’s Poet Laureate Project educational toolkit and the conversation host for Norton’s Poets on Poetry series

Melissa Alter Smith
Image Credit: Lisa Crates Photography

Most poetry taught in school is canonical or in other words, by old or dead, white men—which doesn’t exactly help to incite enthusiasm in students. The language is antiquated and unfamiliar, the topics are unrelatable, and the poets don’t represent today’s students. Reading poetry becomes another mundane task, and rather than discovering the poem, students work to discover the answer the teacher wants to hear. 

Poetry today buzzes with the energy of artists who come from all over the world and represent a wide range of identities. They write about topics students can relate to and perhaps learn from. By finding a place in the classroom to share the work of marginalized voices not typically represented in the canon, and centering these voices, teachers can disrupt outdated traditional worldview and methods of teaching poetry. When educators celebrate voices outside of the dominant cultural narrative, and embrace all styles of writing and creation, we can help to affirm our students and work toward equity. Presenting students with such texts is a start, but effort must be put in by teachers, especially white teachers, to handle the work, and the discussions surrounding it, with care and respect. Working toward equity and liberation in the classroom is always a work in progress.  

The mission of #TeachLivingPoets is to complicate the canon and empower students through poetry. The core values are to: 1) expand which poems are taught in the classroom; 2) provide students with poetry that reflects their identities, backgrounds, and present circumstances; 3) expose students to new ideas and people who are different than them; 4) center the voices of BIPOC poets, LBGTQ+ poets, and poets with disabilities; and 5) empower students’ voices through reading and writing poetry.  

One of my favorite resources for teaching living poets is TeachLivingPoets.com, which is free and open to all. There you will find a plethora of lessons, activities, and one of our best resources—the Virtual Living Poets library, co-created with #THEBOOKCHAT co-founder Scott Bayer. The library is an interactive curation of poets, with links to their websites, poems, books, audios, and even personalized videos to teachers and students from the poets themselves. Another excellent resource, created by Brian Hannon, is the LMS Voice Curriculum Database, a searchable collection of writing and analytical workshops that focus on poems by a diverse array of socially engaged artists.  

When instructors teach living poets, students are able to see that poetry is happening right now; it is relevant to them. Students also value poetry more when our teaching methods extend beyond teacher-led instruction. Here are some of my favorite active-learning and collaborative activities that work for any poem: 

  • This engaging analysis activity that uses colors to represent a poem.  
  • The Shades of Green workshop is a generative activity that will inspire your students. This writing workshop creates poetry magic every time and establishes the classroom as a community of writers.  
  • Donna Vorreyer’s tri-color annotations is an incredibly effective poetry analysis strategy and a staple in my classroom.  
  • Valerie Person’s tone bottles lesson is another lesson I do every year that allows students to experience poetry analysis in a whole new way. Some materials required, but guaranteed to be one of the most engaging lessons you do all year. 

Artists today are using their work to complicate tradition, making contemporary poetry a helpful point of comparison and relevancy for canonical works. Take the sonnet form, for example. National Book Award–winner and MacArthur Fellow Terrance Hayes is a trailblazer in revolutionizing the traditional sonnet form. In fact, he’s written an entire collection of sonnets titled American Sonnets to My Past and Future Assassin. Hayes reinvents the form, thus complicating the stale notion of who writes sonnets and why. Through his innovation to the genre, Hayes successfully resists dominant structures of power.  

Hayes opens doors for other artists to do the same. In her book Electric Arches, poet Eve L. Ewing’s poem “sonnet” is “after Terrance Hayes,” honoring the way Hayes disrupts the sonnet. Revolutionizing the sonnet is only one way writers today are transforming literature. There are so many poets today experimenting with form and structure, including those already mentioned (Hayes, Ewing), along with Reginald Dwayne Betts, Fatimah Asghar, Junious Ward, Safia Elhillo, Guante (Kyle Tran Myhre). 

One of the ways we can bridge canonical and contemporary poetry is to pair poems, showing students how the poets of today are in conversation with those who came before them. I have found that reading contemporary poetry in class serves as a more accessible and relatable experience for students that can open doors into the world of poetry. Once I have them hooked with current poems on topics they care about, they’ll go with me to other places (read: canonical poetry). Furthermore, we can see writers and artists today grappling with the same issues of equity and justice as their predecessors, which illuminates how far we still have to go as a society. One of my favorite paired-poems lessons was created by educator Dana Huff using poems by Lord Byron and Rudy Francisco. 

One of my favorite poets to teach is American icon Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet and first National Youth Poet Laureate. She’s a wordsmith genius—a master at wielding wordplay, sonics, and lyricism, all of which are explored in this lesson on her poem “A New Day’s Lyric.” When students read poems that wield the power of words and language like Gorman’s, it can be empowering to know that they don’t have to be a dead British guy to write a poem. By exposing students to poets who use contemporary language, it liberates students to feel confident using their own patterns of speech in their writing. When we study Gorman’s use of wordplay, teachers can foster a productive tension between canonical poetry and individual creativity. In fact, I would argue that allowing students the space and freedom to practice wordplay can have benefits beyond writing. 

Students are always engaged in class when we discuss whether changes in history occur because of the literature of the time or if literature of the time is written because of changes in history. I think that the two happen simultaneously as writers are the voice and recorders of the people. Writers and artists instigate revolution, they inspire masses, they interrogate injustice. By reading and validating works by BIPOC authors and other marginalized communities, the door can be opened for students to assert their own identities as writers. What do they want to challenge? Resist? Transform? My students already have a voice; it is not my job to help them to discover it, but instead to provide them with meaningful and authentic opportunities to use it. When students encounter authors who look like them, sound like them, and write about the same things they think and care about, maybe—just maybe—they might start to think, if they can do it, I can do it, too.  

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