Though I read All American Boys a couple of years ago, I was weirdly late to the writing of Jason Reynolds. I read his Miles Morales novel this winter, and when I saw it being lauded so strongly in my Twitter feed, I picked up a copy of Long Way Down.
If you’ve read it, I’m sure you reacted like I did, pretty much putting your life on hold so that you could finish it. It’s a powerhouse, and you really want to share it.
So, before the Christmas break, I handed it off to my coworker, Rachelle. I got a couple of texts from her over the break, my copy of the book in Calgary coffee shops, with and excited, “We have to talk about this!”
When school fired back up after the break, Rachelle and I found time to talk. Reynolds’ poems are beautiful, and powerful. We knew that there was something in them we wanted to share with students, that they could be the catalyst for not only important conversations, but also, inspiration for some powerful writing experiences. There were specific poems we talked about, and how we could use them with our students.
Then, the crazy month that is January, with semester’s end, new semester’s start, exams and all the other madness happened. In the opening weeks of the second semester, I found myself thinking of Long Way Down again. One of the things Rachelle and I had discussed was how we could use Reynolds’ poems describing place, or the anagram poems in the book as mentor texts. We could have students write about our school.
And it hit me. As part of the Facing Adversity and Being a Hero theme that we explore in Grade 10, I always have students do an Adversity of High School project, generally an essay in which they discuss how high schools are challenging places in a challenging time of their lives. Now, I’ve gotten some fine essays out of this, but you know that I’ve also had to read some clunkers. I believe in letting them express their thoughts about school, often our school in particular, but the product was getting a bit stale.
But what if instead, we used the poems in Long Way Down as mentor texts to write about our school? We could read the book, and discuss the themes of adversity that run so richly through it, and then use the poems to guide us in an exploration of the high school experience.
I found myself reading the book again, this time with a stack of sticky notes, noting the poems I thought would be good mentor texts. I broke the book up into smaller chunks for us to read and discuss. If you’ve read the book, you know that it is divided by the numbers indicating each floor stopped at in Will’s elevator ride. These were natural divisions that I went with, and I divided the beginning section up a bit further. One of the deciding factors in this division process was the number of poems each section would be asking them to write.
All told, I asked them to write over 30 poems. I, as always, was very open with them about what we were doing. I told them that in my experience, writing poetry is a thing that many students struggle with. Would it not add an interesting element to our thematic study of adversity to write in a form that many find and adversity? We would have Reynolds’ poems as mentor texts to guide us, and we would be exploring a topic we knew well, high school, ours in particular.
We launched into our study of the book, reading a section together. (If you’re thinking of doing this as a read-aloud, get the audiobook. Reynolds’ voice adds a lot!) We would discuss the themes of the novel before I shared with them the poems that we’d be writing from. I made sure they got a copy of the poem, and I explained what possible things we could use the poem to explore. Some things, like THE RULES, or the poems describing a place were obvious, but there were others where I needed to explain what we might consider writing. We generally wrote our pieces in order, though I was quite open with the fact that we weren’t crafting a narrative as consciously as was done in the novel. There were a couple of poems we wrote “out of order,” such as our anagram poems, which we saved for the end.
One thing this highlighted for me almost immediately was the community of writers that has developed in this class. Full disclosure, this class was almost all with me for Grade 9 English, so we had established that community then. There were many writerly conversations, discussing subject matter, word choice, line breaks, the sharing of poems and requests for feedback. And when you’re asking a student to write over 30 poems, to hear them talking about what they’re proud of, as opposed to complaining, is really cool.
I don’t want to mislead you, there were varying levels of excitement and engagement. I had students dragging their heels, reluctant to write. There was grumbling about the volume of poetry. I feel I tempered that by making sure we took a class off here and there, and focused on something besides our poems. I kept a running checklist on the board, partly to keep track, but also to nudge those writers who felt as if they could take a day or two from writing poems, thinking poems could be written quickly, and they could catch up easily. As we approached the end of the project, there were a number of very focused poets, getting things done at last.
As we read, I found myself identifying other poems that I felt we could work with, and often had to dash to the copier at the last minute. I also added a couple of pieces that weren’t directly inspired by the poem in Long Way Down. After a student wrote a poem using the text she found on the walls and boards in my classroom, (which I mentioned here) I encouraged my students to do the same thing in other rooms around our building. I also asked them to pay attention to what they heard around the school in the course of a day, noting quotes that they would turn into a found poem.
We didn’t just write in my classroom. Reynolds includes a number of “random thought” poems, capturing Will’s random thoughts. A couple of times, I gave them index cards, with instruction to note a random thought throughout their day. Inspired by the poem about being in the bathroom, I sent them to the washroom with notebooks, to look in the mirror and write. I asked them to take a moment and write in another place in the school, describing it in a poem.
As we wrote each day, I reminded them that the poems they were writing in their notebook were first drafts. We would be revising and editing. A bit past the halfway point of our writing, I shared that we would be compiling these poems in chapbooks. We talked about what that meant, and discussed how we might organize our poems. Since we hadn’t consciously been constructing a narrative, I didn’t push for that. If their chapbooks wound up being a collection of poems presented in the order we wrote them in, I was okay with that.
The creation of a chapbook actually added a fair amount to the editing process for some writers. A number of them printed out their poems, physically moving poems around to create the sequence that they felt worked best. There was some rewriting alongside editing, as some students decided to connect some of their poems, and use a couple of poems to communicate a theme or idea about the high school experience. They took their chance to use their voice quite seriously, and were very intentional in their writing.
We actually had a lot of great conversations about voice and considering audience as we wrote. We talked about “writing around” specific people and situations so as not to offend or upset. We discussed how we could draw from our own experiences, or things we had witnessed, or were party to, and write them in such a way that we weren’t being disrespectful. If we were looking at a situation featuring a specific teacher, we discussed focusing on the event over the teacher, and not using our poems as a way to get some measure of revenge. The conventions of verse were helpful in this.
I provided a template for them to create a chapbook, so that they didn’t have to worry about another level of organization. We did a lot of troubleshooting as we adjusted page counts and printing concerns. We talked about ways to title our books. We wrote our own little writer’s bios to put on the back cover.
As the end of the project approached, I needed to consider assessment. I gave the students a reflection sheet, which doubled as a checklist of the poems that we had written. I pulled relevant outcomes from my curriculum, obviously, and got ready to assess.
I’ll be honest, as the first couple of these chapbooks were submitted digitally for me to print, I was excited. Once I printed, folded and stapled the first pair of chapbooks submitted, I was blown away. These were some good looking little chapbooks we had made. It was super cool to hand those writers their finished products, that very tangible result of their work. I had some issues with my template that threatened my blood pressure and sanity, but once they were sorted, we became a tiny chapbook factory.
I often use the things I hear students say about an activity as part of my reflection. As we worked on these poems, I heard so many writerly conversations. I also heard really intense conversations that considered the questions I was asking them, considering the adversity that is high school, and getting into the experience of school as a whole. As we approached the end of the project, a student from another class walked in, and said to my students that they wished they were with us, writing poems, because that was “way less,” and “way easier” than writing an essay like they were. I was so proud when my students responded, telling their friend that they disagreed, and that they would actually have found the essay easier. One of my students, in typing her second draft of her poems noted her word count, with a fair number of poems left to type, she was nearing 2000 words.
As this project wraps up, I’m reflecting upon it. It was a bit undertaking, a considerable ask of many of my students. I’ve been blessed with a class that just goes along with whatever I bring to them, and does their best with it. It felt like an important project to me though. I believe in using literature to allow students to glimpse lives that are different from theirs. The life that Reynolds writes about in Long Way Down is very far removed from the life my students lead. They have a very Hollywood-influenced idea of what that life might be like, and I think this book shows them more than that.
As well, I’m always looking for a better way to do the things I think are important. Exploring adversity by focusing on a common situation that can be an adversity is a good thing to do, and these poems allowed us to do that in a much better way than I’ve been able to achieve in the past. Certainly, I’ve never had students sharing their essays the way they’ve been sharing their chapbooks, and I’ve never run to a colleague’s desk with a handful of high school adversity essays either.
What’s especially telling about this project is that I’ve recently read Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, and I’ve handed it off to my other co-teacher, Ashley, and the plan is to use that amazing book like I did Long Way Down to explore our own stories as we write memoir. I’m really excited to do this again, to use poetry to explore some big ideas.
Have you ever done a project like this, using a text to explore a different subject? How are you using novels in verse to inspire writers in your classroom? What poems from Long Way Down would you have kids write alongside?
Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!