Inspired by the “Poetry in Motion” campaign on New York City subway cars, three teachers looked for ways to help students discover poetry outside of English literature textbooks: art, Hebrew, Judaics, and our school’s mission trip to Israel.
The New York City “Poetry in Motion” campaign published poems on subway cars and tickets, looking for ways to make poetry an everyday part of commuters’ lives. We wondered how such an approach to poetry could enrich our school. We began with the idea of “Finding Poetry in Unexpected Places,” which focused on found poetry: blackout poems, scavenger hunt poems, headline collage poems. Before the first day of school, we created eye-catching bulletin boards throughout the building with examples of found poetry, including Hebrew language poems, along with directions for both students and teachers to try.
Activity One: Poetry in Judaic and Hebrew Classes
Sarah Antine, director of the Deborah Lerner Gross Cultural Arts Center, reached out to interested teachers, especially in the Judaic and Hebrew departments, to facilitate found poetry workshops in their classes:
- During two class periods with both of Rabbi Topolosky’s Chumash classes, a boys 11th/12th grade and a girls 11th/12th grade, Mrs. Antine used the blackout poetry directions and facilitated blackout ‘erasure’ poetry on the first Perek (Chapter) of Bereshit. Students chose and circled words from the text that would become their poem. Then with a sharpie, students blacked out the rest of the text. In addition, they created visual art around the blackout poem as symbolic of the work. Students created surprising juxtapositions and imaginative leaps when they did this exercise. Furthermore, Rabbi Topolosky’s Chumash students learned and practiced the Art of Bibliodrama on Bereshit: Perek Gimmel, building several versions of the same characters by asking the Biblical figures what they felt. The students played each part by answering as if they were the Nachash, Ha Isha or Adam. Then, students wrote persona monologue poems in the voice of one of the Biblical figures from the story.
[Student Samples below.]
- Mrs. Antine also facilitated Hebrew poetry writing with Mrs. Isser’s Hebrew Literature class. First students read and translated Yehuda Amichai’s poem–משלושה או ארבעה בחדר — Out of Three or Four in a Room. Students unpacked the metaphors and located the allusions to Tefillah and to Tanach in the poem and made connections to Israel society and to the current moment. Then students wrote their own poems in Hebrew that included allusions to Tanach or Tefillah and metaphor to mirror the techniques learned from studying Amichai’s poem in depth.
- In addition, Mrs. Antine helped 11th- and 12th-grade boys in Rabbi Sinoff’s Chumash class learn the art of Bibliodrama and write Bibliodramatic questions that led them to write poems in the voice of Avraham, Sarah and Lot in response to p’seukim in Lech Lecha. One student asked Avraham, Why do you trust G-d?
Activity Two: Poetry in Narrative
In blackout poems or “erasure poems,” students begin with a page or so of text from a prose work, and begin to “blackout” or erase lines and words of text to carve out an evocative poem. Many techniques can be used to do this, whether a black highlighter feature digitally to “blackout” lines and words or phrases; or students can work with a xeroxed page of prose text and use a Sharpie to black out the prose text selectively. This activity encourages students to find poetry in the language of prose, and to co-create meaning through attention to the most important, salient, provocative details, striking images, and juxtapositions rather than to look at a text as a dense accumulation of prosaic information.
In 10th-grade at-level classes, Hannah Saltmarsh used the slave narrative of Frederick Douglass to inspire students’ search for poetry in this powerful prose work. Students focused on a specific page from the narrative and chiseled out a poem, attempting to free the prosaic parallel structure of the narrative and the rhetorical polish of the narrative to reveal something more evocative, emotive, and sparse. Some students didn’t limit themselves to a single page of prose but instead took passages on a similar theme from various places in the narrative. The blackout and found poems not only revealed the poetry of Douglass’s language, but encouraged an even closer reading of the text, particularly those moments of silence, absence, subtext, and emotional vulnerability.
In 10th-grade honors classes, Hannah Saltmarsh used Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence to inspire students’ search for poetry in this poignant work about social judgment, matters of the heart, and moral uncertainty. Students were encouraged to deconstruct the text, to make the text say something different in its poetic form, even if it contradicted the original meaning in the novel, and to focus on how line breaks, symbols, and juxtapositions can create the element of surprise. For example, one student took a passage about “Old New York” and chiseled out enough of the ornate language and detail in order to make the passage resonate with our 21st century New York, thus drawing attention to the arbitrary nature of social norms as well as the myths of New York as a place of power. Students paid careful attention to the ways in which “less is more” and sought to free Wharton’s detailed, dense prose from its potential verbosity and discovered how a nuanced detail or startling juxtaposition can communicate meaning and invite the reader to be a part of the discovery in the poem.
Activity Three: Poetry in AP Composition
Victoria Plaza’s AP Language and Composition Class, which focuses on the rhetorical analysis of nonfiction, used the first two paragraphs of Joan Didion’s “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” (the title itself inspired by Yeats’s “Second Coming”) as the foundation of their blackout poems. As they unveiled the poetry of the passages, students came to a deeper understanding of their rhetorical purpose as an introduction to Didion’s article, including her harsh criticism of a society that has “lost” a generation of young people to drugs.
[Student Samples in pdf below.]
Activity Four: Visual Poetry Contest
Sponsored by the Media Center, the Art Department, and The Deborah Lerner Gross Jewish Cultural Arts Center: Art classes, English classes and individual students in both Middle and Upper school were tasked to bring a published poem to life using visual Art. Judges from the administration and each department selected a winner in each grade. [Contest Poster]
In 10th grade honors, 10th grade regular, and 11th grade regular, Hannah Saltmarsh’s classes chose a poem using the Poetry Foundation’s website: the students browsed poems by subject matter and/or by poet, and selected a poem that they were confident about interpreting (even though there could be multiple ways to interpret the poem) and that they felt was evocative and complex enough to “bring to life” through art. Mrs. Antine came to two to three class sessions to assist with the brainstorming process (a worksheet/planning chart called ‘Word-Symbol-Image’) and planning stages for the visual poem poster, as well as to assist with art materials and the creative process. Upon completion of the visual poem poster, students composed a 1.5-2 page paper which offered an analysis of the poem as well as a kind of artistic manifesto which explained the rationale behind each artistic choice.
Activity Five: Mission Instagram Poems
Every four years, our entire high school takes a 10-day mission trip to Israel. Since this was a mission year, students took our poetry challenge with them. This time the medium would be Instagram: using photographs as their inspiration for six-word memories or haiku poems.
Mrs. Sarah Antine has taught creative writing, visual arts, bibliodrama and collaborated as an Arts Integration specialist with Judaic, Hebrew, Art, English and History teachers in K-12th grade for over 10 years.
Ms. Victoria Plaza has taught writing and literature at the middle school, high school, and college levels for more than 20 years.
Dr. Hannah Saltmarsh has taught writing and literature for over 10 years at the college and high school levels.