Activism, Poetry, and Students

Sorry for the delayed post this week! I was waiting for this assignment to be turned in from my students so I could write more about it! 

This week, I’m going to be writing a little more in depth about a lesson I did with my students around using poetry to discuss important topics and issues. I’ve broken it into four parts and linked it below.


About nine days ago, I awoke to the news of the Chapel Hill Shooting from the #EduColor Collective. It was upsetting and sad, especially since folks in the collective identify strongly with the Muslim religion and culture. Seeing their distress, even from an online distance, was heartbreaking.

Beyond my own personal empathy, though, I didn’t have the same initial gut reaction to the shootings as I did to Mike Brown’s, Eric Garner’s, Tamir Rice’s, or Trayvon Martin’s tragic deaths. Or that I felt when I learned that there are countless other men and women (especially Black men and women) whose death’s we don’t hear about.

My lack of rage, frankly, surprised me (and upset me a little). Then, I realized that I don’t have a strong personal connection to the Muslim community. My own religion (Catholicism) is clearly part of dominant American culture. I don’t have family or students that identify strongly as Muslim. Clearly, I knew it was horrible, I was incredibly sad for the families, and I wanted to give solidarity and support to this community. Unlike the Black communities I had served during my teaching career or friends I had in my own life, I didn’t have a lot of faces to put to this community.

Initially, in those early morning hours, I accepted my passivity. I figured I knew it was wrong, I wanted to be supportive. Maybe, I thought, it’s okay that I have nothing to say.

Then I thought about the people I DID know clearly affected by the shooting, and my own anger at folks who had exhibited the same behavior I was doing now towards cases that HAD struck me deeply. I knew I could not leave the subject there. I knew I had to at least push myself to search my own feelings, thoughts, and beliefs around this subject. While I do think my role as an ally means amplifying other voices than my own, I wanted to ensure that I didn’t stay passive. I went for a run and started writing a poem.

This led me to put together a lesson plan for my students.

Lesson Plan

This was put together in about an hour (given the short time span), so I’m especially thankful to Melinda Anderson and Monita Bell especially for sending links to Teaching Tolerance (resource 1, resource 2) to help ground my work.

After some thought, I decided that while I would discuss the shooting (and share essentially the above reflection with them verbally), I would not dig too deep into religious bias. This was mostly for time reasons: I lacked the time to both research the topic in a way that ensured I could adequately speak on it, and I knew I had not thoroughly explored my own thoughts to make sure I wasn’t going to say something wrong or generally hurtful (albeit unintentionally).

To note– I don’t think those are unusually long processes, and I do NOT think this should keep teachers from broaching “difficult” topics in class. It just means that I wouldn’t go as in depth into the topic as I may have done if given more time.

For some background, my students and I have discussed a number of topics about race and stereotypes in my class. We discussed Ferguson and its parallels to stories in our community, and have also written papers on stereotypes and biases.

For our journal we (re)watched a TED Talk from Clint Smith about making sure we speak up about important issues. We have seen it before, so they wrote for five minutes responding to the video and if their thoughts had changed from the beginning of the year.

We then read an article about the shooting itself, and then I frankly shared with them my own personal struggle and realization from that morning. I also shared the Teaching Tolerance post on Combating Anti-Muslim Biases, and we had a discussion that eventually connected back to our discussion about Ferguson.

Finally, I told them about the poem I had started writing, and shared their assignment with them (below or here).They are able to see my poem, and we watched an example (Hawaii’s YouthSpeaks Team, Law of the Splintered Paddle).

Some things to note:

  • We are working on sentence types (simple/complex/complex-compound, etc), which is why I asked them to use those in their poetry (true story: while I was writing my own personal poem, I really did think about sentence types, which I used as a gateway for my students as a “we really do this!” thing).
  •  I was fortunate enough to connect with our social studies teacher right before class. Students have been working on an editorial for her class where they have to write about a topic and inform and/or persuade. She agreed to give them extra credit if they used their Social Studies editorial topic for my English poem. This was extremely helpful, which I’ll discuss later.
  • My school’s English curriculum has them writing consistently– they free-write every school day for five minutes, they write in narrative at least once a quarter, and they write in many other classes. This meant I am fortunate enough to have a strong school culture of writing, and didn’t have to work with many/any students grumbling about writing poetry (this was very different than my previous teaching experiences).

Over the weekend, students wrote poetry. Then, they were placed in small groups and read each other’s poetry (each student read about three other poems), and left a comment with 2 things they liked and “1 thing you didn’t get/might change/the poet should elaborate on.”

Finally, students turned in their poetry and some read it to the class.


Overall, I found this assignment to be very successful. Many students who are usually quieter during more “cultural” or “world-issue” discussions surprised me by writing poetry that was wonderfully insightful. Students who are already outspoken and passionate about current events had the change to shine and stretch their legs as poets.

Some examples below:

One of my female students who is already a strong writer, wrote the following:

What about color? Race? A pigment of our skin?
What difference should that make in the world we’re trying to live in?
My skin is a color that’s not milky white, but it shouldn’t matter, cos I’m just trying to survive.
And with all the shit going on in the world, I should just be glad I’m alive.

Now how about women? We can survive all alone.
But, men think that we’re theirs to own.
Women need rights, respect and an equal representatives.
There’s not even a lot of us in the senate.

One of my male students, who honestly shows less interest in my class, wrote the following:

I had nothing to say about this
Because I never showed interest
I barely knew about this.
As I learned more I realized was too important of a topic to go undiscussed
A method so extreme by ending somebody’s life for a capital crime
A topic people needed to know more about
A crime like murder, rape, or stealing a quarter or a dime
They could be executing an innocent man
Or a criminal
I have something to say, “People need to know more.”

Another male student wrote about the wealth gap:

I have nothing to say about the wealth gap
I have nothing to say, because I don’t know why it has to be this way
I have nothing to say, because it is not fair
I have nothing to say, to the people who use it to their advantage
I have nothing to say, to the people that don’t care
I have nothing to say, and I wish that I did
I have nothing to say, to every underprivileged kid
I have nothing to say, because the wealth gap and poverty is only increasing
I have something to say, for all the people that can’t
I have something to say, but I don’t want to rant so I’ll make it easy
I have something to say, and you all should hear me
I have a lot to say, this wealth gap is unfair and we want to be free

Finally, I had a White female student (which is a minority in my school, and which she herself has written about feeling prejudiced), write the following:

Stop trying to protect these people that kill
Say they were bullied, divorced and had a void to fill
If a Muslim killed three Christians we’d see it in an instant
But another white Christian kills and we resist it
Muslim lives matter
Black lives matter
You can rip away beliefs and leave us in tatters but all life matters

Needless to say, I was very pleased with their thoughts and their writing.

Reflections and Next Steps

As I said, I found this assignment to be generally successful given the constraints I had. Much of my success comes from support of mentor teachers, and the strong culture already built into my school.

Successes and Things That I Would Repeat

  • These conversations need to begin early and happen often. I think that, if I had dropped something like this on my students without either prior discussion or taking the time to build a strong foundation, things could have gone awry. My students and I are talking about privilege, power, etc at as many possible junctures as possible. I raise the issue when we read texts, I choose texts that support it, I have them free-write about it. Essentially, this poetry assignment would be less effective if it were a drop-in “let’s talk about privilege” assignment with no foundation and no follow up. 
  • Getting buy in from another teacher was helpful. By collaborating, even on a low-level, with another teacher, it gave my students initial extrinsic motivation. It also helped make it easier for them to find a topic to write about, since that foundation was built in another class (many thanks to the 9th grade social studies teacher for doing that!).
  • Being open about my own personal struggles, thoughts, and writing process has created a safe-space. When it comes to conversations about power and privilege, I am often seeing that people are generally more comfortable if they feel that they are being guided rather then lectured. By showing my own vulnerability both about writing and about these topics, it helps even the playing field with my students and I, so they feel more comfortable opening up.In addition, I make it a point to try and write with my students as often as possible, and let them intro my draft process. This lets them both see me as a writer, and also further the vulnerability by sharing my (imperfect) authorship with them.
  • Providing strong models and exemplars help. Bonus points: most students really like slam poetry, so it’s an easy segue into our own work.

What I Would/Will Change

  • As usual, the biggest issue is time and space. This lesson was a bit of drop-in into our usual unit. I definitely think that this would be successful as a larger unit, with time built in to build a stronger foundation and discussions around these topics.
  • I think it would be very interesting to give students one topic and have them all write about it.
  • So far, our only follow up is reading the poetry allowed and talking about it. I hope to expand our audience and perhaps put the activism into actual action. Is just writing and sharing in class truly “activism”? This is something that more time and better preparation would have remedied.
  • As part of the action, I think it would be good to connect with someone: an activist or advocate in a particular community, to amplify their voice first so that students can learn more about a topic first hand and learn better allyship than reading from afar and then writing something.

*phew*! Thanks for reading, and please feel free to reach out with any other thoughts or feedback!

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