Move Over, Sisyphus

Teaching grammar and poetry

By Linda Christensen

Illustrator: Roxanna Bikadoroff

Illustration: Roxanna Bikadoroff

Let me surrender to a moment of truth telling: I still struggle to name the parts of speech and identify what’s wrong in multiple-choice sentences on grammar tests. I still don’t know how to use lie and lay correctly, and once in a while, I get the apostrophe in the wrong spot. But I know how to write — most of the time. And, when I’m “done” with a piece of writing, I know where to go to fix my problems.

My students suffer from similar lapses in their grammar and punctuation knowledge. As a teacher, I can either spend time drilling students over and over again on the same grammar rules they seem to forget when it comes time to write, or I can spend my precious minutes teaching them how to use language more effectively.

Poetry as Grammar Text

When I was a new teacher, I dutifully pulled out the grammar textbooks, taught — and learned — parts of speech and grammar “demons” lessons. I noticed that students could get questions right on my ditto sheets (old days) and even pass the end-of-chapter grammar tests, yet still make the same errors in their writing. My students’ writing was stiff and unnatural as if they were wearing a too-small suit. Over the years I learned that my work with students on their poetry led to a stronger grasp of parts of speech, especially verbs, nouns, and adjectives, than my old worksheets. But, even more significantly, my students’ language jumped off the page. They slide their verbal dexterity from poetry to essays and narratives.

When students warm up their tongues through poetry, they carry that language play into their essays and narratives. Khalilah Joseph, for example, uses juicy language, full of rhythm, action, alliteration, and attitude in her essay “Tar Baby”:

I can watch a video by a given artist and before the end of it, the object of desire will prance across the screen, and, of course, she’ll be a honey dipped, barely-brown bombshell…. Be gone with those tiny waisted, no-hip-having heifers. Bring on the models who range in color from caramel to dark chocolate. [The full essay is included in Reading, Writing, and Rising Up, p. 70.]

In her essay about the education of black students, Valentina Harold uses the poetic devices of listing, repetition, and metaphor as she pushes her point: “Few people of color at Grant High School take AP classes. I understand why: They are afraid of failing, afraid of looking bad, and afraid of being the only black in a sea of white.”

By letting go of the rules and the mandates about teaching grammar, I freed my students to find their voices, to learn how to write instead of how to answer multiple choice tests about parts of speech or how to correct someone else’s language.

I do my serious work of teaching students how to use language more effectively through poetry, a skill we transfer from our poetry to our prose. I want my students to pay attention to words, to use lists and imagery, to give up everyday, shopworn words for words that surprise, sing, provoke. I urge them to scrutinize their verbs to make them more active and to avoid adverbs and adjectives, which one writer called “the potbelly of poetry.” When writers use generic nouns or verbs, they sometimes add an adjective or adverb to describe the action more fully, but frequently those words make “fat” sentences because the combinations produce such flat and predictable phrases that the words barely register for the reader. For example: Bill walked slowly to class. If the writer used a more precise verb, she wouldn’t need the adverb: Bill limped to class or Bill flirted his way to class or Bill crept to class.

I also encourage students to highlight all was, were, are in their poetry, as well as in their narratives and essays to see if they can create a more poetic sentence. For example, “It was a hot day” might become “the day sweated.”

Verbs and Language Play

Too often, grammar study is the dull naming of parts of speech that students have difficulty remembering beyond the simple recitation, “A noun is a person, place or thing.” Well-meaning teachers, administrators, and parents who push the idea of high expectations for all students sometimes equate the naming of parts of speech with writing. I rarely attend a meeting about improving writing where someone doesn’t lament, “In the old days, kids knew what a verb was.” Teachers hold struggling writers hostage to learning grammar before they can write papers. Under the mistaken notion that students who have a tentative grasp of writing conventions will benefit from studying the names of things — from sentence parts to types of sentences — struggling writers return year after year to the basic sentence before they move to the paragraph and finally to a narrative or essay. Like Sisyphus, ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, unskilled writers are condemned to the hopeless labor of naming instead of doing. Albert Camus presents Sisyphus’s pointless work as a metaphor for modern lives spent working at futile jobs in factories and offices: “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” Camus encourages revolt. So do I. Real rigor is not memorizing terms isolated from their work in the world.

Instead, I put students to work creating poetry that teaches them how to use grammar in context, to examine how writers use grammar as a tool in their pieces. As I tell students, “Verbs are the workhorse of the sentence. They make your poetry (and essays) strut and dance, or they make your audience snore.” We examine the verbs in poems, like Quincy Troupe’s “Poem for Magic,” a poem so lively, we can hear the rhythm of the ball as Magic crosses the court, watch him wipe the glass, and pause before he dishes out the ball. I start with sports poems because verbs dominate the pieces. We read the poem out loud, so students can hear how rapidly Troupe’s poem moves, like a basketball up and down the court. He uses quick-paced language to simulate movement.

After we’ve read the poem, I ask students to appreciate Troupe’s work, “What do you love about this poem? What works for you?” Then I hand out two different colors of highlighters to each student. I ask them, “What is a verb? Give me some examples.” After it seems like they get the gist of a verb, I say, “Look at the first three lines of Troupe’s poem. Highlight the verbs.” After they call out the verbs in those lines, I tell them to highlight the verbs in the rest of the stanza. Of course, frequently, students highlight adjectives and nouns as well as verbs, and this is an opportunity to discuss the differences, in context, while they write.

As the students call out verbs, I ask, “What verbs made you ‘see’ Magic Johnson?” Students read out: herk and jerk, wiped, juked and shoot, shake and glide, hammer. I tell them, “Notice how he doesn’t stick dull, old stale combinations of verbs that one would expect in a poem about basketball; he shakes us with surprises and makes us see Magic Johnson on the court. Troupe saturates us in the language of the basketball court. Now go back to the poem and using your second highlighter color, I want you to color all of the basketball vocabulary he uses.” Students note the lane, backboards, nets, which leads us to a discussion about nouns and the work they do in a sentence or poem. I ask students to keep Troupe’s poem handy, so they can look back and see how Troupe handled verbs or line breaks.

I also bring in other sports poems: “Analysis of Baseball” by Mae Swenson, “Fast Break” by Edward Hirsch, and “The Base Stealer” by Robert Francis. In each of these poems, I push students to examine how the writers have slowed the motion of action so they can see the extension of an arm, the slide of a hand, the rotation of a ball. They use verbs to take the reader through each step, each movement as they record it in the poem. For example, in “Fast Break,” Hirsch writes, “A hook shot kisses the rim and/hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,/and for once our gangly starting center/boxes out his man and times his jump/perfectly, gathering the orange leather/from the air like a cherished possession.” Again, the writing soars with tight language and crisp verbs.

I tell students to write their own movement poems — giving, as always, room for inspiration and surprise as well as river banks, or parameters/gentle directions, to help the writing flow. Through this poem, I want students to bring their lives, their passions into the classroom. I tell them: “Make a list of people you know who are really good at something. Include yourself. If you are a pitcher, let us see how you throw the ball. If you dance, take us through a piece. List the person and their passion. For example, my nephew Lee is crazy about fishing. My mother was an artist in the garden. Think big. This doesn’t have to be about just sports. Lucille Clifton wrote a poem for Malcolm X. Martín Espada wrote a poem celebrating a custodian. Naomi Shihab Nye wrote a poem about her father making Arabic coffee. Think of creating a poem about an organizer, a field worker, a cafeteria worker, a parent preparing dinner.” Once students have created a list, I say, “Let’s hear some of your ideas. Anyone who’s stuck, steal these ideas. Let these ideas jumpstart yours.”

Then we move to the next piece of the activity — focusing on the language of the art/craft, including verbs. We take one of the potential items on a student’s list, and we brainstorm together a list of verbs, then a list of other words that could be used in the poem. “Pete said, fishing. Let’s help him out. Let’s list fishing words on the board.” The students generate a list: line, lure, dock, boat, bait, hook, fly, lunker, tubeworms, bass, trout, steelhead. Then I push, “What verbs will move this poem?” Toss, spin, cast, reel, catch, release, flick, drift.

Students write poems about basketball, baseball, dance, as well as poems about people immersed in their art or craft. Each poetry exercise works towards the goal of writing and reading poetry and learning to use language. In other words, I don’t obsess if students write a poem where verbs aren’t the focus because the bigger piece of instruction is to discover how to find voice and passion and a way to show us their lives.

When they work on revision, I remind students to read their poems out loud and notice where the rhythm works and where it stalls. I encourage them to use short, one-syllable words when they want to quicken the pace, like Quincy Troupe — “herk, jerk, take it to the hoop” — and to interrupt the pace of longer lines. We go back to the original poems, so they can see how other poets used the rhythm of the list in their poetry.

The List Links the Work Forward

Many writers use listing as a poetic device in both poetry and prose. Lists push the writer beyond the known into new territory. Poems that use lists create a great warm-up activity and sometimes result in stunning new poems. The listing poem can also teach students to use cumulative sentences, noun and verb phrases. The listing technique can be shifted to prose, as well, as Andrew Kafoury demonstrates in his college essay:

I love acting. I love putting on costumes and becoming creatures I am not. I love my skin sweating as bright lights send heat soaking through my body. I love getting to know my cast, watching the drama behind the drama. I love the quick change, the blackout, the dry ice and stage combat. I love cranky stage managers and quiet co-stars. I love watching ego-stricken actors fall into decline while a new face emerges from the shadows. I love the monster special effects that steal the show, and that oh-so-precious moment when you, the actor, send the audience head over heels with laughter. I love the call sheet with my name on it, and the director who calls to say I’m perfect for the part. I love the shows that I wish would go on forever, and even the ones I can’t stand till they’re over.

I use the poem, “I Got the Blues,” by former Jefferson student Aaron Wheeler-Kay to get students into the listing mood. I like his piece because he keeps pushing the list. The reader can feel him changing as he explores words like a blues riff, caught and held, then discarded as he finds a new word.

I Got the Blues

Blue eyes.
Yes, ma’am.
Like the ocean —
No, blue like new jeans,
Stiff and comfy —
No, blue like hard times.
Blue like cold steel and oil.
Blue like the caress of jazz at a funeral.
The azure ice cubes in my head
Melt hearts.
Yes, blue like lightning in a desert storm.
Blue like my baby.
Like my baby blues.
Blue like cold lips in winter,
Indigo stains
In an optical vein.
I got the blues
And they got a tale to tell.

Of course, teaching poetry doesn’t mean that I abandon my social justice perspective. I also use the poem, “Brown Dreams” by Paul Flores that tells a story about immigrants who join the military in order to gain U.S. citizenship. I start by showing Flores perform his poem on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam,” then we read the poem out loud, and talk about the content of the poem. Once we discuss the idea of “Brown Dreams,” I ask students to look at how Flores uses the list throughout his poem. He starts with a list of phrases beginning with the word who: “Brown boy who wasn’t even a citizen,/Who’d barely been a resident five years,/Who didn’t know much about education/Was now willing to die to become a student.” Then he shifts to a list of similes in the final stanza of his poem:

This is a brown dream,
Brown as the bus riders’ union,
Brown as gasoline,
Brown as the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Mississippi,
and the Rio Grande,
Brown as coyotes,
Brown as the blood-soaked sands of Iraq
And the ranches of Arizona border vigilantes
Brown as affirmative action in the military
But not the university.
This is a brown dream.

I point out the repetition of brown in “Brown Dreams” and blue in “I Got the Blues.” We also read “Yellow” by Charles Wright, which includes a list, then pushes the list with more details: “Yellow is for regret, the distal, the second hand;/ The grasshopper’s wing, that yellow, the slur of dust;/ Back light, the yellow of loneliness.” Wright’s poem demonstrates how to add phrases to create rhythm and pause in a line. But we also look at how he uses commas in a series for those phrases. Students sometimes stop at the first part of a line, with the initial comparison, but the sentence or line becomes more interesting if the student adds on phrases. My student Bree Levine-DeSpain wrote a praise poem about herself, “Just Thick”:

Just Thick,/Thick like North Carolina sweet grained/Sun kissed cornbread,/Melt in your mouth, smothered with/Butter and honey thick.

She pulses the description forward, drawing it out, like Wright, until she moves to the next stanza and a new comparison. Bree’s poem plays with language, but it is also about content. In this praise poem, Bree talks back to the images of thin women paraded on the glossy covers of magazines by glorifying her “thick thighs/thick hips” which she connects to her African American/Latina heritage.

I also use a section of the slam poet Patricia Smith’s poem, “Left Memories” where she repeats the words “I can’t” then moves into a tight list of who she is, a black woman, by listing all of the things she can’t stop doing, like “walking in a straight line without my hips wailing hallelujah.” (available online at

I can’t
stop listening to blues songs where some checkertoothed growler
informs me that my heart is worthless or missing altogether.
I can’t unravel the mystery of me, and it’s growing late.
I can’t walk in a straight line without my hips wailing hallelujah.
I can’t stop dancing like a colored girl with a lit match at her backside.
I can’t believe that I will be 50 before I am 40 again.
I can’t find anyone to jump doubledutch with me.
I can’t make my poems be happy. I have tried neon ink,
perfumed paper and writing naked under a silver-spilling moon.
I can’t hold my mother close long
enough for her body to realize
how completely it once harbored mine.

I encourage students to write their own list poem. I tell them, “Think of a color or a word or a phrase as the springboard for your list. Remember how Aaron Wheeler-Kay used the word ‘blues,’ then pushed the word. Remember how Bree took the idea, but instead of a color, she used the word ‘thick’? You might also try using a phrase like Patricia Smith’s ‘I can’t.’ Then extend your list by thinking about the politics of color or the story behind the list: What else are you saying? Go beyond the typical, the usual.” This is where we evoke both the poetic and political imagination. I encourage students to mix their lists — to include the known, blue is for water, but to extend the list to bring in the unusual, the unexpected — “brown as the bus riders’ union” — a reference to the inspirational Los Angeles organization formed to press for greater access to affordable transportation.

For example, Grant High School student Anaiah Rhodes’ poem “Black” is about the color, but also a tribute to being black. Her work was influenced by the work of Dudley Randall’s “Black Girl” and other Harlem Renaissance poets we studied who praised and reclaimed the beauty of their color and features when white society demeaned and denigrated blacks. For Anaiah, “Black is harmony/Like the notes in a symphony/The hymns my mama hums to me.” She takes the word “harmony” and keeps expanding the concept — a symphony, hymns.

When I give this assignment, I tell students, “If you are listing why you love your grandmother’s buttermilk biscuits, go for it. Add as many items as you can to the list: sights, smells, butter dripping over the edge, the way they feel in your mouth. This is a love poem to those biscuits. Make us all want them. You can weed later. Get it all down now.”

When I discovered that I could give up grammar ditto sheets, I became a teacher. Instead of following mindless mandates and old-school rules, I started observing my students’ writing, and I dared to say, “What happens when students are treated as intellectuals instead of intellectually challenged?” Through poetry students not only learn to harness their sassy, audacious playfulness into art, they learn a few parts of speech and ways to work with language along the way.

“Poem for Magic”
take it to the hoop, “magic” johnson,
take the ball dazzling down the open lane
herk & jerk & raise your six-feet, nine-inch frame
into the air sweating screams of your neon name
“magic” johnson, nicknamed “windex” way back
in high school
cause you wiped glass backboards
so clean, where you first juked and shook
wiled your way to glory
a new-style fusion of shake-&-bake
energy, using everything possible, you created your own
space to fly through—any moment now
we expect your wings to spread feathers for that spooky takeoff
of yours—then, shake & glide & ride up in space
till you hammer home a clothes-lining deuce off glass
now, come back down with a reverse hoodoo gem
off the spin & stick in sweet, popping nets clean
from twenty feet, right side…

Linda Christensen ( is Director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., and author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up. She is an editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.