On April 6, 2021, Renée Watson, award-winning author, and Linda Christensen, Rethinking Schools editor and teacher, joined in a webinar conversation about teaching and writing poetry. Watson was a student of Christensen’s at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon, in the 1990s. Rethinking Schools edited their conversation.
Linda Christensen: I always begin on day one, not with the rules, not with “thou shalt” or a class syllabus, but with a poem that starts by centering students’ lives. That’s the entry point. The poem should be an easy reach so that students learn from the first day of class that they are writers. I’m thinking “Where I’m From”; “Raised by Women”; “For My People.” When the students read their poems out loud, we also begin to learn about each other, to build community. Renée, what are your thoughts about building community? How do we create safe spaces in our classrooms for students to write and share?
Renée Watson: When I think about creating safe spaces or spaces that allow young people to want to share, I think about taking the first risk by modeling what risk-taking is and what sharing is like. I often start off classes and workshops with reading a poem myself. I try to never ask students to do what I’m not willing to do. I’ll either read one of my poems or do the assignment that I ask young people to do and read my version of that assignment. Sometimes, I read my favorite poem or a favorite quote, just something that shows students that I am not only their teacher, I am also an artist or writer or lover of words, and that I too want to be a part of the community. So that’s one way to set the tone on the first day. Like you said, not starting with rules and expectations only, but that the expectation is that we’re going to share, and the expectation is that we’re going to write and that we’re going to listen and take each other in. So that has to be modeled right away on day one.
Linda Christensen: Yes, and I love that you said that the teacher writes with students, because how can we expect students to be vulnerable and take risks if we are not modeling that with them? I can teach by modeling my own writing, and by being vulnerable. It’s a risk: My writing is not always great.
Renée Watson: It helps me know how to teach something by doing the assignment. It helps me realize, “Oh, this might be where they get stuck.” Or my instructions aren’t clear, or it’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be. So to actually do the writing assignment and play around with words helps me become a better writer, too. But it also helps me be a better teacher, because I now have it in my bones what it is going to feel like for my students to do what I’m going to ask them to do.
Linda Christensen: And I love that you said “I have it in my bones,” because that’s what it is. One of the things that I explain to students when I set up an assignment is that we can choose safe or risky topics. Then I model both. I want the classroom to be a safe place for us to share, and to learn about each other and to be vulnerable with each other. But there are times when we’re not ready for that. And we don’t want to open that up if we’re not in a place for that to happen.
I want to pause to talk about read-arounds in the classroom. What that means is that every person in the room reads and gets some love about their work. I ask students to listen with a pen in their hand as their classmates read their poems out loud. “Jot down phrases, words, ideas, content that you love in the poem.” After each student reads, I ask, “What did you love about this poem? What worked? Are there lines or phrases that gave you goosebumps?” Students write notes about what they love to each student in the classroom on strips of paper, and at the end of class, take those love notes and hand them to each other. And as you said earlier, Renée, we start sharing on day one to make it clear that this is the norm in our classroom.
The other thing that I find is once somebody has shared something personal, other students are more likely to share. And it becomes part of the classroom culture. Courage is contagious. It’s OK to share that I’m not perfect, or that my family’s not perfect. It’s OK to share my pain here. And often students don’t have places to do that. You talked earlier about the container. And I love that image — that the classroom can be a container: for our courage, for our pain, for how battered we feel by the world, and for our joy. All of that can be there. And it starts on the first day, when both teachers and students demonstrate our willingness to share.
Renée Watson: Talking about what’s right also helps the writer know what to keep doing. If you tell me that I’m really good at metaphor, then I want to keep using metaphors in my work. I think it’s a way to help students be comfortable giving feedback and receiving feedback, and it keeps everyone encouraging each other to share stories.
Having the read-around in your class was the best. It was my favorite part of class. Not just because I got to read my work, but because I got to know students and classmates who I didn’t hang out with, whose stories I didn’t know. It was also a way to build community. I think what was powerful about your class was that constantly I was learning how to be a writer. There was no compromise on craft and learning what it takes to be a strong writer. At the same time, there was no compromise about what it takes to be a strong community member. And you were doing both of those at the same time: asking students to push themselves, to be kind and thoughtful, and yes, you have to listen in order to be able to give feedback. All of that was happening while we were also learning the craft of writing. And it was such a powerful experience as a high school student to be given the chance and to be trusted that we can handle having those kinds of open conversations.
Linda Christensen: It is also important to tell students that writing is not a competitive sport, that everybody has their own voice. CJ Suitt’s voice is very different than Joy Harjo’s, but that doesn’t mean that one is better. They’re different. And they have different stories. And in the same way, students have different stories and different strengths that they can share in the classroom. We talk only about what’s working in the writing because we learn from each other’s pieces how to become a better writer. And then we take that inspiration and craft and we use that in our own pieces. In the classroom read-arounds, students create mentor pieces for each other. Just as we bring in adult poems, we also learn from the poets in the classroom. We’re able to see “Oh, Renée used lists. Josh used repetition. Dyan created a repeating, but changing, line for each stanza.” In this way the student who didn’t understand the assignment or who maybe didn’t have time to do it hears 20 different versions of ways that classmates entered it. I can’t tell you how many times at the end of class, somebody would say, “Can I take it home and rewrite my poem tonight?”
I was thinking about emotional risks. Renée, you’ve taken big emotional risks in your teaching and your writing. I’m thinking about some of the poetry that you describe in your chapter “Happening Yesterday, Happened Tomorrow: Teaching the Ongoing Murders of Black Men,” in Rhythm and Resistance. You had students write poetry after Trayvon Martin’s death. What would you say to teachers about when it is or is not appropriate to bring in death, murder, and tragedy? Or how to do that in a way that makes it safe for kids?
Renée Watson: On the first day of class I say I have an expectation that we share, and we listen, and we’re a community. And we celebrate. I always start with joy. I want to know where they’re from, like you said, I want them to tell me who they love, who loves them back? What are they proud of? We want to build community and trust. I want them to trust me so that when we go to something that might be a little more painful, or we take a heavier risk, we’ve already established a relationship with each other.
Poetry can be a container for emotions, and a way to add structure to what might feel out of control. We’re angry, we’re sad, we’re confused. We have all these emotions about what’s happening in the world. Allowing students to write about what they feel can help them process what’s going on in a contained way. Instead of starting with an open discussion about police brutality or the Black Lives Matter movement, poetry allows a teacher to have some structure to that conversation.
I think it’s also OK to know what you as an educator are capable of handling in the room. If a teacher is not ready to have that conversation, it is OK to say, “I know a lot is happening in the world, and I want to acknowledge what is going on. I’m frustrated, I have a lot of questions, I’m thinking about it.” And then the teacher can do the lesson that they have planned. I think sometimes when we talk about social justice education, we think it has to be these lessons that are about racism, about sexism very explicitly, but part of being a social justice educator is being human in the classroom. And sometimes I’m not ready to talk about something, but I can still acknowledge what’s happening in the classroom and give resources and say, “Here are some poems from poets who are addressing these things.”
There are so many poets who are writing about what is happening, what has happened. And bringing those models into the classroom and showing students how poets resist and how poets use their words to talk about current issues is a way to give students something to lean on so that they’re not starting with a blank page. Those are some things I would do: Bring in the poets, especially bring in the protest poets who have done the work and use their work as a model and a structure for young people to look at so that they have a container and something to guide their writing.
Linda Christensen: I want to return to something you said earlier. When we talk about social justice teaching, we often talk about exploring the roots of inequality and about going to the hard places and uncovering injustice. But that’s not the only piece of social justice work in the classroom. Another important piece is creating a space for students to share and honor their homes, share their languages, share hard times, share traditions, share and honor the people who love them. We need to keep coming back to that, to letting students experience a loving community where they can be fully themselves.
Renée Watson: It is important to have those explicit moments, like teaching a Black Lives Matter unit. But also show me that my life matters by bringing in material where Black folks are just human and not necessarily about the struggle or the pain of our experience. It goes hand in hand with making sure that we’re having a balanced curriculum. That’s what you did for me when I was in high school in your class. I never felt like a victim or like I was only that single story Chimamanda Adichie talks about. All of me was welcome: my joy and my pain, my frustration, my questions. I think that young people need to see the wholeness of who they are reflected in the curriculum. And that joy is resistance.
One question that comes up is: Do we teach poetry as an isolated unit or teach poetry throughout the year?
Linda Christensen: Poetry all year. Poetry as part of every unit. One of my teaching tenets is the “Holy Trinity” of poetry, essay, and narrative. They should be in every unit. I will do some stand-alone poetry, especially when we’re feeling really sad and burdened. But in general, I weave poetry in, and it should be part of the dance of the classroom. What about you, Renée?
Renée Watson: Oh, absolutely. Most of my teaching experience has been as a guest writer in schools teaching alongside English teachers. I come in to integrate poetry into their curriculum. Whatever they are teaching, my role is to look at that unit through the eyes of poetry. Sometimes I partner with a social studies teacher. Poetry can be taught in any unit. I like to pair a poem with a novel. And maybe I’ll read a poem to start off the study of a novel that we’re going to be reading. There is often poetry in the novels I write because that’s just how much I love it and how much I think young people resonate with it.
Linda Christensen: Speaking of beautiful poems to share with young people, one of your poems that my students love is “This Body,” a definition poem that exemplifies what we’re talking about — sharing both joy and pain. I’m wondering if you could read it, and then talk about your inspiration for this poem.
Renée Watson: Sure. As you said, it is a definition poem, so it’s written in the way that a definition will appear if you look in the dictionary: This poem is in Watch Us Rise, which is a young adult novel that I co-wrote with my good friend and poet Ellen Hagan. The poem is in the voice of the character Jasmine, who is confronting issues of image and identity around being a dark-skinned Black girl at a school where others try to put her in this box in her theater class. She wants to audition for other kinds of roles that are not typically made for big brown girls. She writes this poem as a way to protest and to stand up for who she is and all that she brings with her. I got the idea for the poem from Ellen. Ellen has a poem in her adult poetry collection that is very similar, breaking down things by definition.
I often say to young people, “We carry our memories and our families and the recipes that we grew up on with us when we go anywhere; when we walk into a space, all of that comes with us.” The definition poem is this way of saying “What is the memory? What are the memories that you have of your hair? Who have you touched with your hands? What are the stories of the scars on your knee?” The poem allows young people a range of memories to experiment with. I can share happy memories. I can share some sad ones. I can stand up for myself. All in this confined limited space of talking about it with a bit of distance, because you’re talking about it as the definition of your body, instead of writing a personal essay about a childhood memory. This is one way to ask young people to think about the story of their body, and the stories that they bring with them when they come into our classrooms.
Linda Christensen: One of the reasons it’s a brilliant poem is for exactly the reasons you said — it allows students to choose the pieces of themselves they want to share. You have a particular experience, but all students can bring themselves into this poem. As writing teachers we’re always looking for the poetry prompts that allow students a space to enter and write themselves into the poem and into the classroom. This poem does that really well.
Renée Watson: Thank you. When I work with young people and I have them write their own poems, we do a lot of listing and brainstorming. Before we get to writing the poem, I ask them, “What’s the story of your hair? Just list out memories you have about your hair, no one’s going to look at your list. You can talk about the worst haircut you’ve ever had. Some things you might not want to share out loud. That’s OK.” I might say, “Tell me about a scar that you have. Who have you held in your arms? When have you cried?” Then they’ll have so much to choose from for the actual poem that they’re going to write. Most writers, I am speaking for myself, but I think this is true for most of my writer friends, we never just sit down and say, you know, “I’m going to write a poem today.” There’s a lot of brainstorming and thinking and planning and sitting with an idea. As much as possible we want to create an atmosphere for young people to get in the mood to write by getting them to come up with ideas, so that when it’s time to create the poem, they have so many things to choose from, and are primed to do the writing.
Linda Christensen: Let’s talk about revision. I love your article in Rhythm and Resistance called “Remixing Revision: Using Music to Motivate Poetry Revision.” I used your lesson recently in a high school class.
Renée Watson: Right. I used two versions of “Killing Me Softly”: one by Roberta Flack, and one by the Fugees with Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean. Students are often familiar with both and say, “Oh, my mom listens to that.” Probably now they’d be saying, “My grandma listens to that.”
I use music to help students realize that I’m not saying what they wrote or how they wrote it is wrong. I’m just saying there might be another way you could tell this story, or how do we want to make it stronger. I talked a lot about remixes — pulling a song that they love and then playing the old-school version of it. I show them that people take words all the time, the same exact words, and do something different with them. Asking them to do that with their work is another way to help them see revision not as “Oh, I did this wrong, and I have to go fix it,” but instead “How can I make it stronger? How can I have a different intro, a new beginning or ending?” I think it allows them to want to play with language and not feel like they’re in trouble.
Linda Christensen: I like to get a raft of poems going in class, and then ask students to select at least one to experiment on. There’s teaching that happens when we write the poem, but I also want to give them specific strategies to go back into a poem to make it stronger. One revision strategy I use is showing how to add a list. I share “Brown Dreams” by Paul Flores:
This is a brown dream.
Brown as the Bus Riders Union.
Brown as gasoline.
Brown as the Tigris-Euphrates
The Mississippi, and the Rio Grande.
Brown as coyotes.
Brown as the blood-soaked sands
and on the ranches of Arizona
Brown as affirmative action in
but not the university.
This is a brown dream.
Then they go back into one of their poems and add a list. We might look at outrageous verbs with Patricia Smith.
In your poem “A Psalm for Emmett Till” you have a series of lists: What I wonder, and what I know, and what your mother said. And each phrase is followed by a list. It’s a great teaching poem because the content is powerful, exploring Emmett Till beyond the boy in the coffin, as you wrote. Students can follow your model. Can you talk about lists as a poet?
Renée Watson: Listing creates rhythm in a poem, and it drives home an idea. When we talk about making lists within poems, it’s a way to help young people break out of rhyming poems. Sometimes they try so hard to rhyme that the poem loses its meaning because they’re choosing a word that isn’t the best word, but it rhymes. Repetition, listing, repeating maybe one word, all help build rhythm without having to make it rhyme. And that’s a tool many students love to experiment with. If you think of the chorus of a song, the theme of the song, listing something over and over is driving home that theme that you’re trying to have your reader feel. That’s a way to get them thinking about the message of their poem. Then they can go back and highlight something to repeat over and over again.
Linda Christensen: Our teaching and revision strategies introduce students to techniques, but also introduce them to different poets because we use excerpts from different pieces. I use these strategies in narrative, in fiction, in memoir, in essays. I want students to see that the dancing they do with language in poetry is something that they can carry over and embed in their other writing. And that’s what good writing does. Poetry is the weightlifting of all writing.
Renée Watson: Yes, after you’ve taught something, and they’ve experimented with it, when they revise, you can ask them to find the strategies that we’ve talked about — like metaphors, similes, personification. We can demonstrate that the reason writers use these techniques is to surprise their readers by making us view the world in a fresh way. This allows young people to play with language. Much of writing is serious, and they might feel stuck. But if you let them experiment with metaphors and personification, so much gets unpacked for them, and it kind of explodes. And they get super creative with language.
In her poem “Left Memories,” Patricia Smith uses personification to give her hips a life of their own. The line is “I can’t walk in a straight line without my hips wailing hallelujah.” I talk about that with students: “What does it mean for your hips to wail hallelujah?” — and discuss that. And then I could ask, “Well, what do your hips do? Or what do your hands do? Think about personifying your body” — or whatever it is that they’re writing about. Again, we can pull lines from Patricia Smith and from other poets to give students several examples of ways poets use figurative language and then have them experiment with their own.
Linda Christensen: Patricia Smith is an amazing wordsmith. I often take chunks of her poems or her essays and have students highlight the verbs and choose five and write their own poem or take five of her verbs and go back and see where they could use these. Or take an amazing phrase and lift off of it to write their own piece.
For me, teaching revision is not just one lesson. It’s constant playing with words. Letting go of perfection and the idea of being “done.” It’s a way of seeing writing not as something we study from the past, but examining what writers do in poetry these days. And showing students how to embed that in their own writing.
I love the poem “Wellfleet Whale,” by Stanley Kunitz. He uses similes, uses strong, specific concrete language and details that I want students to bring in. It’s a poem about the whale dying in Wellfleet Harbor. “You have your language too/ an eerie medley of clicks/ and hoots and trills,/ location-notes and love calls,/ whistles and grunts. Occasionally,/ it’s like furniture being smashed,/ or the creaking of a mossy door,/ sounds that all melt into a liquid. . . .” One thing I like about this poem is it shows that poetry is not just about flowers and pretty things, that it’s also about sounds like furniture being smashed. As you said, surprising the reader.
I’m more conscious now about asking students to go back and highlight places in their poems where they changed the line break, added concrete details, made the verbs more active, and then writing about why they made those changes. This year, students created videos about one poem. First reading it, then talking about it as a poet: What changes did they make? And why did they make those changes? It’s important for students to articulate what they revised and why so that they can remember those strategies in their next piece of writing.
Renée Watson: I love that. I’m sitting here thinking about checklists. A lot of times the way education is set up is like, I give you an assignment, and this is what it needs to be. And students want to know “When is it done? How do I know that I’m finished, and that I did it right?” They want to make sure they didn’t do it wrong. And it’s poetry — it’s hard to tell a student it’s not finished or it is finished. To help them know when their writing is finished, I often make a checklist and say, you know, these are the elements that make a strong poem. This is what we’ve been talking about. In class, we’ve talked about personification. I want to see that in your poem. I want all five senses present, something you smell, taste, texture, etc. so that they can self-guide themselves and think, “Oh, do I have the five senses? Am I using sensory detail?” They can know that they are using the tools that a writer uses to create and that sometimes helps guide them even when they’re stuck. They can go back to that checklist and think, “Oh, I haven’t done this yet. So let me work on this in the poem.”
Linda Christensen: Yes, getting the students to go back to their work is so much more important than grading poetry. I will put it out there: I really don’t believe in grades. And I don’t believe they make students better writers of poetry, essays, narratives. What we need is to keep the writer going back to the writing. There are pieces that I’ve written, that I have rewritten and rewritten, and then rewritten for another purpose. As a teacher, I want to reward students taking risks. That’s very different from trying to get to compliance, which is what grades often reward. I want students to be wild and risky in the classroom. I want them to feel free to try different things. Grades hamper that. I’m successful as a teacher if students continue to write. The grade is not what matters; what matters is students moving forward in their writing. Yes, I have to give a grade at the end of the term, but the grade reflects their efforts on a revision. If you played, if you tried, you get all the points.
Renée, it was wonderful to be with you here today. Thank you so much for your generous gift of wisdom with us.
Renée Watson: It’s an honor to be with you, Linda.
What I’d like to say to educators is the beautiful thing about being a teacher is that you are planting seeds. And sometimes you’re the first person to plant the seed. Sometimes you’re the one who is watering it. And you don’t always know what that harvest is going to look like. Not all of us get to go back and tell our teachers thank you or let them know what we’re up to. But please know that you are doing the good work, and that what you do in the classroom, it really does matter. I have so many teachers in my life who fanned the flame, and nurtured me and helped me become the writer that I am. But what you’re teaching is not just the subject matter. You’re really teaching young people. So thank you for doing the good work and for inspiring and nurturing and loving on our young people, especially right now with all that’s going on.
*** This Body by Renée Watson SKIN: NOUN 1. Sensitive. Dry See Dove soap, Oil of Olay, shea butter. See middle school pimples plumping up the night before picture day. Always on the chin or nose. 2. Dark. See Slave. See Negro. See age 7. See yourself playing on the playground when a white girl says, you must eat a lot of chocolate since your skin so brown. HAIR: NOUN 1. See assimilation. See smoke from the hot comb crocheting the air, burning a sacred incense. See your momma parting your hair, brining iron to nap, “Hold your ear baby,” she tells you. So she can press Africa out. When Black girls ask, “Is it real?” Say yes. When white girls ask, “Can I touch it?” Say no. 2. See natural. Reference Angela Davis, Dorothy Pitman Hughes. Comb yours out. Twist yours like black licorice, like the lynching rope used on your ancestors’ necks. Let it hang free. HIPS: NOUN 1. Reference Lucille Clifton and every other big girl who knows how to work a Hula-Hoop. See Beyoncé. Dance like her in the mirror. Do not be afraid of all your powers. 2. You will not fit in most places. Do not bend, squeeze, contort yourself. Be big, brown girl. Big wide smile. Big wild hair. Big wondrous hips. Brown girl, be. From Watch Us Rise, Bloomsbury, 2019