How to Teach Living Poets, with Mel Smith

So you’re using a textbook, or a pile of books you inherited from the last teacher, and you’re looking for more ways to bring contemporary voices into your classroom? You’re in the right place! We’ve talked about how powerful choice reading can be for this, and today we’re diving into a whole new and wonderful world of connection – modern poetry.

Welcome to #teachlivingpoets.

Today on the podcast in episode 156, we’ll hear from Melissa Alter Smith, veteran teacher, author, and leader of an online movement to teach more contemporary poetry. Along with a wonderful team of collaborators, she’s done the work to help make it easy to bring modern poetry your students can connect to into your classroom.

You can listen in below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

The Origins of #teachlivingpoets

Mel’s passion for teaching living poets began when she was teaching A.P. Literature, and noticed that the college board was using way more contemporary poetry in the exam.

So she started to integrate a little of it into her classes, and students reacted so positively. They could understand the poetry; it felt relevant to their own lives. So Mel started teaching it more and sharing more of what she was up to with other teachers on Twitter.

Soon other teachers were getting interested, and even poets were interacting with her posts.

“Thank you for teaching living poets,” Kaveh Akbar Tweeted one day, and with his permission, she started a new hashtag (that became a movement), #teachlivingpoets.

Teaching contemporary poetry can be challenging, and she realized she wanted to help teachers with it. She shared more and more, and soon started a website where she could curate all the great things that were happening on Twitter.

The Digital Poetry Library

One of the most powerful resources on the Teach Living Poets website, is the digital library of living poets. Mel collaborated with teacher Scott Bayer on the project. It’s a visual curation of about 25 modern poets with work appropriate for the classroom. You can scroll through and see their pictures, link to their bios, link to their books, and see individual poems. Some poets have even created personalized videos for students and teachers about why it’s important to teach living poets.

The library gives you quick access to poets you can choose from for class, but it’s also an easy way to offer students’ choice. They can look through the digital pages and pick a poet whose work they want to explore, then read/watch/listen and bring their takeaways back to the group.

Check out the Living Poets Virtual Library here.

The Poetry Hyperdocs

Another wonderful resource on the site features a linked list of poetry hyperdocs. Mel worked on these with many collaborators in the A.P. Literature teaching community, with a structure developed by Matt Brisbane. You can shop through the hyperdocs for a daily lesson plan, sub plan, or even full poetry unit.

To see an example, check out this unit created for Joy Harjo’s work: Teaching unit for American Sunrise.

Teaching Amanda Gorman

I first met Mel after she created an inspiring, creative lesson for Amanda Gorman’s poem, “New Day’s Lyric,” shared the results on Twitter, and got positive comments from Amanda. When I heard that there was an Amanda Gorman-approved lesson plan for her poem, I had to know more!

Mel wanted to start 2022 with a fresh, positive approach with her students, and Gorman’s new poem was perfect. Gorman’s iconic presence, voice, and style is so appealing for students, and her words are hopeful and inspiring.

Mel and her student began by working through the poem and annotating it with depth.

Then she wanted to give them a new way to process it creatively. She had read from poet Kaveh Akber that he starts to see his poems as shapes and colors after he reads them over and over. Mel showed her students some of Akber’s poetry images and then offered them the same idea – how could they interpret Gorman’s poem through shapes and colors?

After her students created their images, Mel tweeted their work and they got more positive comments back from Amanda Gorman – so thrilling for the kids!

Integrating Living Poets

Though it can feel intimidating to begin integrating living poets with everything else in your curriculum, it’s such a wonderful way to bring more contemporary voices and perspectives into your class. For some kids, it’ll be the first time they’ll read something they can relate to.

You can bring in a single day with a living poet, pair poetry with some of your larger class texts, or even teach a full modern poetry collection.

It’s worth making the space.

Top Poetry Collections to Teach

If you’re looking for your first contemporary poetry collection for class, Mel would highly recommend Clint Smith ‘s “Something You Should Know” & Counting Descent .

You can check out a full unit for the book here: Teaching unit for Counting Descent.

Another wonderful collection is Citizen Illegal, by José Olivarez.

Check out the full unit:  Complete teaching unit for Citizen Illegal

Go-To Sources for Living Poet Discovery

If you’d like to start bringing more contemporary poetry into your life, Mel suggests some great sources you can use.

You can subscribe to Poets.org for their poem of the day.

In April, NCTE has a program called “NCTE Verse” in which teachers share a favorite poet and several resources to match.

The LMS Voice Poetry Database is another rich site for searching out options for class.

And finally, there are two wonderful podcasts you can explore: Commonplace, by poet Rachel Zucker, in which she interviews a poet on each show, and Poet’s Salon, in which three poets interview a poet in one episode, then analyze a poem by that poet in the next, paired, episode.

Teaching Ada Limon’s “Instructions for Not Giving Up”

Ada Limón has a poem called “Instructions for Not Giving Up” that Mel likes to use with her students.

You can check out the full lesson here: Shades of Green (with Ada Limón poem)

Limón incorporates a lot of colors in the poem and it really stands out, so Mel took that as inspiration and did one of her “Pop Up Poetry” activities with her kids

She picked up many colors of paper in the scrapbooking aisle at her local art store, then hung them up on the board. Then she invited students to do some word association, adding words below the colors that the color made them think of.

Now that they were building a writing community as they shared ideas and looked at each other’s words, Mel invited them to put together creative and unique word pairs like “misty vomit” from the words that they listed on the board, and then put those pairs on the board too.

Finally, she asked them to use the words and the word pairs surrounding them to create a poem inspired by color.

For activities like this, Mel highly recommends writing with your students, and then inviting everyone to share at least one line at the end.

Loving the idea of a “pop-up poetry” activity? Try this Name Poem activity and Letter Play (like Scattegories for poetry).

More Contemporary Poems to Love

Looking for a few more reliable go-tos you can add to your curriculum this year?

Here are some of Mel’s favorites:

  • Li-Young Lee’s “Leaving”
  • Matthew Olzmann  “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem”  – see it read on the Ours Poetica Youtube channel, created by John Green and poet Paige Lewis
  • Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic – this collection by the deaf Ukrainian poet is unique and powerful in many ways, including that he incorporates drawings of signing and creates a narrative arc for the whole collection through the individual poems
  • Jose Olivares’ “Ode to Cheese Fries”
  • Joy Harjo’s “Tobacco Origin Story”

Connect with Mel Alter Smith

Melissa Alter Smith is the creator of the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag and teachlivingpoets.com. She is a National Board Certified high school English teacher in Charlotte, NC. Melissa is co-author of Teach Living Poets (NCTE, 2021) and the Norton Guide to AP Literature: Writing & Skills (W.W. Norton, 2022). She is 2017 District Teacher of the Year, an AP Reader, & an NCETA Executive Board member. She has presented at NCTIES, WVELA, SSCTE, NCETA, NCTE-WLU Summer Institute, NCTE, AWP, the AP Annual Conference, and facilitates professional development sessions. Melissa is also a co-author of the Instructor’s Manual and AP Correlation Guide for the 13th high school edition of The Norton Introduction to Literature, and is a member of an advisory board to the Library of Congress’ Poet Laureate Project educational toolkit. She is featured on LitHub.com, in The New York Times, NEATE News, Mind Shift KQED, NCTE’s Council Chronicle, ASCD’s Education Update, Prestwick House, The Poetry Question, and on Education Talk Radio. Her work is focused on complicating the canon, supporting teachers, and empowering students through poetry.

You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @MelAlterSmith.

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