“I’d like to invoke the Native American Navajo because their word for road is used as a verb. Their whole relationship to road has to do with how you travel it” Anne Waldman
This poetry unit is conceived for teachers for whom the road to learning is an active interdisciplinary verb, a method with which to weave together academic protocols with creative learning. The plan is expansive, as it asks teachers to build their own cross-curricular lessons. Cross-curricular, based on the logic of this unit, asks teachers to give students meaningful problems to solve with discussion-based questions and project-based assignments. This deep dive into what it means to be a creative writing instructor is designed for educators who are lifelong students, activists, writers, researchers, journalists, and explorers.
The purpose of an arts-inspired lesson plan that takes poetry as both sound and object foregrounds intensive research activity alongside hands-on writing activity as a nexus for composing authentic narrative. While conferencing, conversation and collaboration are at the heart of a strong editing process, the logic of this unit hopes to distance teachers from critique and to align students with innovation, study, and immersion into research and into traditional poetic forms. Rather than focusing on writing something good according to conventional metrics, the power of writing in this curriculum comes from the heart of an intentional student architected culture. Students and teachers collaboratively find innovative structures to develop and promote writing that will keep us sane. Innovative writing technologies and multi-media performances deserve to be at the center of teaching practice.
The unit is a call to offer our students honorable life-long roles as writers. Writers who make meaning and who make change as they research and problem-solve. Following in the footsteps of the seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell in his An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland and The Black Panther: Black Community News Service in the twentieth century, students writing in this curriculum take innovate forms to support revolutionary voices against power and racism.
Acknowledging recent communities of artists who collaborated and studied art together during the Harlem Renaissance and the Beat movement, we find the rich rewards of collaboration and exchange. These are examples of the energies this unit draws its inspiration from. We build relationships through collaboration, improvisation, and performance rather than prioritizing revisions on the page.
This curriculum introduces close-reading and close-listening research as the ground for creative writing personal essay writing mirrored in the seventeenth-century form of the commonplace book, a self-published notebook of relevant phrases and poetry. This is a practice of book making that mirrors the essential qualities of book-building outside of traditional publication and distribution norms, freeing students to see their writing as a relevant object. Some other examples of non-traditional books to inspire creative work include:
Read aloud illustrated children’s books such as Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Bedtime for Frances by Russel Hoban
The abecedarian such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The ABC or the mnemonic word games in the works of Dr. Seuss
Emily Dickinson’s cryptic poetic parables and her letters
Mina Loy’s modern manuscript length poem The Last Lunar Baedeker
Psalms verses offering hope and healing, advice, and comfort
Ta-Nahesi Coates’ epistolic essay of advice and warnings to his son in Between the World and Me
Journalist, publisher and queer poet, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
Anne Fadiman’s contemporary narrative essays/narrative nonfiction teaching techniques and ethics
Poet and performer Anne Waldman’s series IOVIS
Zen monk, singer songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen
Notes and Recipes from A Young Black Chef by the writer, chef, biographer, and restaurant owner Kwame Onwuachi
Netflix series High on the Hog designed by Stephen Scatterfield, writer and producer of a series researching family and cultural stories through the roots of recipes
Kendrick Lamar’s album How to Pimp a Butterfly
Students guided by their teachers, in consultation with peers, and supported by their community networks, structure a piece of rigorously researched manuscript inspired by the wisdom gathered by the writers listed above. The path is to gather relevant and harmonic as well as discordant voices of contemporary urban youth culture in the spirt of Allen Ginsberg mantra poems modeled on the long form poem, inspired by contemplative arts practices, including informational texts such as The Farmer’s Almanac, and travel guides. A deliberate syllabus then provides methodologies for students to collect and document their lives by recording biographical stories. These stories can be told in cadenced, organized, multivocal lyrical form as a unique cultural anthem, or a non-fiction essay. The plan is for teachers who want to take their students on an authentic writing journey to teach research practices to benefit teachers and students alike. Students and teachers will study authentic texts from a culturally diverse range of self-selected wisdom and literary traditions to document and appreciate their lives and futures.
Following these suggestions for practice and study results in a manuscript broadly defined, a hand-held book or recorded spoken word anthem in the tradition of Tyehimba Jess’s redemptive Olio. This poet’s redemptive work retells stories unscripted in the past. In this way, Jess remarkably preserves intergenerational knowledge and stories of resilience and love, from rediscovered artifacts, recipes, songs, and interviews. The ground established through research might take the form of: Capstone project requirement for graduation, a recorded archived audio Story Corps or TED Talk script, a 3-D map, a letter-pressed broadside, or mural, depending on resources.
Students gather and record the history of their neighborhoods, through the songs in their personal playlists and taking time to script/record conversation, and voices that surround them in their daily lives. In this way students record the authenticity of their individual and societal present and past. Their work reveals the suffering and the triumphs in the world around them. This research-based writing projects benefit students, teachers, families, and schools alike, by initiating dialogue. Reading and writing in this syllabus amplifies confidence in both student and teacher’s intuitive knowledge. It is a skillful method to acknowledge our diverse experiences by sharing with each other what it means to be a citizen, in the broadest definition of this role. Inspiring confidence in the value of reading and writing to recognize the importance of who we are.
Teachers and families commit to understanding community dynamics and therefore can help one another design and implement service projects. Original research will lead to tangible networking generating new conversations while supporting community service hours or other graduation requirements. Lessons focused on first-person research methodologies alongside geography-specific writing prompts and multimedia assignments are the basis for writing. Students of all ages collaborate to generate and record conversations around culture and location to document or to critique the society we live in. In our rigorous writing practice, we will illuminate connections in the creative spirit of art and family.
Additionally, research notably supports the social emotional learning ground necessary to appreciate our individual writing process. Listening to each other and by sharing the arts, performance, we free ourselves from an insistence on productivity over consideration. This unit provides a new basis for understanding our surroundings while exploring the powers of research and of writing. Investigations centered in academic skills deepen our intellectual and creative journeys. Writing manuscripts establishes relationships within our community to inspire and to support one another into the future. Literary, research, collaborative and studio-based approaches could include:
Contemplative practice from traditions of choice including making posters in the style of the revolutionary artist Emory Douglas, which advertised the need for good health care and education for Black children in the United States.
Commonplace Book: sharing benefits of keeping a contemporary Commonplace Book. Readers turn their books into a repository of beautiful phrases, logic, prayers, recipes, annotations. Studying methods from contemplative traditions that are known to the community of students and practicing traditions as a society, find new value and power in our relationship with one another.
Investigations: tours of local university campuses, public fountains, libraries, neighborhood gardens, libraries, city murals, memory gardens, children’s theatre, playwrighting camps, archivists to teach research methods, interviews, Story Corps project. Teachers can design field trips to collect culturally relevant data.
Resources: Poets RaY’dyo, Christopher Funkhouser (NJIT) recorded interviews with writers talking about their process while sharing their creative work to create both a record and build a revenue stream for a creative writing arts department.
Mapping: using different mappings of your city to build stories around what has happened on the land we live on. Knowing the history of where we live helps us to understand and to deepen our relationships with each other and with the environment: See, for example, the writing in Public Citizen by the environmental historian Paul Sabin. A close reading of this text diagrams responsible citizenship. Having a say in well-being makes life worth living. Advocacy is an important power to hold on to.
The Other Side of Prospect by Nicholas Dawidoff directs us to his redemptive relationship with a city that supported him, brought him and his family resources and peace even though his background was fraught with difficult circumstances. Dawidoff returns the city of his childhood to write a story which frees a man from a wrongful conviction. His book, while a researched personal narrative, is also a labor of social justice. His book shows how research, intention, hard work, and effort can make a community better.
Mixed media collage methods which play with relationships between words, images and sounds help students understand the steps to building a larger manuscript, a more in-depth story, or series of poems. These layers of thinking are reflected in student knowledge of social media. Text rich social media which includes critical thinking is a sign of developing wisdom. Authentic writing, like anything of value, comes from working hard with the materials we have on hand.
Poetry and Reasearch
This course of study speaks to intergenerational community healing by teaching fundamental research techniques, such as note taking and bibliography making which will serve students and teachers for a lifetime. In the United States the public school system encompasses and serves the rich social and economic diversity in this country. Teachers can find ways to group poetry research projects so that they serve their student population. Research can build bridges between students with little in common by explaining why this is the case. Knowing the origin of our diversity and our privilege helps us find ways to access our potential. Discussion and empathy lead to understanding which is also a means for reconciliation. Reading and writing poetry has a long history of helping bring people together through valuable, selective, organized words. Teaching students to present themselves as poets changes the outcome of their academic process.
Skills taught include: the hands-on, kinesthetic learning of bookmaking, collaging, interviewing, performing, sharing work made for a specific audience. All these processes are designed by the teacher to share reinforce the value of intellectual text rich practices. Teaching writing as a survival skill is part of the plan. This curriculum emphasizes community building disguised as rigorous disciplined creative writing practices as the road.
Reflecting on our personal literacy narrative, we recognize that early on in our time at school, our reading and writing focus turns towards textual analysis. We learn the literary language of plot, characters, themes, tone, moral, and message. Then we are thrown into the domain of the 5-paragraph essay. Introduction, body paragraph, conclusion, argumentative essays are taught formulaically. While convenient for administrative purposes and for collecting data, this writing style is overtaught, leading to unnecessary tedium and boredom within the vast possibilities of the writing landscape. Encouraged to read broadly across the curriculum from treatises on astrophysics, to local spoken word poetics, then learning to read and navigate international maps, becoming comfortable reading a graph during a track meet on Athletic Net, brings joy to reading and interpretation.
Exploring reading texts rich anthropological studies, mysteries, poems, novels, cartoons, song lyrics opens classroom potential. Often required reading in a public-school curriculum entails books that are read and reread for generations. These books are plowed through for an entire year. The final act is an analytical or narrative essay employing ethos, pathos, and logos as the engine. This sequence is often followed by a PowerPoint presentation. This genre of practice, not surprisingly, results in formulaic disenfranchised reading and writing—students who summarily hate English. Habitual negligence of this kind naturally reinforces a monotonous relationship with anything to do with books not to mention the consistency of a dense rigorous, complicated rubric in and of itself, too much of the same kind of thing that makes students hate writing.
The force behind a poetry-based writing program hopes to revive a deep dive, a multi-season exploration of word and text, image, and sound not limited to subject matter (English versus History versus Art versus Math versus Science versus Music versus Gym and Geography), but which leaves adequate time and space for deepening relationships to an academic project as well as time to nurture social-emotional skills throughout an entire school year or grade. Students, teachers, and families build intentional environments/projects designed to recognize and appreciate one another. Instruction within this program is not authoritarian, thus maintaining a natural hierarchy between shareholders with intentional productive exchanges between students, teachers, and their families. The goal is to study poetry and all its inherent possibilities, learning in and as a community, developing academic, technical as well as creative skills arising from an authentic connection to reading, researching, writing, drawing, performing. This unit is designed to tacitly alter the course of a student and their family’s belief in the value of their education with enriched, relevant content. Additionally, this curriculum presents itself with cultural forms and practices to bring social-emotional learning, practicing how to find peace where we are, well-being and healing to communities through meditation, mindful contemplation, warrior walks, ikebana, and restorative listening and conversation.
We shall build an infrastructure of intentional practices restoring joy to teachers and their students. Families are urged to place value on enjoying one another’s company through orchestrated, planned, simple nonsectarian rituals: tea ceremony, cooking, sharing recipes, food, dance, and celebration. Activities are modeled on Japanese, Tibetan, Navajo, and Scottish sacred tradition valuing beauty, purification, ikebana and ceremony, rituals often forsaken in the secular classroom. We reinvigorate classroom space, redeem time, our relationship to the earth, and co-develop needed resources for social-emotional well-being, patience, and love. Through cross-curricular studies in writing, literature, history, and the arts, we rediscover school as a place for genuine relationship building, uncovering the tools each student, each teacher, each family needs to be safe, resourced and connected.
Example of Ritual: The Tibetan lhasang ceremony
Offering. In his writings in The Indestructible Truth on Tibetan Buddhism, Reginald Ray discusses the lhasang, “The offerings consist both of actual physical substances and those that are conceived with the imagination...consisting of the visualization of all the good and fine things that the world has to offer... then offering them can be equally powerful, whether they are material or not.” Becoming an intentional architect of a peaceful learning environment while creating space for critical and creative thinking infused with rich intellectual and social emotional intention, is a ceremonial construction and building of the highest order: making chaos a garden, and for some students a paradise. The classrooms in public schools are mostly poor in resources yet rich in social capital, diversity, and culture. Exploring maps and methods for cultural practice and awareness to the classroom increases the likelihood students will be comfortable enough to acquire new learning, develop executive functioning necessary to improve on what they know. Teachers are working in front of the eight ball when they arrive to teach students whose individual nonacademic needs are so high.
In many ways as teachers, we are looking for ways to help students lead lives with individual meaning and purpose. This curriculum is designed to inspire teachers to carefully and intentionally create an environment so rich in activities and content that time spent reading, writing, collaging, or conversing within its confines, lifts our student towards success. Teaching writing follows so closely in the conundrum of “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink” thus with teaching writing poetry, one of the highest orders of thinking humans perform. Innately we are given to understanding our lives through language. There is no problem with this. However, we can lose our connection to the basic intuitions and the natural grammar where our emotions and our images flourish. By intentionally arranging a deliberate place for studying and developing intellectual talents through reading, researching, and appreciating poetry in many forms, we give students the gift of value. Writing comes from every aspect of who we are, in a sense, a limitless ocean of possibility. To be a student is to be a fish moving through the ocean, learning the natural hierarchies of nature. School is an intensive immersive experience which can be holistically measured through reading and writing poetry given the depth of the practice.
A poetic analogy for how students learn through relationships, community is a family of trees. Outside the window where I am writing is a family of trees from pine to lilac, from various parts of the ecosystem yet they share resources and thrive. While the nutrients the trees share are vital, they are rarely acknowledged by human society. We might take sunlight, water, and soil for granted yet when we notice the beautiful relationships between trees, the power of the environment becomes clear. This is true especially at a time when students are aware of the fragility of our lives, livelihoods, and our future on this planet. There is no better time than the present to practice meaningful writing.
Rituals: Chanoyu, Ikebana. Haiku, Calligraphy, and Gardening
Chanoyu literally means “hot water for tea.” The art of Chanoyu, preparing and serving a bowl of tea, is a synthesis of many Japanese arts such as flower arranging, calligraphy, poetry, ceramics, lacquerware, cooking, architecture, gardening, and more. Recognizing we cannot bring boiling hot water into the classroom; it is the blending of arts that draws me to make tea ceremony an example for bringing intentional contemplative practices to the schools.
The practice of flower arranging according to heaven, earth, and human principles, clandestinely enlivens students’ senses with the beauty of tea in a teacup, flower arranged artfully in space each flower acknowledging the presence of another.
Haiku, an improvisational “make it new” practice can be expanded and differentiated with materials associated with a traditional activity related to Japanese brush work of calligraphy. “Make it new” is a call from the American Objectivist poets to get away from overdone poetic verse to rediscover a spontaneous spirit in writing, a style which imitated the crisp connections haiku makes between mind and body. Haiku is visual and physical writing practice that naturally lends to ceremony which is a form of appreciation: Haiku poetry is chance to connect with our shared intelligence and creativity moment. The value of this writing emerges from how we value each other and how we respect each other’s effort.
Gardens: working with city-based initiatives to plant intentional gardens at school or at home as the basis for a unit of researched poetry writing based in studying the effects of green spaces on well-being and health.