Spoken Word ELA Unit

How we got here

Everybody loves poetry, right?!  Sadly, this isn’t true.  And if you ever taught a group of hyper freshmen addicted to their phones, you know that teaching poetry can certainly be one of the hardest units in the ELA classroom.

Nicole and I joined forces after North Carolina adopted the Common Core State Standards.  I was the budding teacher in his first year and she was the veteran who just recently became Department Chair.  We both were put into ELA I, so we planned out all of the units together.  For the most part, all of  our units were great.  The kids grew and everyone was engaged, all except for when we did poetry.

Our poetry unit consisted of studying classic poetry, learning the poetic devices used, and creating poems that emulated the classics.  It was boring for not just the students, but for us as teachers.  That’s when Nicole introduced to me the film, Louder Than a Bomb, a documentary filmed and produced by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel.  The film featured teen poets from Chicago as they competed in Chicago’s Youth poetry competition, Louder Than a Bomb.  The film was interesting, showed how poetry can bring people together, and showed how poetry can actually be entertaining and serve a purpose to a wider audience.  I fell in love with it!

The Unit

The next year we began showing our students the film as a way to introduce poetry.  While watching the film, students have to analyze at least four of the several poems featured.  There are five big poems featured, but the rest of the poetry can easily be found on YouTube.

A free worksheet that I found online that I like to use is attached here:

9th Grade Poetry Analysis Worksheet

Otherwise, we’ve created our own in the past.  You could easily create one that fits four poetry analysis “worksheets” on one sheet of printer paper.

After we watch the film, I begin with analyzing four poems: Nova Venerable’s “Cody,” Adam Gotlieb’s “Maxwell Street,” Lamar Jorden’s “Shooter,” and Nate Marshall’s “Look.” Using the handouts found on the Louder Than a Bomb educator’s supplementary material that we found online (LTAB Supplementary Material PDF), we also study some of the classics/modern poetry written that go along with each poem.  I also end up covering the following devices when studying each poem (Note that some of the poetry contain intense language.  I choose to cover it with my students based on rapport and students’ comfort):

  1. Nova’s “Cody”- William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” and “The Great Figure.” Cover imagery, use of figurative language (particularly extended metaphor/simile), and use of adjectives/verbs and diction. Using handouts found in PDF, students write a “portrait” piece painting the picture of someone they love.
  2. Adam Gotlieb’s “Maxwell Street”- Kevin Coval’s “Letter to Chi.” Cover allusions, use of figurative language that coincide with imagery, developing a narrative poem, and establishing a message/theme. Students write a piece about what “home” means to them.
  3. Lamar Jorden’s “Shooter”- The poem “Skinhead” by Patricia Smith is a great way to understand the concepts and to serve as an example of archetypes/persona pieces.  It contains strong, intense language.  I only do this poem with my most mature classes.  Cover poetic sound devices (alliteration, assonance, and consonance), archetypes, and word play.  After discussing the difference between archetypes and stereotypes, students are challenged to write a poem from the perspective of an archetype, aiming to break the stereotypes that revolve around it.
  4. Nate Marshall’s “Look”- Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Trippin’.” Cover word play, use of hyperbole, rhyme, rhythm, and reinforcing of the other poetic devices/literary terms.  Students write an “ego” piece, expressing how awesome they are based on their identity.

Overall, the students typically begin to enjoy poetry and write about topics that either interest them or challenges them in unique ways.  After we go through each of these poems, we then begin to look at various poetry, using strategies like TP-CASTT (Type Cast). Poetry I like to cover include:

  • “The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall
  • “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost
  • “Once By the Pacific” by Robert Frost
  • “A Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
  • “I am Nobody, Who Are You” by Emily Dickinson
  • “Woman Work” by Maya Angelou
  • “The Seven Ages of Man” by William Shakespeare
  • “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I then bridge poetry into my Shakespeare/Romeo and Juliet Unit, where we study sonnets while reading the famous tragedy.

Links for material above in blue.  Movie can be purchased on Amazon Prime for streaming or in DVD format.  It is also available for free on YouTube. Individual poetry videos are also available on YouTube by searching for poet and name of poem.