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Tip of the Week: Blackout Poetry

Okay. I know that movies about teachers rarely tell the whole story. You know the ones I’m talking about – movies like:

  • Stand and Deliver
  • Freedom Writers
  • Dangerous Minds
  • Mr. Holland’s Opus
  • Lean On Me

They rarely show the hours of grading, the phone calls from parents, IEP meetings, kids throwing up on your shoes, music program practice, endless committees, extra duties, coaching – though there does always seem to be some sort of happy ending.

But ya know . . . I still enjoy ’em. My favorite? Dead Poets Society. Maybe because the ending is not quite as sugar-coated as the others. But what really sells it is Robin Williams’ poetry speech. You remember. Apple recently came out with a sweet commercial that uses the speech to see iPads.

I’ve been pushing the use of poetry as a high-quality instructional tool for a while now. Poetry incorporates much of what we know encourages high levels of learning – emotion, stories, word pictures, connection to content. And it hits tons of the Common Core literacy standards for History/Government. So Williams’ Dead Poets speech resonates.

One idea that I’ve been sharing with teachers but never really written about before is the concept of Blackout Poetry. But a recent post by Larry Ferlazzo describing The New York Times new online version of the strategy was a sign.

So. Here we are.

Blackout Poetry is bit hard to describe. Basically you provide students with a page of text. Kids then “blackout” – using a marker or Sharpie – all the words on the page except those words that tell the story they want to tell. It makes more sense when you see it . . . so a few examples.

blackout poetry 1

Mill worker conditions.

It doesn't have to be a total blackout.

It doesn’t have to be a total blackout.

Think of Blackout Poetry as the opposite of “normal” poetry. Instead of writing a poem by filling a blank page with words, you start with a page already full of words and eliminate the ones you don’t need.

All you need is some text and markers. The cool thing is that the text can be anything. Original blackout poetry used newspaper articles. But you can use magazine articles. Or head to your school or public library and beg for old books they want to throw away. Have kids rip out the pages. Kids love to rip out pages.

Simple steps for students?

  • Briefly browse through the text you have.
  • Circle the words on the page you want to use in your poem.
  • Black out everything else.

Of course, actual practice is much more difficult. But it forces kids to think about your content. The key is to give clear directions about what their poem should be about. In the example above, kids were to use their assigned text to think and write about the life of young female mill workers in early America.

Perhaps even better, use copies or text from primary sources. Then ask students to use their poem to summarize the document or to discuss the impact of the document or connect the document with a contemporary event or highlight changes over time or whatever else you figure out.

Larry’s post highlights the cool New York Times online version of Blackout Poetry. So it doesn’t have to be hands-on paper and markers. The NYTimes version is celebrating Poetry month so don’t count on that site hanging around.

But if you have computer or mobile device access, you can create a similar activity yourself. Students go online and access newspaper or website articles.  Copy the text into a document. Then, black out words with the highlighting option in whatever word processing software they’re using.

Flipboard or Zite work great for finding articles on mobile devices. Copy the text or take a screenshot and then use Explain Everything or Notability or Skitch or Pages or any number of tools to edit the text. Students could share their work with you and others via social media, email, DropBox, or Google Drive. (Check out this YouTube take on using iPads to create Blackout Poetry.)

You might also enjoy listening to Austin Kleon – creator of the strategy.

Have fun!

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I want to try this! I teach 3rd grade, and I just finished reading Anne of Green Gables to them. I have one old copy of this book in large, hardback size. We’ll try this! It sounds like fun!

    April 4, 2015
    • glennw #


      Good luck! Let us know how it turns out.


      April 7, 2015

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