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Top Ten Posts of 2016 #4: Blackout Poetry

I’m sure most of you are doing the same thing I’m doing right now. Spending time with family and friends, watching football, catching up on that book you’ve been dying to read, eating too much, and enjoying the occasional nap.

But if you need a break from all of the holiday cheer, we’ve got you covered. Between now and the first week in January, you’ll get a chance to re-read the top ten History Tech posts of 2016. Enjoy the reruns. See you in a couple of weeks!

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

black-out-poetry logo

  • 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? Read more

2016 #SOTU, word clouds, blackout poetry, and thinking historically

“He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

Article II, Section 3, US Constitution

Back in the day, George Washington delivered the first state of the union address to Congress in New York City in 1790. Thomas Jefferson believed that a face to face version was too much King George the IIIish and so began sending written reports instead. Other presidents followed suit with the report being read to Congress by a clerk. Woodrow Wilson re-started the face to face idea in 1913.

Other #SOTU trivia?

Jimmy Carter delivered the last written message to Congress in 1981. Of course, it was also the longest message at over 33,000 words, so maybe that was a good thing. Nixon’s 1972 speech was the shortest at just over 28 minutes.

But enough poly sci nerd talk. How best to use last night’s festivities? Some quick thoughts:
Read more

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. Read more

Fiction, poetry, and teaching history

I watch the wagon
until I see nothing on the open plain.
For the first time ever,
I am alone.

May B

I am a huge believer in having kids read and write as much as possible while in history class. And one of the best ways to engage kids is to have them read fiction, especially poetry and verse.

One of the best examples of historical fiction in a poetry format is Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Out of the Dust is an incredible story that sucks in middle school readers as it describes the life of 14-year -old Billie Jo in Dust Bowl Oklahoma.

If you’re a bit unsure about how to incorporate this poetry book into your class, use supporting materials such as Literature Guide: Out of the Dust or A Guide for Using Out of the Dust in the Classroom. Another great way to integrate Out of the Dust is to have kids compare and contrast the historical fiction content with a non-fiction book such as Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp.

But Out of the Dust is not alone anymore.

A recent book by Caroline Starr Rose titled May B also does an excellent job of capturing the emotions of history students. While Out of the Dust spends its time in the 1930s, May B focuses on the late 1800s Kansas prairie and helps provide a rich context to the Western movement.

May is helping out on a neighbor’s homestead—just until Christmas, her pa promises. But a terrible turn of events leaves her all alone and she must try to find food and fuel—and courage—to make it through the approaching winter.

It seemed like a great book for any class studying regions, Kansas History, and US History. But I needed an expert. So I asked my wife, an experienced elementary/middle level teacher, for her opinion.

I loved May B. The writing is vivid and beautiful. It captures the severe and sometimes terrible beauty of the Kansas prairies but also beautifully portrays a girl struggling to embrace who she is. This middle level book shares what life was like during this period in Kansas history and is captivating to the end. It would be perfect for reading aloud in class, perfect for grades 4-8, and perfect for a family to enjoy together.

The author has created a handy teacher’s guide helpful for integrating the book and its content into your class.

I’m curious. What other poetry and verse historical fiction are we missing? What do you use?

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Tip of the Week – Found Poetry

One of the best ways to teach students about historical events is get them emotionally involved in the content. So how to do that?

Previously, we’ve talked about using images and primary sources as effective tools to engage our kids.

Today I’m going to suggest that you encourage them to write their own poetry. We can do this by stealing a strategy called Found Poetry from our language arts colleagues.

As Dunning and Stafford explain, ( Dunning, Stephen, and William Stafford. 1992. “Found and Headline Poems.” Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises. Urbana, NCTE. ) the advantage of found poems is that

you don’t start from scratch. All you have to do is find some good language and “improve” it.

These two teachers note that

poems hide in things you and others say and write. They lie buried in places where language isn’t so self-conscious as ‘real poetry’ often is. Writing found poems is about keeping your ears and eyes alert to the possibilities in ordinary language.

So what we want to do is get kids to dig into documents or textbooks or historical novels and find those things that “hide in what others say and write.”


  • Ask students to choose (or you select for them) a passage from the text, primary source or novel that you have selected. That selection should include a lot of strong description or dialogue.
  • Explain that the class is going to use the passage to compose original poems, called found poems.
    Pass out or display the Model of Found Poetry.
  • Define found poems for the class as poems that are composed from words and phrases found in another text.
  • Ensure that students understand the examples.
  • Step students through the process of composing original found poems, using the Found Poem Instructions.
  • For homework, ask students to return to the prose passage that they have chosen to write their own found poems for homework.
  • Have students work in small groups to review their poems using a rubric similar to the one posted below

The Library of Congress has also posted some lessons that incorporate poetry into history instruction. You might also find this lesson useful as you look for ways to engage kids with content using poetry.

Have fun!

Tip of the Week – I Am Poetry

A great way to get kids to emotionally connect with your content is by using something called an “I am” poem.

It allows students to think a bit more about how a particular person might be thinking in very specific ways. Last week I was reminded of the power of the strategy when about 20 of us looked at the images in Toni Morrison’s Remember book. There are lots of templates on line which can help you and your kids organize their thoughts. Simply Google the phrase “I am poem.” You can also find some I Am poem resources here.

I’ve pasted my attempt below. The process is pretty simple. Have your students look at a painting, image or photograph. They should select one person that they will write about and then following the template, fill in the blanks. You could also have every kid write about the same person in the painting or photo. Then have kids exchange papers or read them aloud. It usually works best when reading aloud to not identify the author. (Kids like to hear their own voices but perhaps not all want others to know they’re the author!)

I used a photo from Morrison’s book depicting a father and his son entering a desegregated school for the first time.

I am my son’s father.
I hear our footsteps echoing against the walls around us
I see officials and protesters and my son’s face
I wonder if he will be safe when I am not around?
Will the officials protect him as well as I?
I am my son’s father.

I pretend to be strong and smart
I feel unsure. Is this the right thing to do?
I hold my son’s and feel his hesitation
I worry that we’re doing the wrong thing
I cry that it’s so hard
I am my son’s father

I understand that we need to do this
I say “Everything is going to be alright. Be strong!”
I dream that some day his son does not have to do this
I try to remember how important this is and
I hope that my son remembers this day when my grandson is born
I am my son’s father