Sunday, 11 May 2014

Spoken Word Poetry and Short Stories: Junior Cultural Relevance Unit

Part of the programme I created for my bi-lingual Year 10 class in my first year of teaching included using poetry in a more relevant form.

I taught poems by Maya Angelou 'Still I Rise' and 'How a Caged Bird Sings' and Hone Tuwhare's 'Drunk' and 'Rain'. I showed spoken word YouTube videos by Taylor Mali 'What a Teacher Makes' and Sarah Kay's 'B - or - If I Should Have a Daughter'.

And then one of my students gave me an exit card that said Four words: Brown Brother. Watch it.

So I did.

It changed how I would teach the poetry unit even more than I already was and more than that - Joshua Iosefo's poem was culturally relevant not only to my Maori students but to my Pacific Island students as well. We discussed the relevance of this poem and the impact it had on them. We used it to analyse techniques and try to understand his purpose as a writer.

I found Glen Colquhoun's 'Bred in South Auckland' and showed it to my students. They got it pretty quickly. The point they learnt was to accept who they are... fully.

We also used rap and song lyrics to cement their knowledge and understanding of language techniques. We used these examples as a base to create our own.

During this time I found the poetry analysis technique - MAPIT = Message, Audience, Purpose, Impact, Techniques. My main focus with these guys was to teach them paragraph structure so that they'd be set up for the exam and the year after for Y11 NCEA English.

Along with our poetry unit - I found short stories that worked in conjunction with these poems.

Patricia Grace's - 'Going for the Bread', 'Butterflies' and 'It Used to Be Green Once', were used to show identity and perspective.

The two parallel short stories - Katherine Mansfield's 'How Pearl Button was Kidnapped' and Witi Ihimaera's response to it 'The Affectionate Kidnappers' - were used to show differences in perspectives and the importance of understanding that others have different upbringings and ways of understanding.

We had an impromptu court hearing to decide which character was guilty for Pearl Button being taken - whether it was the kuia taking her to the beach or the mother for neglect.

When I used Joshua Iosefa's spoken word poem in a mainstream class later that year - I had even more interesting results. We talked more about stereotypes and how we should be careful with what we say and how we say it. The non Maori/PI students seemed to be impacted even more strongly and wrote mindblowingly fantastic responses. One of the students in that class asked if there was one from a female perspective - and we found 'Brown Sister'.

We found more Sarah Kay poems and also learnt about Phil Kaye.

We read the other two parallel poems by Mansfield and Ihimaera - 'Her First Ball' and 'His First Ball'. We talked about the perspective of both Leila and Tuta and how they dealt with the world around them.

I use these poems at my new school - though I haven't used Maya Angelou as much as I used to. We've also continued to use the majority of the short stories I began using in that first year. I'm now nearly into my fourth year as a teacher and I'm slowly seeing the differences in classes and how some ways of teaching a topic work for them and wouldn't for another.

Teaching Shane Koyczan's 'To This Day' project last year was another moment where a student in my Year 9 class told me to watch it. I've used it ever since. I wish I'd had it during the Teenage Issues unit I used with my second Year 10 class in my first year.

I somehow even managed to teach iambic pentameter to an extension Year 9 class last year... one of my favourite moments. Mainly because at least three students wrote sonnets in their poetry booklet assignments.

We even had our own little slam last year where I found a future poet/playwright and possible slam artist. I wouldn't have had the confidence to do any of this without my naive experimentation and my wonderful bi-lingual class at the very beginning.

This year - I've spent more time developing understanding of techniques and giving my students more time to write their poetry. We've learnt about some of the same short stories - as well as using traditional Maori legends from our area to make our students feel more connected to our area and our school as a foundation programme.

At present my Year 10's are developing their poetry assessments - and my Year 9's are creating static images using the poetry we have used this year so far.

I've learnt to give more time and realise that intrinsic motivation comes from connection with the text rather than a forced assessment deadline.

At the moment - I'm trying to bring South Auckland Poetry Collective, Hamilton Slamdown and NZ Poetry Slam to Rotorua to create a poetry slam and provide slam workshops with our students.

Watch this space :)

Just found this - SEXIST Structure in Essay writing for poetry - HMMMMMMMM! :)


  1. Very cool Alex! I love using spoken word poetry, too. I really like the way you've described the evolution of your teaching of poetry and how responsive you've been to your students' suggestions. I, too, was blown away by Brown Brother at the time and it had a huge impact on our (mainly Maori) students up north. But I then heard some criticism of it - like you mentioned about stereotypes - and when we made a trip 3 hours down to Auckland the South Auckland Poets Collective taught us what spoken poetry was really all about and they worked absolute magic on my students. This was one of the best trips I ever took. They are well worth working with. Plus they have a great collection of teaching and learning resources to share. I look forward to hearing about your experience with them. Good luck.

    1. Thanks Ros :) I recently read Brown Brother at a poetry night with the Rotorua Mad Poets Society. There was one particular older lady who didn't grasp the message behind the poem. She focussed on the stereotypes and said that its sad that the writer didnt know all of the amazing things others had done and that hed focussed on what we cant do. I tried to explain that I use it as part of my racism unit. She said I shouldn't be teaching racism... I said I wasn't but that it was about overcoming discrimination and learning how to deal with the stereotypes people throw at you. Part of the problem perhaps was that I use this poem with teenagers and it affects them more deeply because they are at a time in their lives when they're at a precipice of change. Whether they change their thinking of themselves for the better or the worse.. Sad though that there is criticisms about the poem. It's awesome.