Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice

By Gillespie, Tim | English Journal, July 2016 | Go to article overview

Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice


Gillespie, Tim, English Journal


Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice Linda Christensen and Dyan Watson, Eds. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools, 2015. Print.

Few books have made me more eager to try out a slew of its ideas than Rhythm and Resistance. This rich resource offers rhyme and reason: a wealth of strategies to explore writing and reading poetry with students and a thoughtful perspective on the value of doing so.

Rhythm and Resistance was put together by two writer-editors for Rethinking Schools, the activist nonprofit organization and publisher that promotes a vision of an American school system that is effective and equitable and that produces critical, caring students with the skills and moxie to make their country a more just place for all. This book fits that vision hand-in-glove.

Linda Christensen, a long-time public school teacher, is currently director of the Oregon Writing Project site in Portland; her books include Teaching for Joy and Justice and Reading, Writing, and Rising Up. Dyan Watson is a former high school social studies teacher who is now assistant professor of education at the Lewis and Clark College Graduate School of Education. She authored the widely published "A Letter from a Black Mom to Her Son."

These two editors begin Rhythm and Resistance with an argument for bringing poetry into classrooms. We know students are drawn to the rhymes and flow of hip-hop, the high voltage of spoken word and poetry slams. But besides simply offering opportunities to grab students' attention, say the editors, poetry can give students a voice, help them learn more about each other, strengthen their classroom communities, and provide opportunities for practicing empathy. Furthermore, in this era of stress on nonfiction and the subsequent danger of retreat from what is sometimes marginalized as "creative writing," the editors convincingly argue that working on poetry can also give young writers habits-a fidelity to specific details and active verbs, a passion for figurative language, a sense of cadence and rhythm- that can enliven their expository and persuasive essays. In addition, the topics explored in Rhythm and Resistance offer plenty of opportunities for students to find and define meaningful issues, a prime mover of any compelling nonfiction writing.

Classroom Accounts from Teacher-Writers

The beating heart of Rhythm and Resistance is a collection of accounts by teacher-writers working in elementary, middle school, and high school language arts and social studies classrooms. Many of the activities can be adapted to writers of any age.

Most chapters start with a triggering poem to give students a word-generating model. (One of the gifts of Rhythm and Resistance is the abundance of classroom-tested poems. Dozens of gems, contemporary and historic, are included.) The mentor poem is accompanied by a description of the strategy the teacher used to work with the text and topic. Most often, the lesson starts with ways to encourage students first to appreciate the poem and then to analyze the poet's moves with questions such as, How did the writer build this poem? Lessons therefore incorporate both critical reading and writing strategies. Next comes the meat of the matter-the invitation for students to write. Using the mentor poem as a springboard-for topics, tactics, and patterns-students are always given plenty of room to find themselves, their concerns, their own words and worlds, and their own writing moves in their poemcrafting. Finally, most chapters include a collection of inspiring student poems written in response to the exploration. This structure makes the book exceedingly practical for teachers.

The book's first section, "Roots: Where We're From," offers starting places for cultivating a classroom poetry habit. …

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