Written by Barbara Krebs,
Young Audiences volunteer and Sunburst Society member
As a Young Audiences volunteer, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch a variety of artists at work in the classroom. And the results always amaze and humble me. Whether it’s rapping the multiplication tables, or acting out a storyline, or drawing to illustrate a book’s theme(s), I love how the arts grab kids’ attention and not only hold it, but draw them out, asking questions, trying out new ideas, and expanding their horizons.
But it dawned on me that I had never watched a class in its entirety–had never witnessed the full lesson plan. I finally got a chance to do so recently when I visited Ms. Bradley’s eighth-grade Honors English class at Chesapeake Science Point Charter School in Hanover, Maryland. Over the course of a week, Gayle Danley, an internationally recognized slam poet, was there to guide them in writing their own poems.
Full disclosure: Gayle is a personal friend of mine. I met her five years ago when she mentored my daughter, Colette, who had been asked to speak at Young Audiences’ annual Impact Breakfast. And over the years, I have watched her perform at YA events and in her own shows. But I had not yet witnessed her in action in the classroom.
And so, I found an inconspicuous spot from which to observe. Gayle quickly got to the heart of the lesson. She had started working with the class on Monday, so she now asked for volunteers to read the poems they had written since then. She instructed them to listen carefully and write down two things: 1) a sentence or phrase they really liked; that they could truly identify with and 2) a sentence or phrase they didn’t like or didn’t understand.
“So, who wants to go first?” After a predictable silence, Gayle encouraged them, “Poets have to be afraid sometimes. I know you’re afraid to share your work. But if you come up here, we’ll support you.”
After another quiet pause, one brave soul ventured forth. “Let’s hear it for the poet!” Gayle shouted, and led the class in applause. Even so, the first girl almost returned to her seat. But by then, her classmates were shouting their own encouragement, “You got this!” “Own it–you’re already up there!” “You can do it!”
And so she read. Sometimes Gayle interrupted to ask her to slow down or to speak louder. Another time she stopped her to ask the class what they thought of one line, “how does that make you feel?” When the teenager had finished, Gayle again led the applause and praised her for being first.
Then she asked the class for their favorite and least favorite lines, and asked them to explain. At one point, Gayle focused on “f-a-i-t-h,” which the young woman had spelled out rather than saying the word. She asked if that bothered anyone, threw them out of the poem temporarily because that’s how Gayle had felt. And when there was no comment, she asked, “Ms. Barbara, what about you?”
And so, being honest, I answered that I had actually liked that because it made me truly pause on that word and think about it. Hopefully, that was a good teaching moment about how unique poetry is and that your own personal experience will guide your interpretation!
Back at the front of the classroom, Gayle pointed to words that were written on the board: Wring, Fling, Bling, Sing. “Let’s talk about these for a while.” And for the uninitiated (as I was), Gayle describes this as her writing process.
- Wring: Wring the words out onto the paper like you’re wringing out a washcloth. Just write it down!
- Fling: Once it’s on paper, fling out any words that aren’t needed.
- Bling: Now, add words that will really make your meaning stand out.
- Sing: Finally, read it aloud and see how it sounds. Fling or Bling as needed.
As she described this, I laughed internally because I recognized my own writing process. Except I had always described it (skip this part if you’re squeamish) as the vomit method. Throw it up on the paper and clean it up later. Leave it to a poet to be, well, more poetic about it!
And so it went. Kids coming to the front, reading their poems, a start-and-stop process to consider edits. “When you say ‘ancestors,’ I think it would be good to be more specific. What if you substituted ‘Rosa Parks’ for ancestors?”
“His color was dangerous,” Gayle repeated from another poet. “What is dangerous?” she asked the teens. “A knife!” “A gun!” “A wild animal!” And with those words, she suggested illustrating the danger more concretely with a visual image that would strike the listener/reader.
As the lesson wound down, I gathered my things to leave. Did I mention there are no observers in this classroom? At the beginning of the lesson, the teacher had explained what she was looking for in an assignment that talked about regional differences and dialects in language. Before I could exit, I found myself surrounded by a group of three girls who asked me where I was from (North Carolina), how did I pronounce “pecan” (accent on the second syllable), what word do I use that generally isn’t used in other parts of the country (y’all).
Signing off on their papers, I felt excited to be a part of their education even in such a small way, inspired to try this on my own, and happy to be a tiny part of Young Audiences’ mission to reach kids through arts-integrated education. With Gayle’s teaching style demonstrated, I am ready to Wring, Fling, Bling, and Sing on my own!
What do you call a collection of two or more equations using the same set of unknowns? Can you identify the variables and constants in a mathematic expression? Why would a person ever use the Method of Matrices? If you were an Algebra student, you’d be committing these definitions, methods, and terms to memory, filling your lexicon with the language of math.
“If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” Any veteran language learner will tell you that old adage. Being challenged to use their new vocabulary in a different context is one way to help students become (and remain) fluent. To encourage this, Amy Goodman, Math Department Chair of North County High School (NCHS) in Northern Anne Arundel County, coordinated an artist residency developed by YA artist and spoken word poet Femi the DriFish in collaboration with the school’s Algebra 1 team. Artist residencies, like this one, came to the school thanks to the Arts Empowered Minds Initiative.
Through the initiative, schools in Northern Anne Arundel County are learning to use arts integration as a strategy for boosting student achievement and engagement. Classroom teachers and school administrators are building sustainable partnerships with teaching artists and arts organizations that inspire students and use the creative process to make meaningful, real-world connections to the curriculum.
“Mr. Fish!” NCHS students announced Femi the DriFish’s arrival. The artist is a master of illustrating the meaning of words through poetry and, through literary guidance, builds a strong rapport with the young scholars. For this residency, Femi worked with students to write poems within small groups on the topic where I’m from.
The 9th graders brainstormed over how to use the algebraic vocabulary words scribed onto the backs of index cards to convey their thoughts: function, common difference, output, relation. The language usually reserved for Algebra class became double entendres in lyrics carrying messages of citizenship, diversity, and pride. “If you use the terms correctly,” Femi said, “you remember the definition. You retain it and can access it later.”
“Like parallel lines, some soulmates never meet,” one student revealed in his group’s performance. Some soloists represented their classmates. “Word pairs are like the relation to life, we are all like terms so we don’t have to fight.”
NCHS Algebra teacher Mrs. Russell was pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of creativity. “I’m seeing different things and personalities from kids that I don’t normally see,” the teacher said. “They’re a lot more excited than I thought they’d be!”
As they industriously crafted metaphors and similes, cleverly using their new vocabulary as figurative language, debate arose over whether or not the verses should rhyme. “It never has to rhyme,” Femi advised. “It’s how you perform it that gives it flavor.” He taught the children to confidently use body language by analyzing performing techniques and discussing what is needed to relay a message. “It’s all about how to effectively communicate with your audience,” Femi said. Scholars rehearsed the delivery of their collaborative poetry to truly express their emotions, communicate their history, and challenge the audience to walk in their shoes.
The students did not disappoint. “Like parallel lines, some soulmates never meet,” one student revealed in his group’s performance. Most groups selected just a few students to deliver their words in the culminating performance. Some soloists represented their classmates. “Word pairs are like the relation to life, we are all like terms so we don’t have to fight.” Performers garnered many cheers and rousing support from the teachers and peers populating the auditorium. And everyone involved in the residency left with a much stronger understanding of algebraic vocabulary and a knowledge of terms they won’t soon forget.
So, what do you call a collection of two or more equations with the same set of unknowns? A system. You call it a system.
The Arts Empowered Minds Initiative is the combined effort of many groups and individuals seeking to build a movement for increased equity through the arts in their community. With funding from the NEA in 2016, we built partnerships with Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), Chesapeake Arts Center (CAC), Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance (AEMS), Arts Council of Anne Arundel County, and University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UMBC).
smartbeats is back this Saturday, November 4, during the weekly children’s music program Young At Heart on WTMD. On this month’s smARTbeats segment, Young At Heart host Lisa Mathews sits down for a chat with professional spoken word artist, slam poet, highly-animated and engaging frontman, and YA teaching artist Femi the Drifish.
Best known as one half of the spoken word/Hip Hop-influenced duo, THE 5th L, Femi uses his artistry to encourage listeners to discover their own unique voices and identities. The Drifish also partners with University of Maryland’s Violence Prevention Program, using his words to address matters such as violence and bullying in our communities. He extends this experience, his skillful construction and delivery of words as art, along with compassion, patience, and high expectations to the classroom.
Femi the Drifish worked with our middle school students in Language Arts,” said Christa Huber, the Arts Integration Coach at Patterson Park Public Charter School. “A great thing about that residency was the response we received from students who typically are not comfortable with performing in front of people. By their culminating performance, those students, in particular, were the ones to stand up and share their poetry with strength.
The artist teaches children to confidently use body language coupled with creative writing to convey emotions, communicate, and connect with others. He works with students to identify the similarities and differences between poetry, Hip Hop, and spoken word–or slam–poetry, then encourages them to try writing their own original poetry
Ken’Niya, a former Summer Arts & Learning Academy student declared “Mr. Fish” to be her favorite teacher from the program in summer 2015. “He helped me a lot through my writing by giving me examples and showing me his awesome poems. The most challenging and rewarding thing I did in the Academy was my poem I am Baltimore,” said the student. “It was emotional because of what was going on my city. I wanted to quit and switch classes but I realized I was the oldest in the class and the younger kids were having the same problem. So I told myself if you quit, they will too. So I pushed myself and everyone else, and made sure we were organized and ready to perform.”
This is the kind of guidance that makes Femi the Drifish shine. Whether students are processing their feelings after an emotional event, confronting their worries or disagreements with friends, or looking forward to a world of firsts: first high school, first love, first dance, first goal, one thing is certain, when Mr. Fish is in the classroom, students will find the courage to share their voices and be heard.
Young At Heart airs weekly from 7 to 8 am on Saturdays, featuring music that appeals to parents and children alike. Previous shows have featured music by Wilco, David Bowie, Andrew & Polly, Weezer, and others.
Hear YA teaching artist and musician Femi the Drifish online now!