With the recent passing of legend Perry Wallace, I centered my Library Day lesson on the book Strong Inside: The True Story of How Perry Wallace Broke College Basketball’s Color Line by Andrew Maraniss. My students were introduced to the Perry Wallace story in early 2017. We hosted Andrew Maraniss, and you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium, as he shared Perry’s remarkable story, which left an impact on all of us. Also, this story is part of Nashville, TN, history, and it’s important that my students understand that this happened in their community. This lesson allowed my 7th and 8th graders to revisit and remember, and for my 6th graders, this was their introduction to an icon. The result? Kids learning and thinking about a remarkable Civil Rights pioneer and writing poetry- 565 poems, to be exact.
Write poetry in the library? Absolutely and why not? A mixture of 3 sources- media, read-aloud, and print- a lit fake ficus called the Poet-Tree, and a padlet wall set the stage for this time of inspiration and creation.
For this lesson you’ll need:
- Time: I had a 50 minute class period; I used roughly 35 minutes for this activity, with the remaining time for library business.
- Student or school devices (I used Chromebooks.)
- I used Google Classroom as a way for students to access links.
- Strong Inside book trailer
- A copy of the book Strong Inside
- A copy of an article on Perry Wallace. I used this one.
- A way for students to share their poems. I used Padlet.
Step 1: Book Talk
Even though my 7th and 8th graders have been previously introduced to Strong Inside, I enjoyed sharing it again. We have this meaningful shared experience around this book. It gave me a chance to get an idea of how many students have since read the book, and to see what they remember from Andrew’s visit to our school. This was my first opportunity to share it with the 6th grade, and I loved introducing them to a powerful non-fiction read. In addition, I challenged all grade levels to go on a scavenger hunt in Memorial Gym on the Vanderbilt campus and find Perry’s jersey, as this story takes place in their backyard.
Step 2: Introduce Found Poetry activity
Found poetry is an exercise of finding and gathering words and forming those words into a poem in the style of your choice. I selected 3 sources to use, and any words that students heard or read were fair game. I varied the styles of these sources so that students are listening and reading. Students are handed so many articles to read these days, so it was important to offer a variety.
Before we dive into word gathering, we take a look at the goal of the activity and the directions for the poem. I love writing poetry with students because there are rules and then there are no rules, so I convey that they have the freedom to choose the style that works best for them. But, can I write a haiku? You’ll get that question, no doubt. My response? Hey, knock yourself out. Did I have any haikus? Not one. Students mainly chose free verse, and occasionally, I saw acrostics that used “Perry Wallace” or “Strong Inside.”
Here are the directions I shared. They can certainly list more than 25 words, it’s merely a suggestion. The more words they list, the more possibilities. It’s easier to eliminate words than to not have enough.
I modified these instructions from a Read, Write, Think activity on Found Poetry.
Step 3: Explore sources and gather words
The first source I used is Andrew’s book trailer for Strong Inside. Students are encouraged add any words they hear or any words that appear on the screen. I love when the word “triumphant,” pops up on the screen and to see students jot that word down. I loved seeing how students incorporated that word in their poems.
Next, I read aloud from Chapter 1 of Strong Inside. The excerpt focused on Perry and the Commodores traveling to play the Mississippi State Bulldogs. It’s a powerful selection that allows students to see and feel the difficult challenges Perry faced. The entire book is packed with great read aloud material, so pick what you think will work best for you and your students.
The final source is an article in The Washington Post, which is actually Perry’s obituary. It may seem a little morbid to use this, however it’s an excellent overview of Perry’s life and achievements. It’s packed with great word choices for the found poems and quotes from Perry. It’s a quick 5-7 minute read, which is the right amount of time to budget for a lesson that’s roughly 30 minutes. Plus, students learned a new vocabulary word- obituary. I was surprised each time I taught this lesson at the number of kids who’d never heard this term. I took the print view of the article and copied it in Google Docs and loaded it in their Google Classroom as a view only file.
In all, we spent less than 15 minutes exploring the sources and gathering words.
Step 4: Review the found poem instructions
With their list of words at the ready, it’s time to create a poem. It may help to show students a few examples first. I never ask students to do something I haven’t done already, so I show them my poem. I point out that I did not use any filler words. They can hear a moment of rhyme and rhythm, but it’s free verse.
I share a couple of other student work samples just so students can see that length and style can vary greatly.
Step 5: Time to Create
My students needed 5-7 minutes to create. It may turn out to be a masterpiece, but for the most part, it will be more first draft quality, and that’s ok. The goal is to express how Perry is an inspiration, a pioneer, is brave, how his story impacts them, or something that stands out to them about his story. I encouraged students to work in Google Docs and then copy/ paste their poem over to Padlet.
I told them to think about our beloved art teacher, Mr. Christy, down in the art room. He’s gathered all of his tools, all of his colors, and now he’s ready to create. I remind them that they don’t have to use all of the words they found, and they have the freedom to arrange those words in any order to create meaning.
Step 6: Share
I posted the link to the Padlet in Google Classroom. Students posted a title and their name in the “title section” of their post; they copied/ pasted their poem in the “write something” portion of the post. Under “Reactions” in the settings area, I activated the “Like” button, so students were encouraged to read and like posts. This wall held all of the students’ posts, but you may consider setting up a Padlet for each class, as Padlet can be slow to load as more and more posts are added. By the time our wall held 500 posts, it was a little slow.
The stage was set- aka the Poet-Tree (aka lit fake ficus). Students are invited to come up by the Poet-Tree to read, or they can read from their seat. I asked for volunteers to read aloud, or if I didn’t get volunteers immediately, I broke the ice by reading some poems of students in other classes. I’d also offer to read aloud for students in the current class, and I got lots of volunteers that way. They were a little shy to read aloud, but they were ok with me reading their work. Then, hands would start to go up, and I had more volunteers than I could accommodate in our class time. If you’re met with crickets when it’s time to share, find a way to break the ice, and then the students will feel more comfortable and confident about sharing.
Budget plenty of time to share. Don’t let this part flail or cram it in at the end. This became my most favorite part of the activity because students were really proud of their work. When you tell students they’re going to be writing a poem, that is often met with blank stares and balking because that can seem like a insurmountable task. However, found poetry creates an opportunity for a successful, painless experience with poetry. The students are not having to think of what to say and how to say it. The words are gathered, and in this case, the topic is provided, and they extract the meaning from their list of words.
One of my favorite moments was after the lesson, a few students would come up to me and ask me to read their poems. They’d stand and wait as I’d find it on our Padlet. They were so proud to show me, and I made sure to give their poems a “like”.
This is a great opportunity to collaborate with an ELA teacher and extend the activity into the classroom. I think it’d be really cool for students to create a timeline of Perry’s life in poems. If you need a rubric, I found this one helpful and easy to adapt, or work with an ELA teacher or literacy coach to create a rubric. Vary this lesson in any way imaginable that best fits the needs of your students and your lesson time in the library.
Whatever you do, find a way to share Perry’s story with your students and introduce them to this incredible pioneer.