Writing Learning into Shape: Using Concrete Poetry to Explore & Reflect Content Knowledge


This post is written by Brooke L. Hardin. To learn more about Brooke, please visit the bottom of this post.

What Is Concrete Poetry?

Concrete poetry, sometimes called shape poetry, is poetry whose visual appearance matches the subject of the poem. The words of the poem form a shape or shapes which illustrate the poem’s topic in visual form as well as through their literal meaning. This type of poetry has been used for thousands of years since the ancient Greeks began to enhance the meanings of their poetry by arranging their characters in visually pleasing ways back in the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BC (Nesbitt, 2023).

In the 1950s, a group of Brazilian poets known as the Noigandres developed a manifesto to define the work of concrete poetry and give us the name. The manifesto states that concrete poetry communicates its own structure: structure = content (Eppley, 2015).

How to Write Concrete Poetry

There are two main ways to create a concrete poem. The first is referred to as an “Outline Poem.” The writer creates an outline of the subject of the poem or of an object that relates to the subject and fills in the outline with words or phrases. The words or phrases used to fill in the outline usually describe the subject or how it makes the writer feel in some way, provide information connected to the subject, or possibly tell a story related to the subject. Some examples of this technique for concrete poetry are provided in Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1: Black Hole

Note. From The Day the Universe Exploded My Head: Poems that Take You Into Space and Back Again, by Allan Wolf, 2019, Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press

Figure 2: Buried Treasure

Note. From Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World, by Susan Hood, 2018, New York, NY: HarperCollins.

My son and I recently spent an afternoon at a local bike park. Following the trip, he and I co-authored a concrete poem using the “Outline” technique. The video embedded below shows how I used questioning to help him come up with the words and phrases for the poem while I acted as a scribe. Image 3 shows the final poem we created.

Figure 3: Mountain Bike

Another technique for creating concrete poems is to use the lines of words to make the lines of a drawing. One thing to note about this technique is that the subject does not have to be an object, but it does need to be something that can be drawn with “stick” figures. Examples of these poems are below.

                                                Figure 4: Lightning

Note. From Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems, by Bob Raczka, 2016, New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press.

Figure 5: Robert’s Four At-Bats

Note. From Technically, It’s Not My Fault: Concrete Poems by John Grandits, 2004, New York, NY: Clarion Books.

Instructional Considerations for Concrete Poetry

When teaching students to write concrete poems, whether using the outline or drawing technique, consider these reminders.

  • Model, model, model! Planning instruction with the Gradual Release of Responsibility (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) in mind will help students better understand the cognitive and physical aspects of composing concrete poems.
    • Use inquiry to analyze some exemplars like the ones provided above or those found in books listed in the references to help students take notice of the elements of concrete poems.Select a topic as a class and write a concrete poem together, with students offering the words and their arrangement while the teacher acts as a scribe. Use questioning, such as the type seen in the video above, to help students think about their subject and form written ideas from those thoughts.Invite students to co-author a concrete poem as a pair or small group.
    • Finally, provide opportunities for students to independently write concrete poems, get feedback from peers, and share their final drafts.
  • Concrete poems do not need to rhyme.
  • Concrete poems can be written on traditional paper or digitally. If using paper, suggest to students that they use a pencil when drafting the poems. This allows them to erase and move words around where needed.
  • Encourage students to play with the size, color, and shape of their letters to better capture the essence of the poem’s subject (e.g., I might write the word TTEEEETHH in different shapes and font sizes when writing about a shark). This helps to reinforce the reciprocal nature of reading and writing by providing students a chance to consider the purpose of their craft moves.

Writing Concrete Poetry to Reflect Content Area Learning

Writing to learn and writing about learning are necessary in content-area classrooms. While many argue and I can agree that these are different notions, writing concrete poems can accomplish the aim of both.

Writing, as discussed above, must involve a discussion of ideas, leveraging the social side of learning where knowledge is co-constructed, and misunderstandings can be clarified. Additionally, when and where questions arise to inform written ideas, further research may occur; thus, more learning takes place during the writing process. For example, a student in a 7th-grade science classroom is drafting a concrete poem about a cell as part of a Life Science unit. They may refer to class notes, talk with a partner, or watch a video about cells to (1) draw the outline of a cell and/or (2) write a line about the nucleus – possibly drawing it inside another shape that is made of letters spelling out “membrane,” given that the nucleus is enclosed in a membrane. The writing of the concrete poem has the potential to reinforce learning that has occurred, provide new content, and/or inspire ways to show learning.

Both the reading and writing of concrete poems present teachers in discipline-specific classrooms with innovative methods for motivating students to engage in the content. Given their interesting appearance and brief lines, concrete poems as supplementary texts in units of study to teach a specific topic (see Image 1 about the Black Hole and Image 2 about the female paleontologist Mary Anning, who, in the early 1800s, found complete fossils that laid the foundation for Darwin’s theory of evolution) may appeal to students who are reluctant to engage with textbooks and other longer documents. As an alternative to traditional analytical research papers and essays, writing concrete poems related to learning may motivate students to take a deeper interest in the content to present their learning in a creative way. I would also maintain that crafting a line of concrete poetry deepens comprehension and calls upon sophisticated critical thinking; taking a line from prose (e.g. an article or textbook) and rewriting it in one’s own words to fit a poetic style is rigorous cognitive work. With regards to standards related to research skills and speaking and listening, I would further suggest that students provide a reference list to accompany the poems and give presentations where they explain craft moves and inspiration for certain lines.

As a former middle grades ELA/Social Studies educator, I can attest that using concrete poetry in a content area classroom allows students to reimagine learned content creatively and critically while deepening and extending their understandings and knowledge. Give it a try and share your poems with me!


Eppley, C. (2015, January 21). Concrete Poetry of the Noigandres, 1958-1975. Retrieved from http://avant.org/event/noigandres/

Nesbitt, K. (2023). How to Write a Concrete Poem. Retrieved from https://poetry4kids.com/lessons/how-to-write-a-concrete-poem/

Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. C. (1983). “The Instruction of Reading Comprehension,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, pp. 317-344.

Children’s Literature References & More to Consider

Grandits, J. (2004). Technically it’s not my fault: Concrete poems. Clarion Books.

Grandits, J. (2007). Blue lipstick: Concrete poems. Clarion Books.

Hood, S. (2018). Shaking things up: 14 young women who changed the world. HarperCollins.

Raczka, B. (2016). Wet cement: A mix of concrete poems. Roaring Brook Press.

Wolf, A. (2019). The day the universe exploded my head: Poems to take you into space and back again. Candlewick Press.

Brooke Hardin is an Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at the University of South Carolina Upstate. Her research interests include writing development and instruction for intermediate and middle grades students, teaching and learning through technology and new literacies, literacy professional development and teacher education, and interdisciplinary approaches to reading, writing, and the utilization of Children’s Literature. Her years of experience as an elementary and middle grades classroom teacher and curriculum literacy specialist frame her research interests and commitment to teacher education.

Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash

Where I’m From


This post will discuss how “Where I’m From” poetry helped provide a scaffold to better understand multilingual students and their evolving identities. This post is written by Emily Graham. Read more about Emily at the bottom of this post.

The question “Where are you from” is one often heard by multilingual learners (MLs). Although all the MLs at my school could answer this question simply by naming their birth country as either the US, Mexico, or Guatemala, this answer gives little information about each student’s identity. Through her poem, “Where I’m From”, George Ella Lyon shows us how we can tap into the more complex answer to this question. Lyon links together memories of special places, people, sayings, and stories from her past to tell us who she is, and this can serve as a powerful model for reflection and exploration of the rich and diverse identities among students.

In a poetry unit built from Lyon’s ideas, structure, and themes, my MLs explored and shared their own identities. Students’ poems and thoughts gave me a small window into my students’ past and present lives and their critical and creative thinking abilities. The “Where I’m From” Poetry Project allowed me to build a deeper, more complex understanding of who my students are and “where they are from” beyond just a geographic place.

There are countless get-to-know-you activities that require students to answer categorical questions such as: “What are your favorite foods?”; “What are your favorite songs?”; “Who is in your family?”; or “What do you like to do when you are not at school?” While I believe these questions are important, their answers do not always provide great insight into our students’ lives. Often these questions are asked and answered without much thought or reflection. Students may say: “My favorite foods are tamales”; “I don’t know my favorite song”; “I live with my dad, aunt, uncle, and sister”; and “I watch T.V.”, but there is little depth or passion to these responses.

When we use poetry to elicit these responses, we can reframe these questions in a way that requires reflection and deep thinking. When the questions are reframed to: “What are the family, foods, thoughts, and stories that make you who you are?” a teacher can gain a much deeper understanding of students and their unique identities. “Where I’m From” Poems provide a frame and an artistic lens for students to respond to those questions about identity.

Here is an example of how one student’s poem provided me with a glimpse into his rich and unfolding identity. Looking at his identity from a more reflective perspective helped me build an understanding of the student’s home life, language, family, and interests that I had not slowed down to see before.

Jimmy, a 3rd-grade multilingual student, was born in the United States and struggled with academic language and literacy. Although he was born in the US, he did not begin learning English until he started school in kindergarten. The first language, the language used most often, and the language that he used with the people he loved, was Spanish. Jimmy was considered a student who “struggled” in school.  He often put his head down in class, he refused to work independently, and said things like, “I’m not smart” or “I can’t read.” Sometimes he participated in whole group discussions but more often seemed disengaged. Jimmy’s class was starting a unit on poetry, and I anticipated resistance from Jimmy. I decided to teach a unit to build background knowledge and confidence in poetry.

Jimmy initially seemed disinterested in the idea of studying and writing poetry. But that slowly started to change through the process of a close read of Lyon’s “Where I’m From.”  At first, we looked at the literal meaning of Lyon’s words through translations, pictures, and discussion. Jimmy was able to confidently define big words from Lyon’s poem such as “carbon tetrachloride” and “forsythia bush”. He was able to explain how someone might lose a finger to an “auger”. He also was able to discuss big ideas like nostalgia and memories.  In later readings, Jimmy stated Lyon’s voice reading her poem sounded like a ghost. He said Lyon talked about the past and memories like a ghost would. Jimmy seemed to enjoy building on the ideas of his group members. He was not afraid to share his opinion on the meaning of certain phrases and his thoughts about word choice. I was surprised by Jimmy’s desire to build an argument and support a claim in the discussion. He said, “I think the author likes to play in the dirt under her porch. Maybe she liked to hide there because that is what I do. My dogs also like to hide under the porch because it is cool, and they feel safe.” I was also impressed by Jimmy’s critical thinking and questions.  He said, “I wonder why she said the ‘it tasted like beets.’ Maybe she is talking about when she was a little kid because little kids always put stuff in their mouths. They are curious and that is how they explore.”

Jimmy was not initially thrilled about the task of writing his own poem. He needed some support organizing his ideas. With the support of graphic organizers, help in spelling, and some motivation from a YouTube student example, Jimmy wrote. Here is his poem:

I am from fish tanks and from dirt

and my dog DJ

I am from broken glass in my backyard

I am from my broken T.V.

From Roblox and road trips

I am from sunflowers and bamboo

I am from tag with my brother and helping my mom

from Joseph and Marissa

I am from the sad puppies and Llama the puppies mama

from swings and broken pinatas

I am from my dad’s Honda

with a big engine

I am from my mom’s Hyundai

it has a push button to start

from riding my bike and making my own adventures

I am from digging holes and making traps

I am from inventions

Jimmy’s poem was a powerful representation of his identity, and his word choice was beautifully poetic. He was able to infuse his poem with alliteration and repetition, imagery, and emotion. He juxtaposed happy and sad memories, and purposefully ended his poem with positive attributes about himself. He talked about both joyful and upsetting times with his family. Times where they celebrated together — “broken pinatas” — and times of trouble — “broken T.V.” From reading and talking about Jimmy’s poem, I learned about ways Jimmy interacted with his family, some challenges in his life, and personal characteristics that he was proud of. Jimmy was proud to explain how he helped his mom with daily chores and sometimes would go to work with his dad. He talked about his dog Llama having puppies and the irresistible sad look on the puppies’ faces. He found joy in playing with the puppies. He talked about being devastated when some of the puppies got sick and died. He said he felt so bad for Llama, the puppy’s mama. Jimmy sometimes showed insecurities in the classroom but spoke with complete confidence when discussing his adventures and inventions outside of the classroom. He talked about his positive attributes like creativity, curiosity, and bravery. Jimmy took pride in his poem, so much so that he wanted a copy to take home and read to his family

Jimmy’s poem and the conversations that resulted from discussing poetry helped me shift from focusing on Jimmy’s struggles to identifying and sharing his strengths Before, I might have shared my frustrations on Jimmy’s lack of motivation or refusal to do work in my class. Now I had something so much more powerful and beneficial to share with other teachers — Look what Jimmy wrote, look what Jimmy can read, but most importantly look at some of the things that make Jimmy who he is! Through poetry I learned more about his academic abilities — Jimmy could craft meaning from metaphor and explain his theories about themes and lessons hidden in poems. I also learned about his interests and motivators. I discovered Jimmy’s empathy for others, passion for inequalities in his community, and desire to help others. Jimmy’s poem allowed me to understand his uniqueness and make connections to my own childhood curiosities and adventures. I felt the same empathy for animals and dreams of a more peaceful and equitable world.

I had the same kind of revelations and connections with my other students. I learned Alexander had a job caring for sheep in Mexico through his lines: “I am from a big river where the sheep used to cross” and “from a scary ram who chased me all day.” I learned Veronica’s older brother always said to her “sup bro and dap me up, bro.” I learned about Marta’s memories of Guatemalan cuisine: “tortilla’s (sic), tortas, tamales, and tacos.” Each poem was beautiful and unique and a window into my students’ lives. These poems provided voice for my students and a platform to share the individual identities that they were proud of. This background was both unique and unifying. The poems gave students an opportunity to be more clearly seen and heard.

Sometimes we want to get to know our students, but we don’t know the right questions to ask. The question “Where are you from?” seems simple on the surface but does not have a simple answer. Studying George Ella Lyon’s poem with my elementary multilingual learners helped me slow down and deepen my understanding of Lyon’s words and, more importantly, my students’ words.  Although my initial purpose of the poetry unit was to provide academic background knowledge for my students, a more beautiful and poetic thing happened — poetry provided background knowledge for my students for me. The poems provided a space for me to do the learning and for my students to do the teaching. The format provided a space to merge home life and home language with school life and language. “Where I’m from Poems” allowed us to celebrate each student’s beautiful and unique identity.  

Lyon, G. E. Where I’m from, a poem by George Ella Lyon: Writer and teacher Subtitle. http://www.georgeellalyon.com/where.html

Emily Graham is from Johns Island, South Carolina. She currently teaches grades K-5 as a Multilingual Learner Specialist in Charleston County Schools. She is a certified elementary educator and has served in several different teacher roles including as a Multilingual Learner Program Specialist, a second grade teacher, an English teacher abroad, a substitute teacher, and a teacher’s assistant. She speaks Spanish and enjoys traveling, creating, and being in nature. She lives with her husband, 8-month-old girl, and two rowdy rescue dogs.

Cover Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Overcoming writer’s block with free-verse poetry


All writers are familiar with the brain-freezing sensation of staring at a blank page or screen without the slightest clue of how to start a daunting writing task.  This writer’s block symptom is intensified for struggling writers such as multilingual learners, students with un/diagnosed reading/writing disorders, or speakers of dialects who experience Standard English as a foreign language. When they consider themselves writing failures, free-verse poetry writing opportunities in any subject area are one effective way to remediate the problem and release debilitating emotional stress (Bullock, 2021). Most striving writers battle: (1) what to write about; (2) how to structure ideas for longer, multi-paragraph texts; and/or (3) how to use academic language structures in full sentences with grammatically and linguistically correct word use, grammar, and punctuation.

What is free-verse poetry?

Free-verse poetry writing does not present these challenges. It allows for associative writing with spoken language characteristics of words, phrases, or sentences without specific rhyme schemes or metric systems. There are no rules for line breaks, stanza divisions, or paragraph structures. Some free verse poetry looks like narrative writing without having to follow syntactic rules or to require punctuation. Free-verse poetry often creates images and focuses on sensory detail with figurative speech like similes (i.e., water as soft as coconut oil), metaphors (i.e., rain comes down in spaghetti strings), or idioms (i.e., fluttering butterflies in my stomach) (Craven 2021).

The following is a free-verse poem to remember that Natrium Chloride is salt:

Nate and Claire and NaCl

                        Nate Natrium wants a girlfriend

                        Through his binoculars from his Natrium castle

                        He spots Claire Chloride

                        In a hammock

                        Reading a romance novel

                        Humming a song

                        Nate’s heart bursts

                        His feet fly down the hill with a drumming heart

                        To Claire

                        And the rest is history

                        They have children

                        All with salty lips and skin

                        This family helps us spice our food

                        And give minerals to animals, humans and plants

                        Their license plate says NaCl-Salt

What makes free-verse poetry beneficial for striving writers?

The features of free-verse poetry described above allow writer’s block moments to gradually diminish because students can concentrate on what they have to say without grammatical and syntactical confinements of text passages. Students engage in short, creative writing tasks that provide them with growing confidence to express knowledge or feelings without being judged for writing conformity errors, especially when spelling errors are not considered. Consequently, students can creatively and meaningfully play with language and enjoy the process while engaging with content in a pressure-free, reinforcing way (Bullock, 2021).

When to implement free-style poetry writing?

At any time in any content area, teachers can implement 5-15 minute free-verse poetry writing opportunities: (1) prior to a topic to activate pre-knowledge and motivate for a topic; (2) during a unit/lesson; (3) after a unit/lesson to assess gained knowledge; or (4) as a general writing task with prompts such as a title (i.e. mountain bikes, my favorite singer), pictures, or music to engage students in free-verse writing to express their feelings and thoughts stimulated by the prompt.

What are some ideas for grades 6-12?

Providing routine writing opportunities with appropriate support while integrating students’ interests, strengths, and knowledge is crucial in breaking down writing barriers. When first introducing free-verse poetry writing, teachers use ‘think aloud’ techniques to model how to write such a poem. Then, students work in pairs to create a free verse poem before creating them individually. Students can compare each other’s poems and discuss what they learned from different poems. This reinforces the purpose and versatility of free-verse poetry writing in content areas. Students collect their free-verse poems in a writing journal or keep them with their content topic to help them study.

Additionally, a cloze text with open spaces to insert an association or sentence frames along with vocabulary banks can assist striving writers in focusing on writing free-verse poetry.

The following concrete suggestions for different content areas can be supported by thought-provoking pictures, video or film clips, or music to foster paired-up or individual free-verse poetry writing.

English Language Arts:

  • Relate to/ describe a character in a book.
  • Reflect on characteristics of a literary feature or term (i.e., idiom, climax), or jobs/functions of punctuations, capitalizations commonly mis/used.
  • Characterize features of standard English, dialect, or code-switching along with when each is beneficial.


  • Summarize characteristics of chemical procedures or elements such as H2O (water) or NaCl (salt); or components/purposes of cells or body parts.
  • Describe/reflect on the importance of the processes of the water cycle, polarity, electricity, or planetary systems


  • Summarize the sequence of steps to take for a certain operation.
  • Describe the characteristics, roles, or properties of concepts or terminologies such as common denominators, geometric structures, or negative/positive numbers.

Music education:

  • Characterize/compare famous musical periods, instruments, musicians, or songs of certain periods.
  • Describe strategies to play certain instruments or to be successful in a choir or band.

Physical/health education:

  • Reflect on the benefits of particular nutrition items (i.e., protein, carbohydrates, water, food pyramid).
  • Describe the interaction of certain nutritional components in the human body or the benefits of exercise and the dangers of sedentary life.

Social Studies:

  • Reflect on/describe the roles of historical characters or their emotions and feelings during a time period (i.e., Anne Frank, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X).
  • Reflect on/describe the roles of government branches or features of democratic, authoritarian, fascist, or socialist government structures
  • Present a timeline of events that lead to a certain historical event


In sum, brief, free-verse poetry writing is one creative, student-engaging approach to help promote a sense of growing confidence and creativity among striving writers at a low-risk level in grades 6-12. Nobody can go wrong. Every creative contribution counts and matters. Success at that level encourages students to tackle longer writing tasks while also reinforcing the disciplinary content they need.


For some examples of free-verse poetry by established authors, see:

Bullock, O. (2021). Poetry and trauma: Exercises for creating metaphors and using sensory detail, New Writing18(4), 409-420,  DOI: 10.1080/14790726.2021.1876094.

Craven, J. (2021, February 15). An Introduction to Free Verse Poetry. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-free-verse-poem-4171539.

Bullock, O. (2021). Poetry and trauma: Exercises for creating metaphors and using sensory detail, New Writing18(4), 409-420,  DOI: 10.1080/14790726.2021.1876094.

Craven, J. (2021, February 15). An Introduction to Free Verse Poetry. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-free-verse-poem-4171539.

Macintosh HD:WINTHROP:FALL 2022_classes & tasks:IDA proposals for F22:BIO PIC Elke.png

For the past 20 years, Dr. Elke Schneider has been a professor of literacy, special
education and multilingual learner education at Winthrop University, Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The Power of the Pen:  Poetry as the Bridge to Liberation


This post is written by Darius Phelps. You can read more about Darius at the bottom of this post.

As bell hooks argued, some forms of writing create “a space where we are able to confront reality in such a way that we live more fully.” Having been an educator for thirteen years, I believe that teaching students to write should be a practice that comes from the soul, especially if we want to foster a true connection between ourselves, our students, and the intimacy of writing. For me, growing up, poetry had been a sanctuary, the space in which words were the only thing that brought me comfort. As a young man of color, I found solace in the work of Korean rapper, and author, TABLO of the Korean hip-hop group Epik High who spoke out on issues such as struggling with mental health, depression, assimilation, and even struggling to experience joy as a young man. Inspired and enamored by his work, I began to write poetry myself, letting the words and emotions flow as they came, without restriction.

Dr. Maxine Greene (2000) argues that we must advocate for the inclusion of arts in the classroom in order to help foster a deep understanding and foundation for imagination. She stresses that there are multiple voices and multiple realities for, “We must now allow the enthusiasm for publicity about changed methods of reading instruction to obscure the facts of exclusion and neglect.” (p 36) Writing is part of the conversation,  and through these crucial conversations, we foster dialogue.  In Chapter 9 of Releasing the Imagination, titled “Writing to Learn”, Greene (2000) reinforces this idea When teaching writing, more specifically narrative writing, I use my own personal narrative as a guide/model for my students, showing them that there is power in being vulnerable and sharing what lies on their hearts. I remember the days when I was a student, especially in elementary school; I didn’t have a connection with writing inside of school because I didn’t see myself reflected in the prompts or discussions we would regularly have.

Once I became a classroom teacher, I discovered that diving into writing and teaching as a way to express ourselves via social-emotional learning helps us become better teachers for our students, even challenging us to face our own struggles head-on. With it, we learn to speak well and with emotion, to emulate that emotion, and to be more attentive to words and the emotions that they convey. (Storey, 2019) The power of the pen is one that is truly immaculate, and I feel that can be combined with the implementation of SEL. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a lifelong process for both the teacher and the student. In order to develop self-awareness, self-control, interpersonal skills, and all the intangibles that are paramount of work, school, and life, both adult and child must be willing to do the inner work that is necessary to allow these areas to manifest into something that they can apply to real-life, everyday situations. I believe that the process of doing that inner work requires honest self-examination, painful self-excavation, and restorative healing.

Effective educators use various strategies to improve their pedagogy and to reach their students. It is crucial for teachers to not only understand where their students come from culturally but also truly see them as individuals.  Anyone can be/become a culturally relevant teacher no matter what age group, area, or subject you are teaching.  Ladson Billings (2009) stresses that the key is to go in with an open mindset and see your students for who they are and what they are capable of doing; don’t focus on the negative. As we instruct them in both literature and writing, we must truly believe each and every one of our students can and will succeed. In order to transform them as students, we must be willing to instill this in them and show that we care, and I believe that poetry can be that bridge to vulnerability.

In My Shoes”

by Darius Phelps

If you only knew

what it was like

to walk in my shoes

You’d know my steps 

marched to the beat

of different tunes

Music, art, and poetry

all different clues

Pieces of the puzzle

to my past

The weight of the world

heavy like a stack

of cement bricks 

But nothing

and no one

would hold me back

from overcoming life’s tricks and turns



but never… burned

In my shoes,

You wouldn’t last a day

Surviving Hell’s fire

Like a blistering summer in May

No matter the trauma, the heartache, or the pain

I’ve come out stronger, better, and wiser with much more to gain

For even flowers bloom, after April’s rain

If you only knew

what it was like

to walk in my shoes

When we share our emotions, we foster meaningful discussions that are applicable in students’ day to day lives. I encourage teachers to challenge their students to think critically and outside the box, encouraging them to tackle emotions such as depression, grief, perfectionism, and even abandonment with various forms of discussion. Each person comes with a unique understanding of life, love, freedom, and emotions. Emotions equal freedom because you can’t control when a certain emotion washes over you or rises up, within you. If schools are built on deep relationships, and consent is embedded in the framework of relationship-building, we truly learn how to be self-aware, to recognize how others want to engage with us, and to face our own demons. (Hooks, 2021)

“Where I Am from” 

By Darius Phelps

I am from the pages of battered book

From fiery passion and grit

I am from the daily prayers of my grandmother

Loved endlessly, protected, and cared for

I am from the falling petals of a sunflower

radiant, yellow, and soft like the sun

I am from dinner on Sunday’s and hard work

From Mattie and Eddie, raised by my grandparents

I am from their loving and selfless hearts, the purest love I’ve ever know

From playing outside and using my imagination to dream endlessly

I am from the early Sunday mornings at church and praying before bed

I am from Riverdale, Georgia

From chocolate cake and sweet potato pie

From the endless nights watching grandma bake

The early mornings watching mom leave for work

photograph by photograph

Snapshots of my childhood memories

That slowly fade as time passes by

These are the memories that I hold closest

Where I am from, appreciating what is now gone, remembering that place I used to call home

Where I am from, will never compare to where I am headed

I am Darius Phelps

In the classroom, teachers can utilize poetry prompts such as Georga Ella Lyons “I Am” or “Where I am From” or even ask students to write about their experiences with a day in their life of being in “In Their Shoes.”  In doing so, we both create and provide a safe space for students to come openly with their trauma, pain, and grief and freely express their significant losses in their writing while paying homage to where they come from and light the path to where they are here.

The world of poetry opens our minds to explore our own voice and even find a new one in the process, especially when using it to discuss a wide variety of topics.  Poetry can teach us about ourselves and others in a deep and meaningful way. Instead of writing or reading a generic story about us or someone else, poetry provides the freedom for the writer to not only feel but to fully experience exactly what the writer went through, in a way that honors both their voice and experience. During that journey, the reader’s experience becomes enhanced with the use of similes, metaphors, alliterations, imagery, foreshadowing, and other literary devices. These factors that poetry can offer are what makes our writing that much more personal, and what’s personal for us can end up being a universal message for our readers and our students, allowing them to give their ancestors’ stories a voice, a reason, and a platform to be shared, heard, and acknowledged by all.

We must prioritize freedom of expression through writing opportunities moving forward both in the home and school settings so that children can begin to form relationships, especially the ones with themselves. Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop’s significant framing of multicultural literature as providing windows and mirrors into lived experiences and Morrell’s (2005) call for critical English education open opportunities for excavation in the classroom. I believe that with vulnerability comes authenticity for “Understanding and identifying trauma among students should be grounded in the context, while also considering the range of experiences for diverse individuals within the context.” (Alvarez, 2017)

To do so, we must lead by example, meaning, we as educators must be open and honest about our trauma, struggles, and grief for students to write and formulate their own personal narratives through whatever method speaks to them.  It is through our vulnerability that they will lead towards the liberation of their own respective experiences. If there is anything I want my students to know, it is that writing is about freedom of expression. Be you, regardless of anyone else’s opinion. You are destined to change the world, don’t ever forget that, and let your let shine.

Darius Phelps is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is an adjunct professor at CUNY Queens, Hunter College, Teachers College, and intern at Brooklyn Poets.  An educator, poet, spoken word artist, and activist, Darius writes poems about grief, liberation, emancipation, reflection through the lens of a teacher of color and experiencing Black boy joy. His poems have appeared in the NY English Record, NCTE English Journal, Pearl Press Magazine, and ëëN Magazine’s The 2023 Valentine Issue.  Recently, he was featured on WCBS and highlighted the importance of Black male educators in the classroom. Darius can be contacted via email at: dmp2219@tc.columbia.edu.

Why is poetry important in the classroom?


As a future educator and a current student, I find poetry an amazing outlet for students to express themselves. I, personally, use poetry to release these great big emotions I feel. In my high school, we had a lot of mental health concerns in our student body with little to no action. I was a high schooler losing two to three friends each school year. High school was hard enough but this on top of everything else made it 10x harder. Around this time is when I started writing poetry. My English teacher had a whole unit on poetry where we had to write poetry, research poets, and end with slam poetry where I read a poem by Maya Angelou. I still remember the whole poem. This unit really pushed me to think differently about the power of poetry. This is when I bought myself a new journal and started writing my own. 

Writing poetry helped me a lot with processing my emotions and help me through my high school years. Even in class when we had free writing time, I would write poetry. I still do this, not as much, I’ll randomly think of a thought and start writing off that thought. It is a great way for a student to relieve stress and express themselves without talking about it. This is why I found it reliving, I didn’t have to vocalize why I was upset or why I was happy… I could just write.   

As educators, it is important for us to use this tool as well. Providing a way for us to express and reflect is vital, considering we ask our students to do the same. By allowing our students to write poetry in the classroom, we are creating a space where students can communicate their emotions or thoughts. This is vital because some of our students may not be allowed this opportunity often. You may be the first person to encourage your students to do this openly. By allowing your students to do this, you are creating a welcoming environment in your classroom. In my classroom, having a welcoming environment for students is very important for me. This means being welcoming to new ideas, understanding, and backgrounds. In my classroom, breaking the stigma around mental health will be a must and I believe poetry is a great way to start. 

Mental health is a growing problem in our schools, our student’s academics and extracurricular activities are evidence of this. As educators, we spend more time with these students than most parents or guardians. This grants us the opportunity to talk about mental health in a productively and openly way. Instead of running from this concern of mental health, let’s embrace this time to create a warm and meaningful connection with our students. Poetry opens the doors to this. Even having five minutes set aside in class for your students to write could mean the world to them. 

This piece is written and submitted by Caroline Graham.

Caroline Graham (she/her/hers) is currently a College of Charleston student majoring in Secondary Education and English. She is a South Carolina Teaching Fellow at the College serving as the President. You can see more of Caroline on her website:  https://cgaggraham.wixsite.com/website 

Cover image by kyo azuma on Unsplash

Like painters, writers can stir the mind


This piece is written and submitted by Dr. Angela M. Cozart.

I have to admit, I hated poetry when I was in school. I hated having to figure out what an author was saying. Why couldn’t they just come out and say what they wanted us to see and hear?  I remember reading ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins and being completely confounded. Understanding poetry was like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle without having seen what the completed picture was supposed to look like.

In college I studied William Wordsworth and Langston Hughes. For the first time, I read poetry that was easy to understand and yet beautiful. Its simplicity did not detract from the beauty of form and content. Because I didn’t feel defeated from the start, I began to read other kinds of poetry, the kind that had turned me off to poetry while in high school. I wish I had come to a greater appreciation of poetry while in K-12. I had missed out on so much. But what had I missed out on? Why should children read and learn about poetry?

Poetry helps us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. We can do the same with essays, short stories and novels, but poetry is life and experiences in concentrated form; it doesn’t take long to read a poem, yet an author can concentrate emotions and feelings that would take pages to convey in a novel or poem. Teenagers with  angst can find relief when they read a poem to find out others have shared their own experiences. Thus, poetry can be personal and powerful, but its impact can also be felt on a national or global level.

Just how powerful and impactful is poetry in the world of politics? It is so impactful that Stalin caused Anna Akhmatova to memorize and then destroy all her personal written poems, all so Stalin could not silence her poetic voice. Like painters, writers can stir the mind, but sometimes more importantly, they can stir the heart and passions, especially when rousing people to a cause.  Students can come to appreciate the power of words, how a poem can rally people to a cause; there are poems of resistance, protest, and empowerment. Certainly students should be exposed to such words and ideas.

Poetry writing empowers students and builds their confidence. Writing an essay can be daunting for some students, but when they are introduced to and encouraged to write simple poems such as acrostics, they usually eagerly embrace the challenge. 

Poetry helps students to appreciate the beauty of subtlety, how so much can be said indirectly. They can come to appreciate the power and beauty of words. It can build vocabulary and encourage abstract thinking. Poetry encourages students to analyze what they are reading. It exposes them to other cultures and beliefs. 

Why study poetry? Poetry empowers, arouses. Poetry helps students to put ideas and feeling on paper.

Poetry can stimulate the mind, and it can help students to get in touch with their own feelings. One year,  I had a student say the following to me in a letter. “I always thought poetry was for sissies. All my life I’ve suppressed my feelings, but this class has made me change my mind. I’ve come to understand that as a male I can embrace and express my feelings.” Those words were music to my ears.

Dr. Angela M. Cozart is a Professor Emerita in the Department of Teacher Education at the College of Charleston.

Photo by nikita velikanin on Unsplash

Use digital spaces and poetry to share a walk in your world


The #WalkMyWorld project started as a community focus on poetry and multimodal exploration; it then developed into a community of inquiry. Participants explored the experiences of others by responding to and authoring multimodal poetry. In #WalkMyWorld, educators and students created a social space of engagement to explore civic uses of social media. This exploration served as an opportunity to consider the media literacies at play as the group participated as a community of writers. 

Guided by carefully-crafted learning events, participants took photos, authored short pieces, and filmed small glimpses of their lives. At weekly intervals, they documented their “walks” using photo and video capture tools that easily allow users to share content with others. By collecting snippets of their worlds that seemed trivial one at a time, participants experienced the magic that, when strung together, these digital “gatherings” presented narratives of very human things: pain, beauty, joy, friendship, and wonder. 

During the project, instructors were able to target specific educational objectives revolving around (but not limited to) explorations with poetry. With the understanding that creating and sharing digital content in online spaces might be a novel and even scary experience, instructors also charged participants to grapple with what to share and how. This raises questions between educators and learners as they contemplate how and how much to share. Accordingly, thoughtful experimentation online, connection with digital texts and tools, and play ultimately serve as valid, if not crucial, educational outcomes. 

This project encouraged educators and students in elementary school through higher education to engage in social scholarship practices. Social scholarship utilizes the Internet and other communication technologies to evolve the ways in which scholarship is conducted. Like many other social scholarship projects #WalkMyWorld connected formal scholarship with informal Internet-based social practices while embodying specific values (e.g., openness, collaboration, transparency, access, sharing). #WalkMyWorld evolved into a space that allowed participants to explore the characteristics of online information and educational opportunities by allowing them to share and develop (a) writing lifeworlds, (b) communities of inquiry, (c) media literacies and (d) expanded perspectives of narrative writing. These skills have proven to be integral to the way teachers view themselves as professionals in online and hybrid educational spaces.

The trailer shared above was created for a session on the project released at the K12 Online website. The full video for the session is available below.

Work with the 2014 version of the #WalkMyWorld Project was printed in the MIT Civic Media Reader.

Results from the 2015 iteration of the #WalkMyWorld Project were also presented at the annual conference of the Literacy Research Association. Work from this session by Wise and O’Byrne was later published in the Literacy Research: Theory, Methods, and Practice journal.

The #WalkMyWorld Project was also highlighted in a publication by Rish and Pytash in NCTE’s Voices from the Middle and the accompanying podcast.

Lastly, in 2017 this project served as a motivating factor in this chapter on mentored open online communities (MooCs) as a third space for teaching and learning in higher education.

Seeing Themselves in the Text: Exploring How Critical Literacy Aids in Student’s Examining Their Position in the Spaces They Occupy


By: Steven Jernigan, South Carolina English Language Arts Teacher

Photo by Nicholas Beel on Unsplash

In her 2021 inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb,” poet Amanda Gorman says, “We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black / girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can / dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.” The quote establishes Gorman’s position in the pageantry as the public figure representing art and youth and diversity, while also fully cementing that position in the context of the arduous journey it took to get there – her personal history and the country’s alike. There’s more in that poem – and moment – that is worth dissecting and poring over, but it is that line specifically – high visibility and positioning oneself within the narrative – that there lies a connection between culturally sustaining pedagogy and student’s emotional wellbeing. Author Jennifer Buehler (2019) writes, “We are always making sense of our own and others’ lives in terms of storylines that tell us what to expect in social situations” (pg. 12). Here, Gorman is providing the narrative and the storyline wherein Black children – Black girls specifically – can be seen and heard and admired. One must ask however, what happens if that narrative is not the dominating one in the classroom? It should lead to educators asking questions of their practice such as: What storylines and narratives are we presenting to our students? Furthermore, what are these stories conveying about a student’s own position in the classroom and the world around them? 

Narratives in the ELA Classroom

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

During my time as an English teacher, these questions have served as the basis for most of the teaching decisions. The texts we choose to read in class, if not directly offering students the ability to see themselves in the classroom, are often centered around discourse and writing where students examine and analyze their position both in the classroom and broader society as a whole. Authors Baker-Bell, Butler, and Johnson (2017), in their article “The Pain and the Wounds: A Call for Critical Race English Education in the Wake of Racial Violence,” highlight how English teachers “invoke racial violence when we don’t cultivate critical media literacies that Black and Brown youth can use to critique, rewrite, and dismantle the damaging narratives that mainstream media has written about them” (pg. 124). While the call here is to provide students with the tools and knowledge for how to identify and rectify the power structures they are subjected to and perhaps even uphold, the consequence of not doing so should not go unnoticed – the continued upholding of a system that enacts violence on the bodies of Black and Brown youth. And while that consequence provides enough justification for critical examination in the classroom, it is worth noting that research (Andolina & Gonklin, 2019; Scriuba, 2014) suggests engaging students in such practices promotes the building of empathy, importance of community, and need for equity within our students. 

Creating a Culturally Sustaining ELA Environment

In specifically addressing these questions and concerns in my classroom this year, I and the other English 2 teachers have centered our world literature curriculum around the pairing of whole class text with student choice, YA novels. As a whole, our school has actively engaged in students doing some version of self selected, independent reading. At its best, this practice was used to dedicate one day a week to sustained reading with perhaps a whole class discussion follow up. At its worst however, it was used to fill time after quizzes and tests. While there is nothing inherently wrong with using time after assessment as an opportunity to get students to read, we felt that this year there was something more we could do. So, we went about finding YA books that fit with the more traditional texts that had been a part of the curriculum for years. In our reading of Shakespeare’s Othello for example, we are having students choose from a selection of works that sit systemic racism as a central conflict in their narratives. We are then setting aside one day a week to the readings of these choice texts. During these readings, we will also be breaking students up into groups where they will participate in conversations around text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world comparisons. In addition, the students will be maintaining blogs as a space to talk about their conversations and overall impressions from their study of the two works of literature. A project similar to this – students created text sets that related to central ideas of their two novels – was done with the reading of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; those projects allowed for some excellent conversation around the ways in which societies – both our own and others – struggle with progress and tradition. 

Photo by Seven Shooter on Unsplash

Aside from fully revamping a course’s entire curriculum however, there are other ways to get storylines and narratives into the classroom that have students examine, critique, and see themselves in the world they occupy. In my English 3 American Literature course, this has been done by examining poetry like Amanda Gorman’s. In looking at poetry as both a form of argumentation and as emotional expression, students are reading Gorman’s and Angelou’s inaugural poems to see how poets – Black poets specifically – were using their craft to discuss and critique American society. The students are to not only examine the argument present in both these works, but to identify challenges and obstacles that are present in their own lives and communities that could be addressed with poetry too. While the dream would be to have a room full poet laureates that all have my class to thank as their genesis, the overall goal is for these students to see themselves as agents of change in their own world – to position themselves in places they are heard, seen, and appreciated. 

The specific practices offered here sit not as quick fixes to systemic, holistic problems, but rather as a push to get educators to acknowledge the narratives and stories elevated in their classroom. As noted in Kristina Montero’s book review of Paris and Alim’s Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World (2017), creating a more equitable world for our students means rooting out the white supremacist and colonial practices that have and continue to pervade our field. Doing so, requires self-examination and identification of our own role in the maintenance of a system that oppresses and silences. In other words, the work is inward as much as it is outward. As noted by Gorman however, “For there is always light / If only we are brave enough to see it / If only we are brave enough to be it.”


Andolina, M. W., & Conklin, H. G. (2020). Fostering Democratic and Social-Emotional Learning in Action Civics Programming: Factors That Shape Students’ Learning From Project Soapbox. American Educational Research Journal, 57(3), 1203–1240. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831219869599

Baker-Bell, A., Butler, T., Johnson, L. (2017). The Pain and the Wounds: A Call for Critical Race English Education in the Wake of Racial Violence. English Education, volume 49 (2), 115-129. Retrieved From https://library.ncte.org/journals/ee/issues/v49-2/28917

Buehler, Jennifer (2019). Positioning Theory: Exploring power, Social Location, and Moral Choices of the American Dream in American Street. In R. Ginsberg and W. J. Glenn (Eds.), Engaging with Multicultural YA Literacy in the Secondary Classroom (pp. 11-21). Taylor and Francis Group. 

Montero, M. (2019). Creating Cultural Sustenance in the Classroom: A Review of Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 62(6), 698–701. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.956Sciurba, Katie (2014).

Texts as Mirrors, Texts as Windows: Black Adolescent Boys and the Complexities of Textual Relevance. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 58( 4), 308– 316. doi: 10.1002/jaal.358.

About the Author

Steven Jernigan has three years of teaching experience and is currently an English Language Arts teacher in Greenville, South Carolina and a Graduate Student in the Literacy Masters Program at Clemson University.