When a Poetry Workshop becomes a Slam

It started out with a curve ball. And that was before the table flipped.

When I head to the South Bronx each year to lead a poetry workshop at St. Luke School, I expect that I’ll teach the 7th and then 8th grades. The classrooms are right next to each other, I know both teachers, and it just flows.

This year, the kids were combined. That meant 50-60 kids, in one room, in chairs (no desks). On a Friday afternoon. They did have notebooks. Maybe it was a scheduling glitch. Who knows? I rolled with it.

I told them a little about my background and my connection to the school. (My mother went there as a child.) I did a quick book talk and make a small display of the books I had brought to them as gifts to the classroom.

I brought books by Sharon Flake, RJ Palacio, Jackie Woodson, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Varian Johnson, Judith Robbins Rose, and Marcia Wells.

We talked about poetry, about word choice and sensory details. And they started writing. They wrote most powerfully about family members… cousins, parents, unnamed objects of wrath and affection. And then they started reading.

The first few were tentative. Then the performance level got more dramatic. There was laughter; there were moments you could hear a pin drop.

There was pacing and labored delivery.

Don’t be fooled. He brought the house down.

One student sat on a table, reading one of my favorite lines of the day.

Amazing line: “Her insecurity shines like the light of a thousand suns.”

And then the table flipped.

The laughter nearly blew the windows out. The rowdy factor was up to ten. But we rode the waves, the poet righted the table and kept on reading.

She ended with a flourish.

You can start a fire with poetry, and you don’t always know where it’s going to go. It was wild, it was uproarious.

It warmed us but didn’t burn.

It was amazing.

Wishing you a wild and wonderful National Poetry Month!

Fighting the Good Fight with Children’s Books

Can children’s books fight prejudice, oppression, and injustice? Absolutely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday I presented a teacher training about structuring the read-aloud experience for maximum benefit to young children. This gave me the chance to weave together two strands I am passionate about: early literacy and social justice.

It’s hard to keep my focus as an educator and writer when so much of what I love about this country is under assault: freedom, diversity, a value on the arts and sciences. I could go on. There was a bright spot this week, something that helped me to gather my strength: Mirah Curzer’s recent article on Medium, “How to Stay #Outraged Without Losing Your Mind.”

Curzer wrote about the various ways we can counter the intolerance and injustice we are seeing in the new administration:

“Don’t forget to play to your strengths… If you’re a writer, write articles shedding light on important issues, convincing the other side or rallying your allies to action. If you’re an artist, make art with a conscience. Teachers can bring social justice into your curriculum. Lawyers can volunteer at free legal clinics, write amicus briefs, do pro bono work. Like to argue? …Love to bake? Bring cookies to activist meetings and homeless shelters. No matter what your passion is, there’s a way to use it for good and have a great time doing it.”

So that’s what I did yesterday, which also happened to be Multicultural Children’s Book Day. I presented about the read-aloud experience to a group of passionate Head Start teachers, educators who spend their careers working with children from low-income circumstances. Many of the children in their classrooms have experienced trauma and major challenges. We talked about windows and mirrors and how vocabulary equals power.

We examined beautiful books and how to use them in the Head Start classrooms. I left feeling a little less bleak, a little more energized. We can each wage this fight in our own way, with the tools we have at hand.

My tools are books.

From Brandon Stanton’s Little Humans

Let’s keep fighting.

Mommy, Why Are They Marching? Six Picture Books for kids

Our children are asking.

How do we respond when a man about to be inaugurated as President of the United States would flunk the behavior guidelines of every kindergarten in the country: no name-calling, no touching someone else’s private parts? When the election was tainted by scandal and voter suppression?

We march.

For many young children, protest marching may be a new concept. They may not be aware of Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the past year; they have not known a country led by a white president who disrespects women, who lashes out at Muslims, Mexicans and civil rights icons, who threatens mass deportations.

As parents, we explain that as citizens, we can demonstrate, we can march, we can protest.  And we can use books to teach our children about these tools of democracy.

Here are some titles perfect for young children:

“The sun rises and we prepare to march.”

The message is spare and powerful in We March, written and illustrated by Shane W. Evans (Roaring Brook Press, 2012).  In direct, rhythmic language, Evans portrays children awakened by their parents to join in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  We see  African American families paint signs, travel on buses to Washington, and march with Martin Luther King, Jr. The illustrations show the participation of children in the march and some white citizens marching shoulder to shoulder with black protesters; it ends on a note of hope.

“You cannot pretend that we do not exist.”

Peaceful demonstration in a march for migrant workers’ rights is the focus of Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Harcourt, 2003).  Krull shows us Chavez’s childhood and his rise as a champion for migrant workers in the fields and farms of California, highlighting his dedication to non-violence and the 300-mile march to Sacramento in 1966. Inspiring, positive, with luminous illustrations by Morales.

“One newspaper calls it an army. Others call it a revolt. It’s a revolt of girls, for some are only twelve years old.”

Child labor, immigrant rights, and girl power are entwined in the picture book Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 2013). Young immigrant Clara “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong.” When she goes to work in a garment factory in New York City and experiences its crushing working conditions, she becomes an advocate for the thousands of girls working in factories across the city. Spurred by Clara’s words, the factory girls stage a strike, marching on the streets of New York, sparking protests in other cities and calls for reform. An inspiring picture book with beautiful language and intricate, artful illustrations.

“When you fight for justice, others will follow.”

The Trump campaign started with a wholesale assault on Mexican and Mexican-American people; the book Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation does not shy away from the history of this discrimination.  While there is no literal protest march portrayed in Duncan Tonatiuh’s award-winning picture book, it is timely in its depiction of the struggle for rights (seeing a “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed” sign in an illustration is painful) and in its portrayal of the Mendez family’s bravery in being part of a lawsuit that fought for equal education for all children in California, regardless of race, ethnicity, or language. Their courage in showing up in court each day, in testifying for their rights, is clearly conveyed in the illustrations; they exemplify the word resist. (Abrams, 2014)

“This story begins with shoes… We fought with our feet.”

Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation is a “story told with steps” by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. It recounts the resistance of Rosa Parks in the face of Jim Crow laws, and the ensuing bus boycott that lasted over a year. This was a different kind of march: the grueling 300+ days of black citizens refusing to use the city bus service in protest, walking to work, schools and elsewhere in punishing weather, day and night. It ends on a triumphant note, as the boycott was successful: “now you see the power of won’t –stop shoes.” (Amistad/Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2008)

“Clutching a protest sign in one hand…Audrey marched out the door.”

Cynthia Levinson’s The Youngest Marcher tells the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, who participated in the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama, where she was arrested at age nine along with thousands of other kids and teens.  Gorgeous illustrations by Vanessa Brantley Newton capture the dynamism and heart of this Civil Rights era story. (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2017)

Whether or not you are marching in or attending a Women’s March, these books beautifully lay out the concept of resist for young children. Buy them. Read them to your kids. We’re going to need them.

Marching on Washington

Our country has a rich history of marching on Washington, to defend rights, to protest, to resist.  Two picture books I have been reading capture this dynamic perfectly for young children.

The Youngest Marcher by Cynthia Levinson portrays the energy and idealism of children standing up for justice in the civil rights era. To counteract the cultural dissonance of our current President-elect criticizing civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, read this book to your children. Young Audrey Faye Hendricks participates in the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama, offering a powerful example of youth activism. With beautiful illustrations by Vanessa Brantley Newton, this book was just published this month by Atheneum/Simon & Schuster.

We March by Shane W. Evans shows a family rising early, traveling by bus, and participating in a civil rights march in Washington DC. Its spare words and vibrant illustrations leave a lot of room for the child reader to ask questions or let the story weave its spell. A perfect picture book (Roaring Brook Press, 2011).

The Women’s March is in one week. May it contribute to the great history of marches on Washington to rally, protest, and resist!

 

 

 

 

 

Protecting our Young LGBTQ Athletes

“Thank God I’m gay.”

Cyd Zeigler
Cyd Zeigler

Those are words LGBT advocate Cyd Zeigler and his husband exchange each day. Part affirmation and part words of gratitude, Zeigler’s words electrified the audience of student-athletes, coaches, advocates, and educators. We had gathered in Hyannis, MA for a summit to discuss the intersection of student athletes, LGBTQ diversity, and anti-bullying.

mccz
I was thrilled to meet Cyd Zeigler!

 

Zeigler had returned to his native Cape Cod to share his own story: teased for being gay years before he came to the realization himself, Zeigler didn’t come out until well after his high school years. A lifelong athlete, Zeigler recognized after he came out that there wasn’t much overlap between the realm of sports fans/athletes and the gay community. He set out to do something about it by co-founding OutSports.com. You can read more about OutSports here.

lacrosse-pic
Braeden Lange on the cover of the program

Student-athlete Braeden Lange also presented. Imagine a thirteen-year-old boy holding a conference room in thrall with his positive message and poised responses to questions. A lacrosse player, Braeden spoke about coming out as a sixth grader, how ostracized he felt, and how connecting to Andrew Goldstein, a well-known gay lacrosse athlete who is out, saved his life and gave him hope. Braeden shared that those connections are what keep young LGBTQ students from feelings of despair and isolation. This is one of the goals of the short documentary about him and Andrew, The Courage Game, that was shown at the conference. You can view the ESPN feature here. (13 min.) It’s amazing!

My wife, school counselor Bonnie Jackman, and Braeden Lange
My wife, school counselor Bonnie Jackman, and Braeden Lange

Zeigler also emphasized the power of connection and coming out: he often hears from athletes who are deeply fearful of being ridiculed and ostracized by their teams. Often it is the opposite that happens, Zeigler recounted: athletes feel the support of teammates and coaches, and the liberation of no longer harboring a secret.

A school counselor, school safety office, and health teacher in attendance
From the Nauset district: school counselor, school safety officer, and health teacher in attendance!

As Braeden said, “living your truth…you don’t have to have that weight on your shoulders.”

State Representative Sarah Peake spoke about her own coming out process, her memories of being a student-athlete, and her appreciation for the positive messages of Zeigler and young Braeden.

Jonathan Peters, a senior at Sturgis Charter School who spearheaded the event, closed with words of gratitude and inspiration. He thanked Cyd Zeigler and Braeden for traveling to the Cape for the event that attracted participants from as far as Rhode Island. He spoke about his own process, saying that rather than using the term “coming out,” he prefers, “invite the world in.”

keynote-speakers

That’s exactly what happened in that conference room. The world was invited in. Student athletes, advocates, principals, coaches, educators, and allies came together. The power of connection was affirmed. And everyone left that room feeling a little braver, more connected, and optimistic about the intersection of LGBTQ diversity and sports.

Braeden Lange, Cyd Zeigler, and Jonathan Peters: rocking the pastels! (Thanks to Jonathan for the photo.)
Braeden Lange, Cyd Zeigler, and Jonathan Peters: rocking the pastels! (Thanks to Jonathan for the photo.)

Final note: book recommendations!

Here is one book for teens that was recommended by a friend, featuring a gay athlete main character. It’s TRUE LETTERS FROM A FICTIONAL LIFE by Kenneth Logan.

I’d love to hear more recommendations for middle grade and young adult books featuring  LGBTQ-athlete characters!

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