Yesterday during Fika my grade 8s and I worked our way through creating our very first set of “blackout poems”. I was inspired to try this technique with my class after seeing it set up for public participation two weekends ago at the Victoria Yoga Conference. I had never seen a “blackout poem” before, so I was curious to experience them with my students. The results were incredible. Allow me to explain!
Blackout poems are a very safe and encouraging way to work with poetry because they are written using text that already exists. The students use the written work of another author or poet and literally cross out (or black out) any words they don’t want to include. Additionally, students can rearrange the words to their liking; bits and pieces of sentences can be moved around to create new meaning. The only rule I established was that students were not allowed to add in new words (I did allow students to change the tense of a word or pluralize words). That’s it! I found this lesson differentiated nicely; even my most vulnerable and struggling learners were able to participate in this activity because all the text already existed. The power was in the hands of the student to delete and recreate, rather than start with a blank sheet of paper, which served to boost the creative self-esteem for many students in my class. I’ve never worked backward like this in any curricular area before, so I was amazed to see the deep and powerful poems my grade 8s were able to create using our predetermined piece of text. Of course, it helped that our original text was a piece of beautiful work from Shane Koyzcan.
This was the poem we used for our original piece of writing. I encourage you to listen to the poem first before watching the video. Koyczan’s voice is pure magic.
So here was the scene in my grade 8 class: We all had our steaming mugs of tea, lights turned low, heads on desks or eyes closed. We listened to Walking Through Words first. Then we listened again, but this time we also watched the video. Some of the girls gasped when they saw Koyczan’s face for the first time; he didn’t look like they expected him to look. How does a poet look anyhow? But after the initial shock there was a tangible, deep respect and acceptance for the artwork and magic Koyczan creates with his spoken and written word. My class correctly guessed that the video was filmed in Tofino, just a few hours up island from where we live and play. After this, we listened a third time and the students followed along with the text I had transcribed (I wasn’t able to find the text anywhere on the internet, so I transcribed it myself). I encouraged everyone to ignore punctuation and listen to how Koyzcan makes short words seem looooong, and long words seem short. He makes periods and commas disappear, but in the most perfect places. Then I did a quick poll to see which method each student liked best, and then we moved on to our fourth listen/watch/read.
Listening four times through the poem might sound excessive, but it was entirely necessary because only then did my students start to really grasp the essence of the words. Once we were done listening we got to work! Check out the blackout poems in the early stages of recreation:
We worked all through the block and some students didn’t even want to go out for break! We revisited this activity for about 20 minutes after lunch. One student turned her work into a masterful work of art, and while I won’t share her name, she did give me permission to photograph and share her final piece of work:
Isn’t this just a beautiful piece of art?
I love how diverse this blackout poem writing experience was yesterday- we will definitely do it again. My most favourite aspect of blackout poems is how each and every student in my class, regardless of curricular reading level or ability, was able to find success and for that I am deeply grateful.
If you try this activity out with your own students, children or even on your own terms, let us know how it worked for you!