February 10, 2018 10:02:29 PM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
"Books fall open, you fall in,
Delighted where you've never been."
From "Books Fall Open" by David McCord
WEST POINT -- About halfway through Friday's Poetry Slam, 8-year-old Amahd Brown ascended stage at South Side Elementary School to a chorus of snapping fingers from the audience.
Earlier, the audience of about 30 parents, grandparents and school staff had applauded each performer as he or she took the stage, until third grader Hannah Miller whispered to her teacher, Erica Pate, that the proper protocol for poetry slam audience was finger-snapping, not clapping.
The audience dutifully complied, although an occasional mom or two could not quite restrain herself and clapped briefly before catching herself.
When the snaps died down, Brown was supposed to recite "Mother to Son," by Langston Hughes, but with all due respect to Mr. Hughes, he chose instead to recite his own composition, "My Strongest Prayer."
Brown was one of 27 children in Pate's third-grade class who stood and recited from memory poems they had chosen for the occasion -- Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Hughes, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Butler Yeats and Edna St. Vincent Millay, among them.
Like the rest of the third graders, Brown had little exposure -- and even less interest -- in poetry before this school year.
"I like poetry pretty good now," he said. "It helps you imagine stuff in your head. It's fun."
Brown wants to be a football player when he grows up and his mom, Alesha Brown, wondered how well he would take to poetry when the school year began.
"I didn't know how he would do," Alesha said. "But Wednesday, he recited the poem he wrote to his aunt and I was, like, 'I'm proud of you!' He said, 'Mom, I'm going to do two poems!' He was so excited, but I think he got a little frightened today. He knew the Langston Hughes poem, but he was nervous. But when he did his poem today, I was just so proud of my baby." Amahd's fellow student Leslie Robinson recited "Books Fall Open," a fitting selection after the students spent all year studying poems. Friday's poetry slam was a showcase for the students' hard work.
Turning failure into success
Aside from the performances themselves, the poetry slam was remarkable in another way. Poetry isn't part of the official curriculum until sixth grade, but Pate went against the grain to expose her students for a very practical reason.
Two years ago, when state standards required all third graders to read at grade-level, part of the testing included reading and interpreting a poem.
"Poetry isn't a standard, but the children were tested on it," Pate said. "So I decided that if the children were going to be tested on poetry, I had better teach them something about poetry."
She began introducing poetry to students last year as part of their language arts class. To measure their progress, the students were tested through the year.
"This year, our entire class failed the first test where they had to read a poem and interpret it," Pate said. "So we sat down and talked about the poem and they said, 'I hate this. It's stupid. What does it even mean?' Some of my boys, especially, were like, 'This is dumb. I don't want to do this.'"
By the end, more boys in Pate's class were writing poetry than girls, she said.
"It's really beautiful how they have matured and grown to actually love it," Pate said. "They write in their free time. At the beginning of the year, we had free time where everybody would get out their journals and write. They were like, 'Ugh. I don't want to.' Now, they love it. It's so rewarding. It makes me want to come to school."
Pate, who was selected as the school's Teacher of the Year last year, said while some might consider poetry more of a hobby than an academic exercise, she believes introducing her students to poetry will help them throughout their school years.
"Poetry encourages reading for pleasure," she said. "It also gives us the ability to get emotional with words and create imagery. Even with academic reading, one of the ways we retain knowledge is by creating mental images. Poetry trains our minds to do that."
The power of poetry
Friday's poetry slam was an emotional experience for Pate, who has watched the love of reading poetry bloom as the school year progressed.
When Mckennon Todd read his choice, "The Road Not Taken," by Robert Frost, Pate remembered how she fell in love with the poem as a sixth grader.
But it was the students' original compositions that most affected her.
"Last year, when we started it, we studied the work of poets, but we expanded it this year to so the students could write their own poetry," Pate said. "Some of their poems are just so deep and beautiful. I cried reading them. There's one called 'Reflections' by Macey Busby that will make even a grown-up reflect on how they see themselves. It's amazing."
Unlike some of her more skeptical classmates, Busby said she took to poetry almost immediately.
"I like how you can describe everything in different ways," she said.
She was surprised by her teacher's response to her poem.
"This was my first poem and I wasn't sure. Mrs. Pate told me to just go for it," she said. "When Mrs. Pate read it the first time, she told me to show it to the principal," she said. "Then my mom texted it to my dad.
"I guess everybody liked it," she added.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]