In Praise Of Praise Poetry

All, Education, Rants, Writing

It seems that every K-12 student and teacher in Kentucky is currently mired in testing and most of our college students have just emerged from or are currently battling final exams. I’ve written before about my concerns regarding our obsession with K-12 testing (what is our return for the time and money invested in it?) and you can watch John Oliver’s depressingly amusing description of standardized testing to learn more about some of those problems with this practice. But even when you set aside the questions about the cost of time and money, I know this obsession with testing (and all the attendant preparation and practice forced on students and teachers) is damaging our children in many important ways (formulaic writing, surface-level reading, lack of critical thinking just to name a few), but what really disturbs me is to hear how many students take those test scores to heart and believe those numbers truly represent their value as a person.

Last night one of my friends confided that her elementary-age son had a nightmare the night before testing began at his school – a stress nightmare caused by standardized testing pressure. I know my child had similar stress problems when he was in elementary school. That just breaks my heart, because I hear similar stories over and over. As John Oliver notes in his segment, “Something is wrong with our system when we just assume a certain number of kids will vomit.” I know my conversations with my own students in the weeks leading up to final exams were filled with details about the high levels of stress caused by these high-stakes exams. However, even when the pendulum swings away from this level of K-12 testing there will still be high-stakes exams – especially for high school and college students – and there should always be some of these culminating or gateway tests. Frankly, I want the professionals in my life to certify their knowledge and skills through tests of some sort. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about the stress that accompanies these tests.

I recently wrote a blog post arguing we should spend more time celebrating our students rather than engaging in the practice of student shaming and this post is a continuation or sequel to that idea. This is about celebrating ourselves and celebrating our students individually and collectively as a method to combat stress. This is about ending your school year or semester on a high note. This is about sending your students into testing season with their shoulders back and their heads held high. This is about helping us all cope with the stress in our lives whether it comes from school or life challenges. I believe strongly in the power of writing to serve as a release valve for our stress and to help us cope. I shared one strategy, Slam Poetry, in my recent blog post, Detoxify Student Stress, but today I want to share another – Praise Poetry.

I was first introduced to the idea of praise poetry by the fabulous Morehead Writing Project rock star Mandy Lawson during a writing retreat. The Morehead Writing Project then began featuring it at our Writing Eastern Kentucky Conference as a culminating activity. This semester I incorporated it into my final classes and I was overwhelmed by my students’ response. They wrote some really powerful poetry and it allowed us to end the semester on a high note that gave them a much-needed boost as they headed into finals week.

My plan was simple. We began with a ceremony awarding class badges (my students award each other badges for their contribution to the class discussion and the class blog) which was then followed by a discussion of Stuart Smalley and the power of affirmation. We reviewed the qualities recognized by each badge (ie. inventive, wise, responsible) and then I asked students to think about their other strengths as well as their past successes and the challenges they have overcome. We then watched Lucille Clifton read her wonderful praise poem, Won’t You Celebrate With Me. I love the last line of her piece so much, because it is the perfect antidote to stress and difficulty: “come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.” We then watched Ntando Kubheka perform her praise poem about Africa because it is a good complement to Clifton’s poem and makes praise poetry seem a little more accessible. Finally, we wrote together and we shared our words. There was laughter and there were tears and those classes demonstrated to me again the power of words to lance boils and balm wounds. I can only hope my students took that lesson to heart and will carry it forward to help them face troubled times in the future.

Note: Praise Poetry can be part of much bigger assignments (including research projects). Learn more by watching this video lesson about praise poetry and reviewing this lesson plan. In fact the Sankofa Bird used to illustrate this post offers a great backstory to support research, critical thinking, and reflection. The image used came from Wikimedia Commons.

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