Here is a special Halloween-appropriate edition of our Great Ideas from Readers series. It tells the story of what happened when a college class and a program for adults with intellectual disabilities came together to experiment with poetry.
But you can also experiment with the same technique yourself, using any article about hauntings or horrors you can find on the Times Topics page on Halloween, or in our special collection, Haunting Ideas: Halloween-Themed Teaching and Learning With The New York Times.
In September, 2017, Empire State College (ESC) formed a partnership with a local day program called “Lifestyles for the Disabled.” ESC is part of a cohort of colleges across Staten Island that invite adults with intellectual disabilities into their campus classrooms. Louise Vallario from Lifestyles and I initially collaborated informally to foster the partnership at Empire, which took six months to bring to fruition. We decided to teach poetry to a class of matriculated students from Empire who would be joined by Lifestyle students who were interested in postsecondary education.
As we planned for National Poetry Month in April, we came across the Learning Network’s Ninth Annual Found Poem Student Contest. Although the Lifestyles students were too old to qualify under the rules, which say that participants should be 13 to 19 years old, we decided to tackle what seemed like a stimulating exercise anyway. After teaching the students the definition of a found poem, we showed them examples of this kind of poetry, which is formed by taking words and phrases from existing sources, like newspaper articles.
We had been talking about Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry and life for most of the semester, and we all agreed to use him as our subject. Because the contest asks that students find a rich Times article to be the source of the words and phrases that will make the found poetry, we chose Charles McGrath’s “The Writer and Man, Evermore.” We explained the rules to the students and distributed copies of the article. The students were then encouraged to form groups and collaborate on a group poem.
It was slow going at first. Empire students were instructed to read the article for homework. We suggested that the Lifestyles students not read the article in order to make sense of it but instead “mine” it for the words that would make up their poems. All students were reminded to circle words that spoke to them about Poe, and were told to black out the words that they considered irrelevant. When the joint class ended, there was still a lot of work to do, so the following day the Lifestyles students continued to work with Ms. Vallario their own classroom.
The following day, the Lifestyles students brought their drafts and completed them with their Empire State partners. Then — the best part — they shared their jointly-created poetry by reading it aloud in front of the classroom.
In the final evaluation of this exercise, we realized how much the Lifestyles students had enhanced their language and speaking skills. We also realized that the Empire students had enhanced a skill set that we cannot quantify: They had formed more than partnerships with the Lifestyle students; they had forged friendships that were based on their work together and their exchange of ideas.
The Empire students seemed also to have come to a revelation about individuals with disabilities, and were shocked at what they learned: People with disabilities have hidden strengths and a strong desire to learn. In the end, many Empire students told us this exercise made them think our society should be more inclusive of the disabled than it is now.
A piece for the SIExpress tells more about the collaboration between Empire College and the Lifestyles for the Disabled students, and features the video above highlighting more of the poetry the groups wrote and read together.
What Times articles might provide the material for great found poems by your students? For example, what could they make from this piece about a place that is rumored to be haunted?
To get inspired, take a look at the poems the Empire groups made with from the Times article about Edgar Allan Poe.