Reviewed by Nicole Warchol
When I was in middle school, I had a teacher who changed my life in all the best ways. She encouraged me as a reader and supported me as a writer.
One of the elements that made her class different from others was that once a year she had a poet join our class for a week. During that time, we wrote and revised poetry. Even though the poems I wrote are embarrassing verses dripping with teen angst, I am still writing two decades later so something stuck.
At the end of our time together in that class, we compiled an anthology. For years, I have thought of creating an anthology for my own classroom, but it seemed daunting. Most of us don’t have the funds or perhaps connections for securing a poet for our students, which is why Kwame Alexander’s Page-to-Stage is an essential resource for every language arts teacher.
Page-to-Stage is organized into the following sections: Writing (Part 1), Publishing (Part 2), Presenting (Part 3), and an Appendix. Alexander’s Book-in-a-Day experiences serve as the model for this text. In each section, in addition to the main text, you will also gain access to tips and videos and possible lessons as well as anecdotes from other education professionals.
Why teach poetry?
“In her text, In the Middle, Nancie Atwell (1998: 416) observes, ‘Seventy years ago, fully half the literature taught to fourth graders in the United States was poetry. Today it’s 97 percent prose and just 3 percent poetry’” (Alexander 28). Those statistics seem quite unbalanced. In this shift, I wonder what has been lost.
If your students are like mine, they are resistant writers. But I think if you are willing to leap into poetry energetically, your students will follow. One of the points Alexander makes is that poetry offers opportunities for success, especially for students who struggle, because it less restrictive than other genres while also encouraging language play and fostering self-expression. If poetry can highly engage our students AND help them become stronger writers, what do you have to lose?
Where do we even begin?
Kwame Alexander recommends jazz. Then he offers the questions we can use to open our own workshops: “What ingredients are needed for a successful poem? What makes a group of words a poem?” (48).
The Lesson in Action installments are very useful because they offer mentor texts and guided questions as well as procedures that you can follow, if you need them. You can begin with something short and familiar, like haiku. Or with any of the other options provided, if you feel like it might appeal more to your students. Either way, the writing section offers you many opportunities to encourage your students to put words on paper.
Our students may only be as brave as we are. If we aren’t willing to “dance naked on the floor,” they may be hesitant to take their own creative leaps. One of my favorite tidbits was the topic of a bad poem. Alexander shares the concept from Nikki Giovanni about a poem that “misbehaves,” which I think is a clever approach to take with students.
Taking it to the next level
Now that your students have composed a poem, the next step is publishing. I am going to admit that this section is the one that I find the most intimidating. My students’ writing is displayed in our classroom. Sometimes I post our work on the class blog. But I haven’t ever taken on a project as big as what Alexander proposes.
Thankfully, he unfolds everything in such a way that it appears to be manageable. The process is very student-driven. It involves breaking students up into five teams: Editorial, Proofreading, Production, Marketing, and Design. Each team has clearly outlined responsibilities, which lead to the final product.
His appendix is a treasure trove of ideas and resources. I was excited because it offered ways for me to improve lessons I already do. For example, my students write a poem about their hometown, but this year it seemed to be a struggle. I was excited to see Alexander had a mentor text and lesson for writing place poems.
My students are also about to begin writing odes. While this has been a successful assignment in the past, I will happily incorporate his suggestions into our process. Other options include cinquain poems, sports (onomatopoeia) poems, senryu, tanka, renga, simile poems and more.
In addition, when you purchase Page-to-Stage, you gain access to digital resources that can be reached either via the internet or using the USB provided with the book. There are eight videos and downloads for teachers. Some of the videos include Alexander interacting with students, which would serve as great models for your own classroom. I hope he continues to add to this site.
Page-to-Stage by Kwame Alexander is a must-have. It is sure to become a seminal text. Whether you are a poetry novice, poetry expert, or somewhere in between, there is much to be gained from this book.
Once you read Page-to-Stage, Kwame Alexander is going to have you saying “yes.” Yes to jazz. Yes to writing. Yes to poetry. Yes to publishing.
Nicole Warchol is a 7th grade language arts teacher and a teacher consultant for the Kean University Writing Project. She lives in New Jersey with Rocco, her ten-year-old Rottweiler-German Shepherd. She is a voracious reader who occasionally writes poetry. To follow her literary pilgrimages and other pursuits, visit her @MsNWarchol and on her blog at www.thecraziestbooklady.wordpress.com.