Poetry Slam: A Different Way to Use Primary Sources

Today’s post comes from Kris Jarosik, education specialist at the National Archives at Chicago.

How do you use primary sources with your students?

DocsTeach activities, analysis worksheets, or perhaps even grouped together as DBQs may be a few techniques you employ.

But have you tried a poetry slam?  A partner of ours in Chicago brought this technique to our attention, and we used it with much success during a professional development event.  So we just had to share.

Teachers with their poem

A Poetry Slam with Documents works best when you have multiple dense primary sources that are part of the same story.  With this technique, students are able to build their literacy skill sets by practicing their skimming/reading-for-gist technique and learning content knowledge.

How does it work?

Each group of four students receives a different “meaty” primary source that tells one part of a larger story.  In our workshop each group of teachers received a different document from the court case Gautreaux, et al. v. the Chicago Housing Authority.  You can tap into DocsTeach.org to locate these primary sources.

Share an overview of the topic or story that the documents cover and the process of the poetry slam.  In our teacher example, we provided an overview of the court case before we got started.  This case spanned over 30 years and was the nation’s first major public housing desegregation lawsuit. The Gautreaux lawsuit charged that by concentrating more than 10,000 public housing units in isolated African-American neighborhoods, the Chicago Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had violated both the U.S. Constitution and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Skimming

Distribute enough copies of each document within the group so that each member of the group has their own copy of the same document.  Then, individually, students should skim and highlight key phrases and interesting sentences in their document.  Only provide students with enough time to skim the document and not completely analyze it.

Creating PoetryTeachers with their poetry strips

After time is called, each student needs to select 5 of the phrases s/he highlighted from the document and copy them directly onto large strips of paper with markers. Then, in their small groups, students should create a poem based on these exact document phrases.  Encourage students to “play around” and re-arrange the strips on the floor.  Each small group should use at least one strip from each group member.  Then the group should write out their newly created poem on one large sheet of paper.

Teachers with their poems

Performing – The Slam Part

Then the group decides how to perform their poem for the Poetry Slam. Provide students time to rehearse. Each small group will be able to learn from the other groups about the other documents.  A discussion with the entire class (large group) can facilitate and ensure complete understanding, and pave the way for deeper exploration of this complex story.

If you are raring to give this a try, the supply list below can help you get started.

Poetry Slam Supply List

  • small groups of 4
  • a different document for each small group  with enough copies of that document for each group member (each document should be related to one story or concept) DocsTeach.org is a great resource to tap.
  • highlighters and markers
  • large strips of paper — 5 strips for each class member
  • 1 large sheet of sheet of paper for each group
  • tape, or provide a way to hang poems on the wall/white board when groups are performing
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