Poetry Identity Project

One of the biggest challenges that I have as an AP Lit teacher is finding opportunities for my students to write creatively. Because the class is so focused on literary analysis, it sometimes feels like I don’t have the time or space to assign writing that doesn’t directly help them on the exam. Still, I always make sure to find the time for Identity Posters because when we share them, I notice that the activity immediately brings my students closer together. I would also argue that having students write their own poetry usually helps them to have a greater appreciation for the tools that poets use to communicate their ideas, and in the long run, this helps them find more entry points into their analysis. 

The assignment itself is pretty simple. It is something that I’ve adapted from a Winter Institute assignment that I attended with the Oregon Writing Project a few years ago. Students choose five poems that speak to them in some way and use them as mentor texts to create their own after poems that speak to their identity. They then take the five poems and put them together on a poster along with some visual representations that compliment each poem. I allow some students to do this electronically on a google doc or slide if they are more comfortable with these mediums. The only requirements are five poems that speak to their identity and five images to compliment. Here is the assignment that I give them. It breaks down the assignment with an example of a mentor poem and how I’ve used it to create an after poem.

This can be done in tandem with any poetry unit revolving around the theme of Identity, but I’ve found that it works really well when teaching a full collection. This year I used José Olivarez’s book Citizen Illegal because so many of the poems relate to his identity as a Mexican-American and how that shapes him as a son, student, writer, and just an everyday citizen. I’ve also used Clint Smith’s Counting Descent with similar success. 

On the first day, we start out with a quick write, letting students list out all the parts of themselves that make up their identity. I give them some of my own examples (i.e. teacher, son, father, husband, athlete, coach, Montanan, Oregonian, etc) to get them started, and while they’re writing I play “Who Are You” by The Who in the background. The list that they create will give them a place for them to start thinking about what they could start writing about with their own poetry. I ask them to write a draft of a poem each night responding to a poem that we read in class that day. I then give them about ten minutes at the start of the next class to revise the poem they’d started the night before. By the time we get through the unit (usually about two weeks) they have a great start on their five pieces that will make up their Identity Posters. 

The best part of the whole assignment is the day they’re due. Although some students feel a bit nervous about sharing their poetry with their classmates, the routine we use really cuts down on the amount of vulnerability they have to experience. We circle up the desks (we’ll do two concentric circles if it is a big class) and at each one, students will lay out their identity posters (or have their doc/slides open on a chromebook) along with an open notebook turned to a blank page. On the notebook, I ask students to create a grid with five squares. Each one has the title of one of their poems from the poster. I then pass out sticky notes for every student to carry with them as they read each other’s posters. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough time for them to read every poem on the posters, but I usually have them spend between 3-5 minutes at each desk. While they’re there, they read and leave some kind of positive feedback on a sticky note and stick it to the appropriate grid on the open notebook. At the end of the 5 minutes, I ring a bell, and students rotate to the next desk and repeat the process. Students are allowed to write any kind of POSITIVE feedback they want to, but I also give them these examples from Peter Elbow that will get them started if they’re having a hard time coming up with something to write. The most important thing to consider is to make sure there is enough time for students to get all the way around the circle and leave some extra time at the end for them to read the feedback when they finish. 

When they finish the circle, I give them another five minutes to just go through all the “love notes” their classmates have left for them. This is their favorite part of the whole assignment. Every student gets at least one, sometimes two, notes from every student in their circle and I always love watching them read the great things their classmates say about their poetry, but also about who they are. 

Matt Brisbin has taught English at McMinnville High School, in McMinnville, Oregon, for the last sixteen years and has taught AP Literature and Composition for the last ten years. He also works for the College Board as a consultant and reader for the AP Literature and Composition Exam. He is a co-author of the Instructor’s Guide to the high school edition of the 2019 Norton Literature Anthology. In his spare time, Matt enjoys reading, playing pickleball, and spending time with his kids, Hadley and Axel, and his wife, Erin.

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