Today we created Blackout Poetry based on To Kill A Mockingbird.
This was a first-time activity for me. In fact, I hadn’t even attempted to write blackout poetry before I did it in front of my class. It’s always a terrifying to try something new, especially in front of a tough audience! But, overall, I think we all enjoyed the opportunity and space to create (and, yes, my kids enjoyed watching me struggle with the activity a little bit!)
After seeing this demonstrated in my graduate school class a few weeks ago, I really liked the idea of this activity. But I wanted it to have a defined purpose in my classroom. Not that there is anything wrong with creating just for the sake of creating; but I thought it would have more impact if it had a specific purpose attached. As I thought about it, it seemed that this would be great for character analysis, which is something we have been working on throughout the reading of To Kill A Mockingbird. So, I decided to use it as a character analysis activity to have my students do two things:
- Choose a character and use a blackout poem to express that character’s reaction to the Tom Robinson verdict
- Annotate the created blackout poem with evidence from the text to support the ideas expressed within it.
To give my students a bit of direction for the activity, I decided to have our poems focus on a couple of things. Over the weekend (post-trial reenactment), they read Chapters 21-23 of the text, which encompass the verdict of the trial, and the immediate reactions that Jem and Scout have to it. So, my requirements for the poems were as follows:
- Must focus on the reaction of a specific character (Scout, Atticus, Jem, Dill, Miss Maudie, Calpurnia, Tom Robinson, Bob Ewell, or Mayella Ewell) to the verdict
- Must be from Chapters 21-23 of the text
Since some of my students didn’t know what Blackout Poetry encompasses, I decided to model it for them, trying my hand at creating a poem from scratch in front of the class.
First, I asked one student to give me a character on which to focus. They decided on Dill.
Next, we had to come to a determination about how Dill felt about the verdict, using examples from the text. I asked my students to toss out some ideas, and they were eager to share examples. During the trial, Dill cries when the prosecutor, Mr. Gilmer, belittles Tom Robinson on the stand. Dill also loves Atticus and the Finches so much that he runs 300 miles away from home in order to be able to spend the summer with them. Finally, Dill is fiercely loyal, which he demonstrates when he tells the adults the kids were playing strip poker instead of sneaking into Boo Radley’s backyard. So, tears at injustice, love for the Finches, and fierce loyalty all add up to indicate that Dill would be unhappy about the verdict, though he might not be able to exactly put words around the idea that the injustice he is crying about is the town’s blatant racism.
With Dill’s reaction in mind, I asked another student to give me a random page of the text from Chapters 21-23, which I then projected onto my whiteboard from a PDF e-book.
Here is my first attempt, to express the viewpoint of Dill:
Disturbed. Only Uncertain.
What now? How can that be?
I tortured myself and decided that
Dill would be first when Atticus had gone.
Why never became clear to me.
Not too bad for a first try!
I then set my kids into this first part of the activity, allowing them to work with partners, since sometimes it’s a little less intimidating to try something new in tandem. I didn’t give them long — just 10 minutes. But, they were able to work quickly to identify their characters, their viewpoints, and to create a poem from the random page I gave them.
Here’s some of their handiwork:
For the second step, students were asked to take their poem, place it on chart paper, and annotate it by including examples from the text that would support why their character felt this way.
Again, we came back to our Dill example, which I wrote on the board for us to actively annotate as a class. Line by line, we deconstructed my poem, and drew connections to some of the earlier examples they created for Dill. “Disturbed. Only uncertain” came to represent Dill leaving the courtroom in tears, unable to fully express what it was about Mr. Gilmer’s questioning that upset him. The line, “decided that Dill would be first when Atticus had gone” came to represent Dill’s loyalty to Atticus and his cause. As one student put it, “I think he’ll take up the cause. He knows it’s not right, and when he realizes what’s wrong, he’ll want to keep fighting.” The line “why never became clear to me” represented Dill’s innocence, in that he did not understand as much of the trial as Jem did. He, like Scout, still retains some of his innocence after the trial is over.
With my example to guide them, students took off with annotating their own poetry, thereby digging deeper into their selected characters and analyzing their verdict reaction.
Here’s how it turned out:
My students papered my empty classroom wall with these:
Examining all of our poems and annotations in this gallery led to a great discussion about the variety of reactions to the verdict on the part of the townspeople of Maycomb. We were then able to determine that Maycomb’s Old Ways (pre-verdict) clash with Maycomb’s New Ways (new ways of thinking post-verdict) and that these opposing ideologies will cause conflict throughout the rest of the text.
With this in mind, we were able to start in on reading Chapter 24, in which Scout attends the meeting of the town’s church ladies. The Old Ways versus New Ways conflict is evident throughout the chapter, so we used our discussion as a springboard to chart these examples while reading the chapter as a class.
I really enjoyed doing this activity with my class. I love that it gives my students the power to create while leading to in-depth analysis and discussion. And, I love that they were all into this. Not only did they all participate, but they came up with some great poetry!