List Poetry and the Art of Classroom Storytelling

This article, co-written by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley, first appeared in California English, the quarterly journal of the California Association of Teachers of English and is reprinted here with their permission.

Humanity's legacy of stories and storytelling is the most precious we have. All wisdom is in our stories and songs. A story is how we construct our experiences. At the very simplest, it can be: 'He/she was born, lived, died.' Probably that is the template of our stories—a beginning, middle, and end.

                                    —Doris Lessing

Did you know that you’re a storyteller? All teachers are—every time we explain our instructional plans for the day, help our students understand photosynthesis, or give a Book Talk about that book that just rips our heart out, we’re telling a story. Rather than using storytelling incidentally, why not harness your natural prowess as a classroom griot and make storytelling a potent instructional strategy across the curriculum?

Speaking and listening is as natural as breathing. It’s as ancient as the flow of blood in human veins. From the moment of birth, we hear stories about family members, neighbors, and the world beyond. Whether we’re recounting that time we ran out of gas and had to push the car a mile to the nearest station (don’t judge me!) or just shooting the breeze, we tend to think, dream, and imagine in beginnings, middles, and ends.

The Beginning

My 15-year-old came home from school and announced that she was ready to date. She’d met a boy and claimed she was “in love.” This confession came out of nowhere it seemed. She was my only child. My princess. The daughter I played dress-up with. The one I chased around the playground, the one I swung around and around until we both got dizzy. Date? That was not supposed to be something she did until age 30. How did we get here? My wife tried to console me, tried to help me understand by bringing up my own romantic teen years. That didn’t help because romance eluded me in high school. I was less than cool, callow even, and I didn’t have a real girlfriend ‘til I was 19, almost a junior in college. Still, my wife insisted, “Kwame you’ve got to meet the boy’s parents” — which I did.

Storytelling in the Classroom

In every language arts classroom, one of the most common expressions spoken by students is, “I don’t know what to write about.” Even the most meticulous planning, instruction, and conferencing does not free some students from the intimidating grip of the blank page. I’ve always believed that bringing a piece of oneself to the writing makes it more authentic, more meaningful. And, what better way to make powerful connections for student writers than through the power of story—by sharing their own experiences.

Matthew James Friday (2014), an International School Teacher and Professional Storyteller, explains why storytelling makes a difference in every classroom. As he notes, a good story sparks student engagement—mouths close, eyes focus, bodies lean forward, and kids begin to track your every word, gesture, and movement. Storytelling in the classroom inspires purposeful discussion, and, as Friday points out:

  • Fosters enthusiasm for reading and rereading texts to find stories to share
  • Encourages writing because children want to write and tell their own stories 
  • Builds classroom community
  • Improves listening skills
  • Captivates active students who enjoy acting out the stories
  • Encourages emerging bilinguals to speak and write English.

Some of the oldest forms of storytelling are in the form of lists. For example, Homer’s Iliad contains many lists interspersed with poems of the Trojan War. Many famous poets relied on the list format to write very powerful stories-in-verse such as “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman,“ “If I Were in Charge of the World” by Judith Viorst, and “Sick” by Shel Silverstein. So here’s an idea: Why not use list poetry (see description ahead!) to encourage, inspire, and instruct your students in the art of telling stories.

The Middle

After meeting with the boy’s father, I informed my daughter that I felt comfortable with her going to the movies with her “love.” She smiled, and gave me a hug, the likes of which I hadn’t received from her since elementary school. It set my soul on fire. Made me hate what was coming next. “My dear,” I explained, “for the first date, I’ll need to sit a few rows behind you in the movie theater.” The compassion was no more. Her smile turned to a scowl. If she was a princess, I was the beast. I think we both cried that night.

List Poems

List poems are not just a list of random things. It is a kind of writing that grows from the precise selection of different, but related, subjects and topics. In a list poem, each line typically begins the same (which creates a certain comfort, especially for the beginning or reluctant writer), rhythm and repetition are common, and the final line is always a meaningful clincher. Lists are everywhere. Our lives are framed by best-dressed lists, bucket lists, most-wanted lists, and top ten lists. In our classrooms, we encounter homework lists, reading lists, to-do lists, and lists of rules that govern classroom behavior. Because they are such a common form of communication, even the youngest students understand the idea and purpose of a list.

List poetry lets young writers communicate their ideas in an original fashion by freeing them from restrictions like syllabification, meter, and rhyme. At the same time, list poetry requires students to draw on poetic tools, such as alliteration, metaphor, onomatopoeia, personification, repetition, and simile to produce a quality piece of writing. Using list poetry for writing provides many opportunities for output while applying the tools used by poets and writers. Like other types of poetry writing, list poetry gives students the opportunity to articulate feelings, observations, and thoughts in a fulfilling fashion—all necessary fuel for good storytelling.

A Penny’s Travels

You were a penny in someone’s pocket.

You were a skydiver without a parachute.

You were a wheel rolling down the street.

You were a person getting kicked by a monster.

You were an airplane flying in the sky.

You were a heli crashing into a sewer.

You were a swimmer swimming in the ocean and popping for breath.

You were a fish washed up on an island.

You were a bowling pin getting hit by a bowling ball.

You were someone’s grave laying underground and people there singing for you.

You were a penny and always will be.

by Ranbir B. (Grade 4)

           

The Benefits of List Poems

List poems are versatile and easily adapted for different grades and levels of students. The youngest are capable of identifying themes and putting together a collection of related items. Reluctant writers can select topics that they are comfortable writing about, as well as develop ideas based on their own experience and knowledge. Students can find inspiration for writing in a junk drawer or in the baseball equipment bag. This feature of list poems encourages children to share their stories in a compact and consistent manner.

List poems can be organized in a repetitive fashion, which provides a scaffold for students to build their story. With the list poem format, children are able to independently develop their ideas, use figurative language such as metaphor and simile, and make important judgments about what to leave in and what to take out during the revision process.

Finally, list poems develop a student’s ability to organize and sequence ideas. Writers who practice developing beginnings, middles, and ends are able to transfer this knowledge to the material they read, and process texts in a more engaged manner.

Writing a Shared List Poem

List poems begin with a topic and a collection of connected articles or concepts. The first step is to brainstorm a list of topics. Ask students to think about the lists you can make like Things That Fell Out of My Junk Drawer, Things I Didn’t Do On My Summer Vacation, or Things I Ate at Thanksgiving. Record the ideas on the board so students can explore many different possibilities for their writing.

Once a topic is selected, ask students to offer words and phrases about the subject. Throughout the process, encourage students to think of things that are surprising or unusual to make the poem more interesting. For example, if the topic is Things That Grow, you might offer suggestions such as puddles, snow banks, and shadows. The more ideas that students produce at this point in the writing process, the more material they have to work with when they are drafting their story. As the number of ideas grows, students are forced to employ divergent thinking, and this leads to more interesting and unique stories.

Once you have assembled a collection of 20 to 30 items, you are ready to begin drafting a poem. Select the most interesting words and phrases to create an original list poem. Remind students that list poetry is meant to make unusual connections, encourage readers to hear your story, and inevitably see the topic in a new way.

In the final step, arrange the ideas to tell a story. Invite students to consider what they would like readers to learn from the poem. Many list poems end with an important message for the reader—accomplished, for example, by offering a piece of advice, ending with the most unusual concept, closing with something funny, or repeating the first line.

Nothing focuses the mind and creates anticipation and wonder like a good story. And, list poems are a powerful tool for lubricating storytelling engines.

The End

Ten Reasons Why Fathers Cry at Night

1. Because fifteen-year-olds don’t like park swings or long walks anymore unless you’re in the mall

2. Because holding her hand is forbidden and kisses are lethal

3. Because school was “fine,” her day was “fine,” and yes, she’s “fine.” (So why is she weeping?)

4. Because you want to help, but you can’t read minds

5. Because she is in love and that’s cute, until you find his note asking her to prove it

6. Because she didn’t prove it

7. Because next week she is in love again and this time it’s real, she says her heart is heavy

8. Because she yearns to take long walks in the park with him

9. Because you remember the myriad woes and wonders of spring desire

10. Because with trepidation and thrill you watch your daughter who suddenly wants to swing all by herself

 

References

B.R. (2011). Hatching Hope. Book-in-a-Day, 2014.

Friday, M.J. (2014). Why Storytelling in the Classroom Matters. Edutopia. Retrieved from:                                  http://www.edutopia.org/blog/storytelling-in-the-classroom-matters-matthew-friday