About a year-and-a-half into my teaching career I cribbed an in-class activity from Austin Kleon: newspaper blackout poems. But I didn’t want to do them exactly like Kleon. I wanted to tie it closer to my curriculum. At the time I was teaching juniors and freshman, and among lots of other things we read The Catcher in the Rye and Fahrenheit 451 at those levels, respectively. So I scratched out “newspaper,” replaced it with “novel,” and armed my students with black Sharpies, crayons, Crayola markers, anything I could get my hands on. Oh and of course they each had a couple pages from the novel we were reading.
I love poetry but I never actually write it, so this was an interesting way to try it out. —Melissa
I especially like the prompt I gave my freshmen students who were reading Fahrenheit 451. At one point in the novel, the protagonist, Guy Montag, is running from the police who are recording the pursuit and Montag imagines himself being caught and wonders what he could say, with millions watching, “in a single word, a few words, that would sear all their faces and wake them up.” So I instructed my students to imagine themselves in Montag’s place and come up with a blackout poem, boil down words from the novel into something, that would get everyone’s attention, that would shake everyone out of their comfortable numbness.
Here are a couple examples from that first year:
Kleon himself says he struggles with teaching people how to create a blackout poem and as you can see from these examples, my first attempts at teaching them varied widely, visually at least. While different students put a little more care into how they looked than others, each of these 9th grade boys created poignant little poems.
I shared my student work with Kleon who generously posted it along with my presentation to his website. The students were thrilled. Six years later and students are still impressed by that. It just goes to show you how hungry students are to break out of the classroom walls once in a while. It’s never enough really.
I felt like this blackout poem was really different from what we have been doing, so it felt pretty nice to do something new. —Hannah
After using blackout poems for a few years I wanted to do more with them, “plus one it” as my friend David Theriault likes to say. Year after year, I’d pass out the same two pages from the novels and frankly, I grew tired of looking at the same source material, so a couple years ago I decided to hand out different pages to each student. Then the idea struck! Why don’t we collaboratively black out an entire novel?!?
That’s exactly what we did. It’s a bigger project than I first imagined, so it’s taken my students and me a couple years to complete. They did their part. It took some organization and focus on my part to bring all the student work together and even then I needed my students’ help and so a few of them stepped up during the last week of school this year and helped me scan, tag, and queue our first blacked-out novel: The Catcher in the Rye.
At present, we’ve posted just under half the novel. I’ll continue to post one poem a day until we exhaust the pages. Then what? Well, we’ll start working on another novel. Probably one of the more hefty novels we read: The Scarlet Letter or The Grapes of Wrath.
On a pedagogical note: I don’t use a rubric for this assignment. I show them this presentation, student examples, then I give them the prompt: “create a blackout poem that represents one way YOU see the world.” As you can see by the main image for this post, students take the directions “black out” with a grain of salt. And I like it that way. I want these pieces to be dripping with each students’ voice and tone and self.
Even with very few criteria, some students still struggled with the assignment. Some felt limited by the criteria—
I was really into it…until the poem had to be about how I saw life. This became an obstacle. I was struggling to find something to put together. Especially with the page. I had I wasn’t able to really put something together until I forced myself to pick out something. It later became an assignment more than a work of creativity for me. —Victor
Victor’s words sting! I want to let students roam free with this assignment. Victor wanted to be free, but others might need a little more guidance, more limits. It’s an easy problem to solve. Make the criteria optional!
Lest anyone think this is a frivolous activity, well, let’s agree to disagree. I think we need more frivolity in education and many happen to agree. I’m still not frivolous enough! One of my playmates/mentors whose work reminds me of this fact is the ever fabulous Amy Burvall.
So that second link above is to a book I’m reading this summer by Geoffrey Sirc who argues that composition classes should look more like art classes, and he uses Duchamp, Pollack and other artists from the 60s’ Happening movement as models for what that might look like. I see novel blackout poetry as one take on Sirc’s “Student-as-Jackson-Pollock allegory. He quotes Robert Goodnough who says the composition classroom should not be “concerned with representing a preconceived idea, but rather with being involved in an experience of paint and canvas, directly.” Novel blackout poetry encourages students to “just put stuff together” (Sirc) and is a way of writing “which, ” John Cage says “comes from ideas, is not about them, but which produces them.”
Take this 16-year-old’s idea for instance:
It was like a blank canvas, except it was already filled in and you picked the things that you liked. —Trang
Novel blackout poetry employs new techniques of composition that Sirc calls for, that networked knowledge demands: “appropriating, sampling, copying, cataloging, scanning, indexing, chatting, and audio/visual streaming.” Sirc’s compositional ideal is Duchamp’s “chosen, pre-manufactured readymade.” And my students are obviously from the neo-readymade generation:
I like how the blackout poem really embodied the idea of creating your own work from something that was already written. —Celine
It did help me appreciate The Catcher in the Rye more and especially Salinger’s writing style because writing the poem gave me a better understanding of Salinger’s word choice and also how he fit all of his words and ideas together. —Jesse
So as Amy Burvall says, let’s: