by Eleanore Maclean, AmeriCorps member on the Bank of America team with Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot K-8 School

This week I sat down with one of my students, Angel*, and my teammate Kaleb to talk about how they’re working to connect poetry and attendance. Earlier in the year I found out that Angel* loves poetry. He explained, “I started writing when I was three. My sister taught me how to write and she listens to a lot of hip hop.” I asked him why he likes to write, and he said, “because it’s fun. My sister said I should give it a try, so I did.” He took a breath and broke into a smile. “It’s also kind of weird because you put a whole story into a small sentence.” He paused again to think and looked up at the ceiling. “It’s like another version of a sentence.”

Kaleb loves hip-hop and poetry and performs spoken word. Though he doesn’t serve in Angel’s* classroom, Kaleb and Angel* had already developed a rapport during bi-weekly grade-level field trips. Finding powerful attendance incentives for Angel* had been difficult for me until I put together the facts that Angel* and Kaleb both love poetry and they already had a strong working relationship.

Here’s where poetry and attendance overlap: for every full week Angel* is in school, he gets to work with Kaleb one-on-one, listening to and discussing hip hop, crafting lyrics, and writing poems. Angel* and I came up with a contract outlining this plan, which Angel* handwrote, and both he and Kaleb signed it. Kaleb has taken on the responsibility of planning lessons for the time he spends with Angel.* He filled me in on how these sessions go: “We usually start by listening to a song, like Will Smith’s theme song for the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or some Tupac. Then we do some brainstorming and think about what challenges we’ve faced and what influences us. Then we put some instrumental music on and write.” Angel* writes in a little blue notebook filled with his poems that he keeps in his desk until he works with Kaleb. Below are two poems Angel* wrote with Kaleb in one of their early sessions together:

We got the same birthmark on our chin
And both smile and grin
We’re like twins
You make me mad and also my friend

His name is snowball
He bites me down the hall
He gots long claws and a scary jaw too
Snowball your food is in the pantry
Why you got to bite me when you’re so hungry
You cute but fur is on my clothing
Young kitty claws at my door every time it’s closed

-- Malleniom Master (Millennium Master, the pen name Angel* chose)

I asked Angel* if he thinks it helps him come to school consistently knowing that he’ll get to work with Kaleb after a week. He nodded, adding a contented “Yep!” Kaleb asked Angel* what his goal was for his writing in the future, wondering if he might like to be a poet or a rapper, and asked if Angel* had any particular influences. Angel* replied that he’d like to be a rapper and after some thought added, “I do have one [influence], Juicy J.”  

During their writing time this week, Kaleb explained that he and Angel* are going to start working on writing choruses. After deciding on the topic of grandmothers, Kaleb pulled a song up on his iPhone to kickstart their brainstorming process. Kaleb described the chorus as “that main ingredient that catches your attention and brings it all together. It’s an extremely important part to the song.” Angel* nodded, and you could almost see him connecting thoughts in his head in light of this information.

Angel* does some of his most focused, creative work when he writes with Kaleb, so after hearing a little about what their sessions look like, I headed back to the classroom to let them work. When Kaleb brought Angel* back to the room ten minutes later, he motioned for me to come out into the hall. “Angel* wants to read this for you,” he said. Angel* shuffled his feet and stood with his hands in his pockets. He had a shy smile on his face, though, and wanted to read aloud in unison with Kaleb. This is what they read:

My grandma she ain’t too shabby
Every single day she makes me very happy
I gave up my room when you moved into the house
But you my best friend so I’ll bunk out on the couch
Everyday, every morning, when you eat your cereal
Grandma knows my love is very real (repeat twice)

Since setting up this poetry-attendance system with Angel* he’s been in school more often, which is great, but I’m more excited to watch him develop a relationship with Kaleb and even prouder of the inventive and thoughtful work they create together. The week after I suggested this plan to Angel*, he came to school every day. When Angel* jumped off the bus on Friday (we happened to be in school) I gave him a huge high five and called over to Kaleb, “Mr. H! Mr. H! Look who’s been here every day this week!” and pointed at Angel*, whose smile grew wider. Kaleb didn’t miss a beat, letting Angel* know how proud he was of him and how excited he was to work together the following Monday. “Every time we work together,” Kaleb said, “[Angel*] gets more comfortable and thinks of things more quickly. Today he asked me, ‘can we rhyme with shabby?’ and I was like ‘yes!’ ” From that question came an opening line and a piece that put, as Angel* said, “a whole story into a small sentence.”


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