On Martin Luther King Day, I arrived early to the Tang gallery to set up ten different game stations that would illustrate how poetry can involve the body, is not limited to the page, and can be fun. I laid out metaphor dice, a box full of unique objects (PlayDoh, a clarinet’s barrel, a Russian doll, seashells, essential oils with aromatic smells, floss, a wind-up unicorn), a set of fuzzy colorful balls, an improv board game, and a card game titled Vers: The Rap Game.” The latter, I thought, would meaningfully connect to Angie Thomas’s keynote address. Each station had directions or prompts, some that I made up, others that I learned from master poetry teachers like Marty Skoble from the Saint Ann’s School. Students looked around slightly puzzled at first, but quickly settled into seats. We introduced ourselves, and I asked the group, What is poetry?”

Students gave the usual answers: an expression of self” and a form of writing that aims to concentrate maximum meaning and emotion in a few words (often through metaphor, image, ect.).” As I have done hundreds of times, I asked if the group would be willing to know what I think poetry is. The group kindly solicited my opinion, and I wrote on the board Poetry is whatever the writer says it is.” Of course, this frustrated some of the students. There were eye rolls and challenges of what if someone thinks poetry is a duck?” Eventually, as often happens, an apt student pointed out Perception is reality.”

To tie the workshop to MLK Day, we lingered on this idea of perception, and I turned to a quote from Dr. King which reads, An individual has not started living until [they] can rise above the narrow confines of [their] individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” We pondered what would be required to rise above individualistic concerns and landed on collaboration. Then we discussed what it takes to achieve collaboration and landed on the ability to communicate across differences. We then turned to the poetry games as a means to practice our ability to collaborate, talk, and create across the differences inherent between individuals. The students broke into three groups and started to play the Poetry Games. Moving freely between stations, throwing fuzzy balls across the room, laughing during improv, negotiating words, letters, or syllables per line, exchanging rap lyrics, all while recording their collaborative poems.

I first designed the Poetry Games workshop as a keystone element of a global consortium consisting of ten independent schools from around the world. The workshop was intended to help students from many different backgrounds collaborate on creative endeavors using multimodal expressions of the literary arts. However, the January 15th version of Poetry Games was the first in the context of Martin Luther King Day. As such, I was slightly nervous and mostly excited for how the session would play out. The session would be an opportunity to engage in what I have always felt was the unique capacity of the literary arts — the opportunity to speak, listen, and understand across differences. Phillips Academy students proved this with smiles, laughter, challenge, and delight, all framed in the context of play and the opportunity to share their collaborative poems with the whole group at the end of the workshop.

In the context of the Tang Institute, the Poetry Games Workshop advances a long-held orientation toward interdisciplinarity, mindfulness, and the advancement of self-direction. The MLK Day Poetry Games workshop exemplified how when given the chance to have fun, ownership, and team-based collaboration, young people are capable of finding new ways of thinking even when concepts may challenge their understanding of a discipline. If my time at the Tang Institute has shown me anything, it’s that when students lead their learning, process can become the vehicle for lighting the fire of passion.

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