Black Out Poetry: Create compelling class discussion centered in a new text.

I find it difficult to approach new texts in upper level courses.  Last week I was searching the web for inspiration on a new way to introduce text to level 4/AP and as often happens to me I stumbled across a post about blackout poems on Martina Bex’s comprehensible classroom site.  The idea is simple.  Start with a text.  Choose a theme to consider found within that text.  Direct students to consider the theme and create a poem using words in the text by blacking out the unused text with a sharpie.

We were about to read Caesar’s Gallic war, book 6 chapter 16 with the tiered readings found at operation lapis.  In this passage, after a description of his view of the structure of society in Gaul (modern day France), Caesar begins to lay out his view of how the Gauls approached religion.  It is a fascinating passage as Caesar guides the reader to interpret that the Gauls sacrificed humans although toward the end it seems he is actually describing how the Gauls executed criminals.  The passage is loaded with troubling violence and imagery and what seem to be humanitarian crimes from a modern perspective.  Pro victimis homines, pro vita hominis nisi vita hominis reddatur are example phrases found in the passage that even a non Latin reading may interpret as describing human sacrifice.

I instructed students the process of blacking out the passage until they had a poem based on the topic of how we approach religion.  I wasn’t sure what to expect as it was a December day and this is a group I’ve taught with a hybrid approach that, honestly, hasn’t always been successful.  A few things happened that I didn’t expect right away.

  • This was an instant, low prep, formative assessment in respect to students’ vocabulary knowledge in respect to the passage.  As students read the text and began crossing out portions I monitored throughout the room and asked them how they were making their decisions.  Next time I will have some sort of table to record what words and phrases they cross out because they don’t know what they mean.  With that data, I will then use high frequency words that show up in the do not know part of the data to craft activities to process more messages with those words.
  • Students were not overwhelmed to read the text even though there was quite a bit in this text that they were not familiar.  This group often stumbles with new passages and shuts down.  Every student engaged in creating their own poem.
  • The poems created instant discussion material that was compelling.  Students were interested in finding out their perspectives.  Because they were working with the same passage some similarities came out of their poetry.

I typed up their poems and we read their poems with a read and discuss activity the next day.  The input was compelling.  It was comprehensible because they used words and phrases with which they were comfortable.  It offered a structure for me to create the read and discuss that involved little prep yet kept me grounded to the topic at hand.  I was also able to consider which words and phrases that were commonly blacked out so that I could find places in the discussion to offer circled discussion around the theme of their poems.

Some of the poems need interpretation based on how the grammar lined up but this allowed for some pop up grammar within the discussion.  Here are some examples of their poems about religion.

  omnis dedicata sacrificis quid immortalium non.

The whole, dedicated to sacrifices what (is) not of the immortales

Even though the above poem crossed out most of the passage, it offered a chance for wonderful discussion and reps.  I asked students things like:

Quid est sacrifica quae non est immortalis?

What is a sacrifice that is not of the immortal?

Cui nos dedicamur?

To whom (what) are we dedicated?

With each of there responses I was able to circle simply by asking it was of the immortal or not and if not what is it from.

religionem causam infirmitatibus et bello sacrificant victimis.  deorum immortalium non posse. homines moriuntur. esse gratibus deis.

Religion; the cause for the weak and for war.  They sacrifice sacrificial victims.  Not possible of the immortal gods.  People die.  It is for thankfulness to the gods.

Another poem that cross out much of the passage but created a deep message.  We were able to consider societal issues that tend to become arguments.  The discussion was different, partly I think, because the original words came from Caesar.  Students were more focused on the message than the person who had delivered the message.

I was able to use this for more discussion.  Below are some examples:

Quid homines infirmos fecit?  What makes people weak?

Normally I wouldn’t ask something like that to this group as there are a couple of students who are passionate about capitalism and almost every discussion like this is turned toward those ideas.  But this time the discussion focused on things like religion and technology.

Cur homines moriuntur? – Why do people die?

Quando homines moriuntur  – When to people die?

The discussion around this part was interesting.  Students opened up about their own generational struggles.  They talked openly about how their use of technology is affecting their human interactions.  Granted, they used more English than I wanted, but I kept asking them questions in Latin as long as the discussion was relevant to the poems.  They were comprehended the messages and we created community indirectly at the same time.

Try blackout poetry as an introduction to a text.  Be prepared to adjust to the ideas that the students present.  It will create rewarding input that is student centered, full of deep meaning and connected to the text you are about to read.  Record what they blackout and why and use that information as a formative assessment to see what vocabulary structures you need to spend some time on.  Here are a couple more examples based on the topic of religion from a passage about ancient views toward religion to ponder as you prepare your own version.

religionem.  in bello victimis aut sacrificaturos esse.  cum sacrificiis credunt immortalium non hominis.  magna hominum. cum non innocentium.

Religion.  In war for sacrificial victims or those about to be sacrificed.  With the sacrificial victims, they believe of the immortals, not of a person.  The great of people not of the innocent.

Gallorum sacrificaturos.  cum hominis. Galli non innocentium.

Those of the Gauls.  When of a person.  The Gauls, not of the innocent.

omnis dedicata est ad religionem.  deorum immortalium datur pro vita hominis.  esse gratibus deis, cum non malos etiam innocentium.

The whole was dedicated to religion.  Of the immortal gods is given for the life of a person.  To be for the graces to the gods, when non bad and also of the innocent.

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