Friday, March 2, 2018

Classroom Connections with Nikki Grimes + DMC Challenge

Earlier this week, for Two Line Tuesday, I published the first part of a quote by George Bernard Shaw:

I'm not a teacher: 
only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way.

The quote continues:

I pointed ahead—ahead of myself as well as you.

I think it's fair to say that most teachers pride themselves on also being lifelong learners. Same goes for poets, actually. So that's why I'm delighted to introduce another new series on Today's Little Ditty called "Classroom Connections." It provides me with the opportunity to share some of my own experiences with poetry in the classroom, as well as learn from "fellow travelers" who are also poetry ambassadors.

Last fall, I had the privilege of working with students from Sequel Residential—a juvenile residential facility for boys, 11-19 years old, who have been committed to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice as first-time offenders.

I was invited by Gabrielle Byam of We The People Theater Arts Initiative to conduct a series of three poetry workshops on the theme of identity. Specifically, she asked me to help the students explore identity from the viewpoint of "man vs. man"—how our sense of identity is impacted by the way others see us. In future workshops, the students explored identity through self-portraits ("man vs. self") and monologues ("man vs. society").

This video describes the program I was a part of and highlights some of the results.

For our first session, I shared two mentor poems from the Coretta Scott King Award-winning Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes. I chose two poems that I thought might speak directly to these boys' experience—"Self-Portrait: a Poem for My Father" and this one:

Black Box
                              BY DEVON HOPE
In case I forgot to tell you,
I'm allergic to boxes:
Black boxes, shoe boxes
New boxes, You boxes—
Even cereal boxes
Boasting champions.
(It's all a lie.
I've peeked inside
And what I found
Were flakes.)
Make no mistake,
I make no exceptions
For Cracker Jack
or Christmas glitter.
Haven't you noticed?
I'm made of  skeleton,
Muscle and skin.
My body is the only box
I belong in.
But you like your boxes
So keep them.
Mark them geek, wimp, bully.
Mark them china doll, brainiac,
Or plain dumb jock.
Choose whatever
Box you like, Mike.
Just don't put me
In one, son.
Believe me,
I won't fit. 

© Nikki Grimes, 2002.  
Used with permission of the author and Nancy Paulsen/Penguin.

The mentor poems did have an impact... a profound one. What I found most remarkable was the lack of inhibition from these teen writers—just fast and furious scribbling onto the page.

Here is one of the poems that resulted from these workshops. This student (who goes by the pen name Lil Fijjii) was one of several who chose to write about his relationship with his father.

blurred lines
                    by Lil Fijjii

if you dis me best believe that there’s no coming back
if I'm lying then you’re a slave because your skin’s black
they call me kodak young santana even call me black
i'm tired of names once you say it you can’t take it back
i been through storms rains hell and back
you say you love me i'm sorry i can't believe that 
you dissing blood over water i can’t believe that
but i sent you letters and pictures—did you receive that?
see 8 years i was strong but i lost strength
and now you home and you never even knew my friends.
it's like ‘boom’ everybody looking so surprised 
i was raised wrong sorry if you think i'm telling lies.
wise man full of knowledge that's a huge mind
i know you know you love me i can feel it from shoes to spine
if I could guess it’s a world full of blurred lines
listen to my story. if you can't, just listen to my rhymes. 

I often tell middle and high school students who claim they "don't like" or "don't get" poetry that it probably just means they haven't been exposed to the right poems yet. Poetry is like music. Some might identify with hip hop or rap, while others, classical, jazz, rock, or Broadway show tunes. Most students have only seen the tiniest fraction of what's out there waiting for them in the wide world of poetry.  I also let them in on the secret that poets don't like their work force-fed, analyzed, and regurgitated. Poets like when a poem is experienced—when the reader is allowed to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions. And that's when I introduce them to poets like Nikki Grimes who knock their socks off.

Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that a companion book to Bronx Masquerade was coming out in 2018.  

Nancy Paulsen Books (February 13, 2018)
ISBN: 978-0399246883, Barnes & Noble,

Between the Lines hit the shelves last month. It boasts a repeat performance of the highly successful format that's helped to make Bronx Masquerade beloved to teachers and students for 16 years and counting. A young adult novel in prose and poetry, the story focuses on a diverse cast of true-to-life students who participate in "Open Mike Fridays" in Mr. Ward's English class. Together they not only discover a newfound love for poetry, but also the benefits of self-awareness, empathy, and community. Read the Shelf Awareness starred review HERE.

Tyrone Bittings, one of the central characters from Bronx Masquerade, makes an appearance in Between the Lines to get the open mike sessions rolling.


Yo, yo
I know
you think a poem
ain't nothing but
a reason for a song.
I hear you, but you're wrong.
Trust me:
A poem can split skin
and let the blood run red.
A poem can turn the clock back,
help you crack the code of you.
A poem can strip away fear,
leave a messed-up mind clear
to understand what's going on
deep inside the heart,
the one part
of our world
where we can maybe make some sense,
since, suddenly, unnatural disasters
crash the nightly news
on instant replay.
High crime and Homeland Insecurity
are the order of the day.
But, hey,
rap and rhyme is one way
to strap on your own power,
at least for an hour.
So slide a pen in your holster,
lock and load whatever
words you choose.
Use them to cry, to shout,
to whisper—whichever.
just step up, step up to the mike
and let your truth fly, loud
proud, raw.

© Nikki Grimes, 2018.
Used with permission of the author and Nancy Paulsen/Penguin.

The poem also does a great job describing my experience working with the students from Sequel Residential—

split skin...
blood on the page...
cracking the code...
revealing heart, truth... and, I might add, hope.

I was honored to bear witness. (Read my own poem about the experience HERE.)

After my third and final workshop, one of the boys was visibly upset. He told me that following our previous session, he returned to his room and wrote three or four more poems. It was his "poetry therapy," as he called it. Unfortunately he couldn't find them to share with me. Nearly broke my heart.

Truth be told, all of the boys were appreciative of the time we spent together, though I'm not sure if it was the poetry lessons they were drawn to or simply the gift of unconditional attention and encouragement. Frankly, I'm satisfied either way. It wasn't important for me to know their histories or the events that landed them at Sequel. All that mattered was that we shared an experience that was eye-opening, cleansing, uplifting, and transformative... for them and for me.

If you're a teacher of middle or high school, I hope you'll bring Bronx Masquerade and Between the Lines into your classroom. It's not difficult to do with this combined discussion and activity guide offered by Penguin Young Readers School and Library Marketing Team. You'll find other useful educator guides and resources available at Nikki Grimes' website.

Photo by Aaron Lemen
This isn't the first time I've featured Nikki on Today's Little Ditty. Don't miss her "Spotlight ON" interview (showcasing Poems in the Attic) and my "Book Love" post about Words with Wings.

Since she was last here, Nikki has added to her numerous accolades. In 2017, she was presented with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for a substantial and lasting contribution to children's literature. Is it any wonder I can't get enough of that Grimes magic?

For today's post, I asked if she would answer a couple questions related to poetry in the classroom and provide this month's DMC challenge. Her 2015 challenge (to write a free verse poem using wordplay) was wildly popular both in classrooms and within the TLD community, so I can't wait to find out what she has in store for us this time!

Thanks so much for being with us today, Nikki.

Why is bringing poetry into middle and high school classrooms important and how should it be done?

Poetry should be introduced long before middle and high school, but poetry is particularly pertinent then, as young people are beginning to explore their own identities, and looking for ways to express themselves.  Many are already drawn to poetry through the lyrics of the music they listen to, while others are secretly jotting down poems their own, and hiding them away in their dresser drawers.  They are both mentally and emotionally ready to dig deep, and poetry can help them do that.

As for the "how to" of your question, today's marketplace is rich in poetry, both in collections, and novels-in-verse. There's lots to choose from. Young readers are particularly captured by novels-in-verse because the genre is less intimidating then the traditional prose novel. Something about all that white space. I suggest a combination of reading to, having students read on their own, and incorporating open mic or slam poetry sessions to give students an opportunity to share their work aloud, with their peers.

Can you recount a specific instance of when your poetry impacted a student or group of students in a personal way?

I get many letters from students and teachers about my work, none more so than about Bronx Masquerade. One of my favorite communications from a student said that this poetry taught him we are more alike than we are different, and I love that.  His thinking about those around him who were "other" was transformed.  I can't imagine anything better than that.

What have you chosen as this month's ditty challenge?

Take a line from one of the poems included in this post, and turn that line into a golden shovel poem.  That is done by lining up the words of the original line in the right column, one word at a time, and create a new line ending in each word. If the borrowed line, called a striking line, is five words long, you will end up with a five line poem. If it is 7 words long, you would end up with a seven line poem, and so on. Have fun!

Golden shovel poems, it is!

Easier said than done, mind you. They can be tricky! I wrote a golden shovel poem in 2014 (at the end of this post), but have only attempted one or two since then.

Nikki, however, has perfected the art.

If you haven't yet read her book One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomsbury, 2017), I encourage you to pick up a copy of this award-winning poetry collection. In it, her original golden shovel poems were inspired by, and are paired with, works by poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Within the past month alone, One Last Word has been honored with the Claudia Lewis Award, the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for Middle Grade Readers and the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award!

For even more inspiration for this challenge, poet Irene Latham has rounded up links to golden shovel poems that have appeared on blogs within the Poetry Friday community since One Last Word's release.

So dig deep, my friends. I know you have a golden shovel in you.

Thanks to Penguin Young Readers, we will be giving away a copy of BETWEEN THE LINES to one lucky DMC participant at the end of the month. (Winner to be selected randomly, US addresses only.)

Finally, won't you please help me thank Nikki Grimes for being with us today? Not to mention all that she is and does as a poet and poetry ambassador!


Post your golden shovel poem on our March 2018 padlet. Stop by any time during the month to add your work or to check out what others are contributing.

By posting on the padlet, you are granting me permission to share your poem on Today's Little Ditty.  Some poems will be featured as daily ditties, though authors may not be given advanced notice. Subscribe to the blog if you'd like to keep tabs. You can do that in the sidebar to the right where it says "Follow TLD by Email." As always, all of the poems will be included in a wrap-up celebration on the last Friday of the month—March 30th for our current challenge.

TEACHERS, it's great when students get involved! Ditty of the Month Club challenges are wonderful opportunities to learn about working poets and authors while having fun with poetry prompts. Thank you for spreading the word! For children under 13, please read my COPPA compliance statement in the sidebar to the right.

FIRST-TIMERS (those who have never contributed to a ditty challenge before), in addition to posting your work on the padlet, please send your name and email address to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com. That way I'll be able to contact you for possible inclusion in future Best of Today's Little Ditty anthologies.

BLOGGERS, thank you for publishing your poems on your own blogs– I love that!  Please let me know about it, so I can share your post! Also remember to include your poem (or a direct link to your post) on the padlet in order to be included in the wrap-up celebration and end-of-month giveaway.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Last month's challenge to write an epitaph poem was so much fun! (What a great way to start off 2018!) Thanks once again to everyone who contributed poems or cheered us on by leaving  comments. We even broke a record for most poems posted on the padlet—60 (!) in total. Considering the short month, that's incredible! I added five or six more since last Friday, so I hope you'll stop by and take another look. has determined that the copy of Last Laughs: Prehistoric Epitaphs by J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen, illustrated by Jeffrey Stewart Timmins, will go to . . .

Congratulations, Lana!

Renée LaTulippe is hosting this week's Poetry Friday roundup at No Water River, and I am thrilled to be joining the poetry video library that's housed there. Talk about a terrific resource for teachers! Thanks so much, Renée, for featuring me and The Best of Today's Little Ditty.


  1. Michelle, how awesome that you were able to encourage kids to see the power in poetry!
    Also, great interview--my middle school teacher husband was just looking for new books to read with his class--will be suggesting that he should check out the ones by Nikki.

  2. This is a meaty post! I'll need to come back later when I have time for a more in-depth read. This line from Lil Fijjii jumped out at me, "it’s a world full of blurred lines." Yes, indeed.

  3. Thanks, Nikki Grimes, you are a particular poetry-hero of mine, for your authentic voices and way of accessing a truth that makes unhappy childhoods worth living, of only for the occasional speckles of gold.

  4. I enjoyed every single word of this post. This post is a keeper. I am sharing it with my teacher friends and those that are sharing poetry with young people.

    The idea of experiencing poetry is so important. I love how it takes a teacher from being that "sage on the stage" to a fellow traveler. As I become more seasoned as an educator I'm finding work more satisfying as a facilitator of learning rather than a lecturer. I love how how you were that too with these precious young men.

    I have read, One Last Word, love it and really enjoy the golden shovel form. I am ALL-In for this month's challenge.

    Thanks for being you, Michelle! What a treat to see you featured at No Water River as well. Keep growing, keep glowing!

  5. Fabulous the work you're doing, Michelle, to help young people "crack the code." And Nikki truly is a wonder... and a master! Her book ONE LAST WORD was recently awarded the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and I celebrated by including a roundup of Golden Shovel poems written by Poetry Friday friends. LInk here: And now there will be more Golden Shovels in the world. Yay! xo

    1. Already had that all in the post, Irene! But thanks for bringing it to my attention just in case. :) If I wasn't so last minute, I should have given you a heads up! xo

  6. So much to pour love on, here. Congrats to Lana for winning the Lewis/Yolen epitaphs! That was a fun challenge. Golden shovel poems have never been better explained, at least for my lame-brain, than today with this Nikki Grimes conversation. Appreciations. I am encouraged by her thought that poem love is best woven with students much before middle & h.s., because when I am in the classroom I am with first grade, sometimes Kindergarten & I bring them poems in picture books. As for the older readers/writersIpoem makers feel the heartbeat/heartache in all the shared poems, especially the character Devon Hope's poignant words about fitting people into boxes. BRONX MASQUERADE & the sequel are new to me so I appreciate this powerful introduction. I have seen golden news in social media about NG's golden shovel poetry collection inspired by art of the Harlem Rennasiance - so glad to be reminded of it. And the challenge --- one golden shovel (attempt) to dig into. I remember your post WORDS WITH WINGS. I am so humbled by your path to the juvenile poetry project. You bring Light wherever you go.

  7. Your work at Sequel Residential...just...Wow. Wow for them AND for you!

    The Nikki Grimes book that has resonated most with one of my (former) students is Garvey's Choice. L's student's mom has shared with me that he has reread the book multiple times. Garvey could be L. Every single thing he's going through in the book, L is going through. How lucky to have a book that can help you through some of the hardest parts of adolescence and identity-building!

    Love this challenge! Can't wait to write another! (I wrote one last Poetry Month using a line from one of Malvina Reynolds' songs.)

  8. I remember your first sharing of the workshop at Sequel Residential. a beautiful thing you brought to them, and then they to you, Michelle. I love this post, but it makes me sad that I'm no longer teaching so I could share more of Nikki's poems with my students. We often had a poetry share on Fridays & I think students learned much about themselves and then their classmates in that time. "help you crack the code of you." speaks loud to me and my experience. Thanks for the challenge, Nikki. I look forward to writing! And Michelle, your "classroom connections' is going to be terrific. I certainly will share with former colleagues!

  9. As I read BETWEEN THE LINES, I thought about how the characters reminded me of my former students. I love reading books where the characters are so real, you feel you know them. Thanks for the great post, Michelle!

  10. What a gift you gave to those young poets, Michelle! How could they help but be inspired by Nikki's powerful poems with you to guide them. Thank you for reminding me of your own moving response to your experience. I've had fun writing golden shovels in the past, so I'm looking forward to this challenge! Thank you, Nikki & Michelle!

  11. What an amazing experience Michelle. I'm excited to read Niki's new book. Great challenge this month.

  12. What a powerful, powerful experience. I admit I hated poetry for most of my life - until I was an adult, in fact. Like the kids you mention, I was tired of being force-fed words by old men, long dead, forced to dissect and analyze, memorize and repeat. If only I'd passionate poetry ambassadors like you in my life way back then! I'm so glad that young people are being introduced to real, authentic poetry from poets like Nikki who know just how powerful poetry can be.

  13. I have never attempted a golden shovel poem. I am excited to give it a whirl. Thanks for sharing Nikki's poetry.

  14. Thanks for talking to us more about your experiences at Sequel, Michelle, and for sharing Ms. Grimes' books. I look forward to reading many golden shovels!

  15. Nikki Grimes is an all time favorite, classic poet. I love trying to write golden shovels. Lately I've written a few and want to try this challenge. I have always wanted to work with writing with women who are incarcerated but have never had the chance. I'd love to hear more about your experience. Writing can be healing.

  16. Great feature today! So much to take in. Read it once. Wrote a shovel. Now going back to reread. The poems were powerful.

  17. Wow! So much goodness and so much power in your poetry and interview and everything today. I loved sharing Bronx Masquerade with students when I taught--and many of my students loved it and connected with it. And thank you, Nikki Grimes, for the invitation to try another golden shovel poem. The hardest part will be choosing a line from all the great ones in this post!

  18. I hear voices all through this blog review Michelle, strong, resounding, reaching voices. Thanks for your interactive work with the boys at Sequel Residential, they created some powerful poems! Thanks again Nikki Grimes for your voice and your books that speak to so many timely issues of today! I've been reading "The Watcher," and taking away much. I'm looking forward to the golden shovel poem!

  19. Thank you, Nikki, for being the amazing treasure you are, and same for you, Michelle. I had blurry eyes through "Blurred Lines." So powerful, how poetry can help anyone in any situation find their voice. (Haven't had a chance yet to read BETWEEN THE LINES but so delighted it's out in the world.)
    And, golden shovel challenge this time? I need to get digging....

  20. So much to savour and enjoy in this post - such powerful poems coming from a place of truth and suffering, joy and beauty. Thank you for this. Loved the interview as well, this post is a gift. :)

  21. Michelle, I gobbled up all of the links you provided and am so excited to delve into the Golden Shovel format that is both challenging and fun to write. There is a sense of accomplishment after writing a poem with this format so I am off to try out a new poem. Thanks for the nudge to give it another try. (The poetry presented in your various links is powerful, especially the one you wrote about your experience.)

  22. I'm just now catching up on this month's TLD posts, and I'm delighted that Nikki Grimes is offering this month's challenge. I'm a huge fan! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences from Sequel Residential, Michelle. Lil Fijjii's poem really got to me, as a parent. I hope the young poets you mentored will continue to share their voices.