Brooklyn ‘Hood Poetry–Early Days of School Lesson

I have been in writing whirlwind the last few weeks as I finished and submitted a couple of academic articles from my dissertation (finally…). I have also been purging the dozens of journal articles from my doctoral coursework that I have kept for YEARS in my file cabinet, producing piles and piles of paper that I placed in the trash room. I am sure the super in my building hates me now.

Whist purging, I found a bunch of student work I had kept. I think I had hopes of getting another IRB from the DoE (the legal work you must go through to conduct research on students) so that I could use this work as research data one day, but that didn’t happen. Before tossing it all away, I took an afternoon and read it all. So many memories and names and classroom moments washed over me–my god, I loved those kids. This work was from my last few years in the classroom when I was finally GOOD at teaching, and I can see it in their work, my comments on their work, and recall it in my memories.

One file I found is bright green and labeled “Bklyn ‘Hood Poetry.” What is this? I didn’t remember it immediately. Inside I found incredible poems about each student’s neighborhood. I thought I had done this as a beginning of the year/getting to know you writing assignment, but I see that the date was in January, right as we were reading Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quinonez. It could be used for either.

What to do:

This is pretty much a lesson on imagery. Have the students discuss their neighborhoods out loud. Discussion can be very general. Then move onto a lesson on imagery. Have them write five lists: see, smell, taste, hear, feel on a piece of paper. Next they have to recall specifics about their neighborhood–what they see, smell, taste, hear, or feel. I had them write five examples for each of the senses. Then they take those lists, and they write a poem.

Not sure if I did it this time, but I have used Digable Planets “Where I’m From” for a lesson like this before.

I didn’t give them a format for the poem. Some did stanzas, some did something more like prose, some just rambled, but the outcome was all pretty good.

Of course, model this for them first, then set them to work.

Here are a few examples:

Brooklyn is Bushwick

All kind of music playing

We dance to it all. Smell the

green mixed with the Diff hope’n

the boys don’t come pass and

take a sniff.

Brooklyn is Bushwick

see all races Black,

Spanish, White, Chinese

even down to the Jews.

We all family which means

the block party’s jumpin

Brooklyn is Bushwick

Good Spanish food from

the 2nd store. You can get a dutch

with no I.D. cuz he known me since

I was 3

Brooklyn is Bushwick

Quiet, can leave open doors

unlocked and wake up with

all ya TVs

Brooklyn is Bushwick

my home for 17 years

lived on the same block

for 17 years, I can eat

at everybody’s house.

Here’s another:

I feel my heart beat for Brooklyn

but I taste the tears in my mouth mixed

with the sweet taste of Italian Ices.

I hear sirens roaring through the streets

towards the closest shoot out.

I smell the stench of construction sites where

the newest Wallgreens would stand which won’t

make a whole month before they move somewhere else.

I see pregnant teens on their way to middle school

with the look of exhaustion on their faces.

I hear the ice cream truck playing the same song

over and over and over as the kids chase it down

I can’t stop. They’re all so good. Here’s another, written more like prose:

Brooklyn is Red Hook.

I hear gunshots late at night when I’m trying to go to sleep. I smell piss on the elevator when going upstairs. I see people being shot in front of my window. I taste Starburst gummies when I have the munchies. I feel hot as the sun in summertime. I hear people arguing over drug dealers. i smell weed in my building. I taste fried chicken from the kitchen. I feel as cold as ice in the winter. I hear music playing from my windows. I smell cigarettes when people walk by me. I hear cops driving through the projects. I smell pool water in the summer. I see teenagers playing basketball and sweating. I taste pancakes made late at night by my mommy.

And maybe the most shocking one came from the quiet girl who sat in the back of the room (surprising but not surprising, right?)

In my hood I hear constant rumors,

I see girls fighting over boys,

I see crackheads turn elevators and stairways into pissy places that stink,

On Fridays, I taste mama’s chicken,

I see names of all the girls that gave head to the n***gas on the block (stars were hers)

I hear gunshots by n***as that ain’t afraid to do time

I taste the hard french fries from the chicken spot

I hear cursing and arguing nonstop

I hear kids screaming while their mamas whoop their little bad a**es

I see the Puerto Ricans cooking up a storm in the Spanish restaurants.

Needless to say, this green folder of student work did not land in a trash pile. It’s now back in the file cabinet. These students and their words get me every damn time.