Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Teaching with "Newspaper Blackout" by Austin Kleon [Review]

As part of the Blogging A to Z Challenge in in April, I wrote a post about a lesson using blackout poetry that I taught in my Frankenstein unit. After teaching the lesson, I purchased Austin Kleon's book Newspaper Blackout. Reading the book has inspired me to consider additional ways to incorporate blackout poetry into my instruction. 

Kleon begins the book by narrating the inspiration leading to his composing blackout poetry using The New York Times. It's a fun story about a writer with writer's block who discovers there are million of words in the newspaper. He just needed to decide which ones to use. However, Kleon's history of blackout poetry, which has a 250 year old history, fascinates me. Among the early blackout poets, Kleon includes:
  • Caleb Whitefoord, an English merchant, read columns of newsprint from left to right after reading them from top to bottom. Noticing interesting combinations, Whitefoord recorded the most interesting, such as
    • On Tuesday both houses of Convocation met  
    • Books shut, nothing done
  • Thomas Jefferson cut up the King James Bible using a pair of scissors and published what is now known as The Jefferson Bible.
  • In 1977 poet Ronald Johnson revised--several times--and published is version of Paradise Lost by removing words, lines, and phrases he didn't like. Johnson titled his revision Radi os and said, "I composed the holes." 
Kleon gives many examples of blackout poetry, and most can be used for inspiring lessons in the classroom. Jefferson's bible resembles common found poetry. Johnson's version of Paradise Lost is similar to the technique I employed with students in my Frankenstein unit. 

The poems in Newspaper Blackout offer a fun opportunity for readers to guess which part of the newspaper a poem comes from. "In Cleveland on My Death Bed," for example, originates in the sports section (71). 

Deviating from the traditional left to right reading structure is easy when writers of blackout poetry leave a trail for readers to follow by not blacking out the "route" a reader needs to follow:
As I read both the history of blackout poetry, Kleon's poems, and the additional supplemental materials, I considered ways to use blackout poetry in the classroom:
  • As a close reading strategy in which students black out all but the most important ideas to create a "summary" of the original. This is what I had students do in my original lesson.As 
  • As a way to illustrate understanding of theme, plot, character, figurative language, etc. in a text. 
  • As a way to select short quotes for use in research projects. I plan to experiment with this by asking students as they read a short article to select short passages--5 to 10 words--they they want to use in a brief report. The idea is to take these quotes after students have blacked out the rest of the text and have them compose a summary of the article and use the short quotes in their summaries. By having students black out all by the quotes they will use, they will be less likely to plagiarize, which often happens when students don't understand that simply changing a few words and rearranging the sentence still qualifies as plagiarism. 
These are just a few of the creative uses of blackout poetry in the classroom. I'd love to hear others' ideas. For additional information on blackout poetry and for some inspiring images and video, check out Austin Kleon's blog. 

Remember: Text + permanent marker = Blackout Poem. The next time you experience a blackout, be sure it's with pen and paper in hand. 


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