3 The Pieces of Me: Empowering Youth through Poetry

Authors: Shameka Cunningham, McKinley E. Melton, Adrienne Danyelle Oliver, Carmin Wong

Target Group: Young Adults, ages 16-18

Key Details

  • Creative project-based workshop for a youth-oriented community group (YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, Teen Center, etc.)
  • Five-day workshop (Monday-Friday), 90-minute sessions
  • Each session focuses on a theme and a poetic craft element:
    • Monday (Ekphrasis) – Past & Future: “Where are you from? Where are you going?”
    • Tuesday (List Poem) – Private & Public: “What do others see? What do you show?”
    • Wednesday (Prose Poem) – Strengths & Opportunities: “Where am I strongest? Where do I have room to grow?”
    • Thursday (Concrete Poem) – Friends & Family: “Who are my people?”
    • Friday (Cento) – Collaboration & Teamwork: “How do I work with others to pursue my goals?”


  • Daily:
    • Select a poem in relation to the theme and discuss one craft element.
    • Provide a creative prompt that will allow students to produce something in relation to the theme and craft.
  • Produce a collaborative creative project that allows each student to incorporate elements of themselves.

Accompanying Materials

Day One – “Where are You from? Where are You going?”

Theme: Past & Future

Craft Element: Ekphrasis

Poem: Natasha Trethewey’s “Gesture of a Woman in Process


Facilitator projects a photo or brings in printed photos. Ask students to write down five things they notice. Select one of the five things they noticed and create a backstory that tells us why it appeared in the picture.


Explain to students what Ekphrasis is. Ensure they have an understanding of what it means, in their own words. 

Natasha Trethewey’s “Gesture of a Woman in Process” from the Furious Flower Archive

  • Play the video of Trethewey reading from 1994 (above).
  • Distribute the poem, replay the video, and instruct students to follow along on the page.
  • Guide a discussion of Trethewey’s poem.
    • Potential questions:
      • What does Trethewey’s language add to your consideration of the photograph?
      • What are some of the specific choices that Trethewey makes to “capture” and build upon elements of the photograph?
      • Are there things about the photograph that you notice Trethewey did not choose to emphasize?
      • How do the poem and the photograph, collectively, tell a particular story?
      • How does Trethewey engage the photograph as more than just a “frozen moment in time” (quote from interview)?
        • A JSTOR account will be necessary to access the above interview link.

Creative Exercise (prompt)

  • Invite students to scroll through their own phones (or otherwise stored photo album). Select a photo that captures a moment from their own not-so-recent past (aim for over two years old).
  • Do they remember the backstory? Can they imagine a new one?
  • On what elements should they focus to write an ekphrastic response?
  • Invite them to:
    • Use vivid language to respond to their photograph.
    • Mirror elements and structure of Trethewey’s poem:
      • In the foreground/background
      • Around them…
      • Even now/Even then…

If time allows, invite participants to share elements of what they have written.

Day Two – “What do Others See? What do you Choose to Show?”

Theme: Private & Public

Craft Element: List Poem

Poem: Danez Smith’s “alternate names for black boys”

Essay (for facilitator):

  • Weil, Eric A. “Personal and Public: Three First-Person Voices in African American Poetry.” (Furious Flowering 1999, pp. 223-238).


Invite participants to consider alternatives for how they would describe themselves by asking them to complete a list of 5-10 phrases to complete a “List of Alternative Names for ________” (fill in blank with their own name).


Explain what a List poem is.

Guided Questions (Prompt)

  • If you could give yourself a different name, what would it be?
  • How would you describe yourself in three words?
  • How would you describe yourself when no one’s around in one word?
  • Who would you be in an alternate universe?
  • Who would you be with no financial limitations or obligations?
  • What genre of music would you use to describe your personality?
  • What is your superpower? Real or imagined.
  • Name a thing you love.
  • Where is your favorite place to be?
  • What scares you?
  • What two words describe your opposite self? (Example: If you think of yourself as kind, “mean” would be the opposite)
  • If you were an affirmation, what would it say?
  • If you were a warning sign, what would it say?
  • What three words describe your future self?
  • What kind of plant would you be? What kind of animal would you be?
  • What would your stage name be?
  • How would you describe yourself as an image?

Day Three – “Where are you strongest? Where is there room to grow?”

Theme: Strengths & Opportunities

Craft Element: Prose Poem

Poem: Opal Moore’s “Eulogy for Sister” (Furious Flower 2004, pp. 198-199)

Opening exercise

Instructor asks participants:

  • What are five qualities you see as your most noteworthy strengths?
    • Are these strengths that you believe others notice in you or that you notice in yourself?
    • Are these private or public strengths?
  • What are five opportunities or things you want to accomplish in the coming year?

Instructor invites participants to pair/share.

Instructor says: 

  • Staying in those pairs, write down five things you want to get out of today’s workshop and five things that you have taken away from workshops over the past few days. What have you learned about your working style, your creative ethic, and your relationship to poetry? Consider all the things you have in common. Consider the ways in which this workshop series has allowed you to grow or see yourself differently over the past few days.

Instructor invites participants to take turns sharing their pair discussions with the whole group, and encourages celebration and affirmation.

Instructor introduces participants to the following poetry terms:

  • Narrative style
  • Punctuation
  • Line breaks (and lack thereof)
  • Couplet

Instructor explains what a prose poem is and reads one example (from the Poetry Foundation page about prose poems).

  • What is the difference between writing fiction and writing prose poetry?
  • Consider what poetic features are used and relied on in this form.

Discuss Opal Moore ‘s poem “Eulogy for Sister”


  • What is a eulogy?
  • What are some narrative elements of the poem?
  • How does the length of each sentence contribute to the pace and rhythm of the poem? Stanza/paragraph? And how does this reflect the style of a eulogy?
  • What is the relationship or contrast between the longest and shortest lines of the poem?
  • What is the significance of the word “Sister?” Consider how the speaker uses “Sister” as a proper noun instead of giving her a name. Who does Sister represent?
  • What is the speaker’s relationship between medical healing and spiritual healing/prayer in this poem? How does this contribute to the eulogy form?
  • The poem ends with two lines that have a significantly different tone than the stanza/paragraph before it. Who is the speaker talking to at the end? Consider the structure of the couplet form and the elements of poetic structure woven throughout the poem.

Creative Exercise (Prompt)

  • In 2-3 sentences, identify a moment of fear, doubt, insecurity, or a personal weakness.
  • Begin to write a stanza/paragraph or a few sentences declaring the death of that fear, moment of doubt, insecurity, or weakness.
  • Guiding prompts:
    • What does your fear, doubt, or insecurity represent?
    • What prompted your fear, doubt, or insecurity?
    • Imagine your fear, doubt, or insecurity as a person. If you could talk to your fear, doubt, or insecurity, what would you say? What would be your tone of voice?
    • Imagine your fear, doubt, or insecurity as a physical object. What would it look like? Sound like? Feel like?
    • Try starting with the lines “We are gathered here today to say farewell to…”
    • Unlike writing an essay, try inverting the syntax of some sentences. How might ambiguity or intimacy impact the relationship between the speaker and their fear, doubt, or insecurity?
    • End with an affirmation of what’s next for the speaker.

Day Four: “Who are My People?”

Theme: Friends & Family

Craft element: Concrete poem

Poem: Raymond R. Patterson’s “Baobab” (Furious Flower 2004, p. 44)

Opening Exercise

  • Who are your people? What does that mean to you?
  • What images come to mind when you think about “your people?”
  • Who is in your community of family and friends?


  • Explain Concrete Poetry
  • Explain the significance of the Baobab
    • “The magnificent baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) is an icon of the African continent. With bark and fruit offering over 300 life-sustaining uses, it is the root of many Indigenous remedies, traditions, and folklore. Hence its literal nickname, ‘The Tree of Life.’”
  • Some potential questions:
    • What is the relationship between the content of the poem and the object that Patterson has depicted?
    • How does Patterson use “community-minded language?”
    • What is the relationship between family/community and nature in this poem?
    • What do we think about Patterson’s emphasis on “we/us” pronouns?
    • Consider Patterson’s use of “proper names” through capitalization. How does he create status/stature and emphasis throughout the poem?

Creative Exercise

  • What images come to mind when you think about family? Keep that image in mind as you work your way through the poem.
  • Goal One – Use vivid language to express the central focus of the poem.
  • Goal Two – through revision, how can you shape the words on the page in order to reflect the image you had in mind?

Day Five: “How do I work with others to pursue a goal?”

Theme: Collaboration & Teamwork

Craft: Cento

Poem: “Wholly One: Still”

Instructor opens by explaining the “cento.”


On a black surface rests a cento poem consisting of several ripped pieces of notebook paper, each with different lines of poetry written in different hands, laid out to create "one" long poem.
From the Furious Flower Archive

Invite participants to reflect upon the week of themes and ideas. Which themes resonated most powerfully?

Allow 20 minutes to review poetry collections (provide scanned copies of Furious Flower poems or published works). Ask each participant to select a line that best reflects the theme that resonated with them.

Collectively, guide the participants through the creation of a cento:

  • Have each line of poetry placed on its own piece of paper and have them arranged on a wall visible by the whole class.
  • Read each line aloud, and invite students to begin by pairing lines that “make sense” to them in sequence.
    • With each “pairing,” ask students to offer a brief explanation as to why they’ve put specific lines together.
  • As the lines take shape, always read aloud to ensure that there is general consensus about the order.
  • As the order of lines comes into focus, develop general consensus about the structure of the stanzas, always reading aloud at each stage of development.
    • Invite students to think about sonic resonance, meaning, shifts, turns, etc.

Close with a reading of the collectively created cento. Invite students to consider:

  • How do you see yourselves represented/reflected in the cento, as individuals?
  • How do you see the community/collective reflected in the cento?


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The Furious Flower Syllabus Project: Opening the World of Black Poetry Copyright © 2024 by Anastacia-Reneé; allia abdullah-matta; Ariana Benson; Mary Beth Cancienne; Teri Ellen Cross Davis; Shameka Cunningham; Hayes Davis; Tyree Daye; Angel C. Dye; Brian Hannon; T.J. Hendrix; DaMaris B. Hill; Meta DuEwa Jones; Shauna M. Morgan; Adrienne Danyelle Oliver; Leona Sevick; James Smethurst; Dana A. Williams; L. Lamar Wilson; Carmin Wong; Dave Wooley; and Joanne V. Gabbin (preface) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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