New Wings: Writing Praise Poems in the Classroom

As a traveling teaching artist and a poet for the last 26 years, I have been deemed a praise poet, which can be a tad confusing because the word praise is often associated with religion. Yet, the word praise—from the West African tradition from which I teach—comes from a larger context. It translates in some West African languages into the English word tendon, suggesting one must make connections between him or herself and the external world. It also requires a flexing of creative muscles to strengthen the ability of observation.

Ironically, I have been writing Praise Poems since I was 12, but I had no idea that by doing so I was linking myself to one of my places of origin. In my late 30s, when I took a DNA test, I discovered that I come from Nigeria on my father’s side. It was really a goose-bump moment when I read in Judith Gleason’s book, Leaf and Bone: African Praise-Poems, that Nigerians are the chief praise poets of Africa. Unbeknownst to me, as a teen, I was already writing in the vein of my ancestors. Praise poetry is a poem form that I am thoroughly connected to on many levels. I have been teaching others how to write Praise Poems for 19 years, helping them to affirm themselves through this form. 

When I enter a classroom, I always begin with praise—a Praise Poem, that is—an introductory poem of origin, because it is an accessible poem form for students and teachers to begin writing. It also allows me to assess where students are developmentally. In addition, I start the class with praise because in my opinion, there is not enough positivity going around in the world today. I also start with praise because Alex Haley, author of Roots, wrote: “Find the Good and Praise it.”

  

Praise Poetry Definition

These poems are made up of metaphors and similes—forms of comparison relating the writer to an object, a person, a color, or a feature in nature. Each line is a celebratory declaration, an invocation that acts as a cathartic affirmation as the poet places him or herself on the continuum of his or her ancestry. It is also an awesome way to work with metaphor and simile while enhancing writing skills and strengthening voice. I lead the lesson with an example of my own Praise Poem, “New Wings."

   

How to Write a Glenis Redmond Praise Poem

A Praise Poem is not to be written in a linear fashion—the goal is more than ticking items off the list from one to seven. The student must enter where their imaginations call the loudest. Yet, all seven guidelines should be included in the poem, but not limited to the list.  

  1. Heritage. (literal and metaphoric) For example: I am as my grandfather’s withered hands that pushed the plow on southern Carolina soil.
  2. Height. (literal and metaphoric height) For example: I am as tall as my mother’s earnest daily prayers cast up for me.
  3. Color. (personality and skin tone) For example: I am sunburst orange with a streak of grey, or I am the color of cream adding joy to the recipe.
  4. Animal. Compare yourself to an animal. For example: I am the crows who always remember the stories of the people below the treetops, or I am the play of intelligent dolphin reminding us to be our best selves.
  5. Nature. Compare yourself to the natural world. For example: I am the rays of the sun shooting through the clouds.
  6. How You Walk in the World. For example: I do not walk, I dance through life on tip toes that twist to the beat of my own drum.
  7. Profession or Wannabe Profession, Pastime, or Hobby. For example: I am the burnt orange globe that is swallowed by the hoop. The roar of the crowd inspires me. The endless days of practice gives me a deep satisfaction.

Video: How to Write a Poem (with Glenis Redmond)

Pre-Writing Begins with Brainstorming

I lead students in a brainstorming session with questions about their top favorites—that is, favorite animals or magical creatures, jewels, and parts of nature. I also ask them about some of their favorite places rooted to the state in which they live or where they were born. Every answer is written on the board. I consider every response valid, so long as it is school appropriate. When done prompting, I demonstrate how to use the brainstorm box. 

Creative Pairing of Words

I show students how to link together words that happen to be close to each other and how pick the ones that create emotional or creative resonance—for example: Sapphire Creeks or Sweet Tea History. Then, we branch out to words anywhere in the box such as: Grandmother Phoenix or Fairy Dancer. Each time, I ask students to volunteer and write the creative pairs they have found on the board to make sure they have the concept down. I give them three minutes to create a metaphor or simile of their own and write it down on paper. The metaphor or simile must be connected to them. For example, I am a Star Dancer—the galaxy, my stage—every footfall I make is in tune with the rhythm of light. Or, I am Grandmother Phoenix rising from the ashes of my counselor days turned poet––now giving others the ability to turn their stories into poetry. Before they write, I share examples of student work.

 
  
  

After hearing examples of their peers, it is the other students’ turn to write. Praise poetry is a powerful metaphor and simile exercise, but it resonates from a larger capacity because I instruct students to lift up out of their world and take an eagle’s eye view—and explore their world from the past, present, and future. When they do, poetry often lifts off the page because verse is compressed language full of feeling, imagery, and rhythm. When students listen, observe, and write from this place, their poetry soars and they do too, especially when they read out loud from what they have creatively gleaned.

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Learn more about the Literacy@Work web series featuring Glenis Redmond, an HMH effort to not only help students grow as readers and writers but also show them the lifelong role literacy plays in their lives.

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