Participant Teaching

Cite this work as:

Smith, K. E. (2014). Participant teaching: Writing video poetry with your students. Manitoba Association of Teachers of English Journal, Classmate 44(2), 7-9.

Participant Teaching: Writing Video Poetry with Your Students

About the same time that I was introducing a new medium, video poetry, to my secondary students, I was also involved in authentic learning/assessment. Video poetry had been around since the 1960s but I knew that it would seem to be a rather foreign concept to many of my students since they had mostly encountered poetry on the written page. To remain consistent with authentic experience, I introduced my students to a local video poet, Clive Holden (Trains of Winnipeg). His wonderful examples of video poetry helped us to see that video poetry is a thrilling genre. Next, I invited students to try their own hand at making video poetry. My invitation to write included the notion that students should try to write about a topic that had great personal meaning for them. Finally, they would turn their initial idea, which may have originated from writing or pictures, into video poetry.

In the authentic learning/assessment model, it did not seem fair that I would invite my students to create a video poem never having done so myself. It made sense to participate in the students’ novice experience, so I demonstrated writing a poem that I would later turn into a video poem. First I wrote a poem from scratch in class, then I added pictures and followed this up by demonstrating iMovie.

I did not have to dig for a topic that had great personal meaning. Unfortunately, while I was teaching this unit, my Mother became ill and was in her final hours. My first poem emerged from this emotional experience. The first poem I wrote before making it into a video poem was Lipstick (below). Mom, like many of the women from her time, had always enjoyed dressing up so the poem reflected a moment when I had helped her feel normal one last time.

Certainly there are times to focus your participant teaching on less morbid topics but in this case my Mother had been a teacher and everyone in class knew this. Parents and students came to her funeral. The participant teaching experience also led students to releasing emotions through their own video poems. The teaching moment evolved into a type of poetry therapy.

Writers often talk about how poetry releases emotions and how one poem leads to many more. Still, I was surprised that the first poem would be followed by sixty more. I have included Lipstick along with those sixty in a poetry book that will soon be published.

In reflection: There is modeling that implies some expertise on the part of the modeler; and then there is participant teaching. In participant teaching you can model what it is like to try something for the first time, letting the students know that, like them, this is your first attempt. With no prior experience in the new medium, you can model authentically what that newbie experience is like. It is a risk showing your own vulnerabilities and editing process. The teacher takes on the task of trying what they are inviting the students to do.

There are times when assignments should only be about and by the students. Then there are those select times when the genre is so unfamiliar that participant teaching becomes essential to innovative learning. Teaching is sharing.


              The stroke stole her voice
               her eighty-four year old eyes begged me,
               as she lay dying on
               the hospital bed
               I carefully drew a crimson circle
               my Mother’s mouth
               in her final hour

               Unable to speak
               she beamed, gently squeezed my hand for the last time
               closed loving eyes
               lips, silenced forever
               but manifest
               I then drew the same crimson circle round my own lips
               gazed intently into the hospital mirror

               Why do we wear lipstick?

                Our youth
               “Try this.”
              crimson slather on our lips,
               just for fun,
               smack on our lips,
               inviting womanhood,
               temporary tattoo of sorts

               Our womanhood
               “Aren’t you wearing it, too?”
              scarlet slather saving our lips from exposure,
               lips for lovers,
               red stain of our prime.
               marking our sexuality,
               not dressed without it

               Our third act
               and, older . . . complete
               “Won’t be caught dead without it.”
              keeping moist that which remains,
               holding a line,
               stick lips defined by it, ripe
               a reminder to others in the view from our coffin
               of our womanhood,
               our youth

               tacit feminine discourse of the lips
               mother to daughter
               shared by a thin line

        Lipstick - A poem by Karen E. Smith (c) 2014 written in a participant-teaching moment.