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Marty Mentzer


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"I love basketball. It is so much fun. I like basketball. It is so much done," writes Genesis V., a fourth grader at Supply (North Carolina) Elementary School and one of the schools Basketball Poets. In an unlikely pairing, physical education teacher Marty Mentzer brings students together for weekly meetings of poetry reading and sharing, followed by some serious sporting. It's proving to be a winning combination.

Want to establish a club that motivates students to excel inside and outside of the classroom? Marty Mentzer shares this advice.
* Look for the kids who need a boost, those who might "fall through the cracks," and create a positive atmosphere with a club of your choice.
* Start with a small, manageable group of about ten participants.
* Be passionate and creative and make your chosen poets feel extra special.
* Find a motivator for your kids. Basketball worked for my students, but it could be any sport or activity that kids are drawn to, such as dance, chess, soccer, etc.
* Make your group a team with high standards.
* Start your introduction to poetry with a book that you can make sacred. (A friend started his Basketball Poets with Shel Silverstein's Falling Up.)
* Give the program time to develop, be patient, and persevere.

"Basketball Poets has so infiltrated our school that students as young as second and third grade are writing poetry, spontaneously," reported Mentzer. "Basically, it was positive peer pressure and modeling by the chosen poets. Students are excited about writing poems, though at first they might be somewhat shy about wanting to share their poems."

Students really are "chosen" to join Mentzer's club. Those who want to participate must submit a poem, and they must maintain passing grades in order to maintain their membership. Mentzer enjoys writing poetry and being a part of writers' groups and open-mike readings, so poetry was a natural choice for the focus of her club for students. She discovered the book Love That Dog by Sharon Creech and determined that it was a perfect introduction to poetry for young people -- and Basketball Poets was born.

"Poetry allows students to express their feelings, to be creative, and to write about what they want to write about," Mentzer told Education World. "There is no right or wrong in poetry, whereas much of the school curriculum is tied to students producing the expected result and writing to a particular prompt."

A typical club meeting begins with students arriving in the gym from their various classrooms. They enter with pride, excitedly chattering, says Mentzer, and gather on carpeted steps where she has constructed a "Basketball Poet Library" and meeting area. Students then have a few minutes to socialize. They might bring poems they have written or books of poetry to share.

Marty Mentzer's fourth grade Basketball Poets are a team

The first half of the meeting (twenty minutes and sometimes more) is spent on poetry. Students might read a poem they have written or read from a book of poetry. When the group began six years ago, Mentzer most often read from Creech's book and discussed the poems and how they made the children feel.

"We also do poetry -- actually perform poetry with movements," Mentzer explained. "We learn to recite poems, such as The Tyger by William Blake. The students learn those poems through movement -- by putting a specific hand motion or movement with the spoken line of the poem. Across the mid-line body movements engage both hemispheres of the brain and increase learning."

Brain research shows a link between movement and learning, advises Mentzer, and kids need to "move to learn and learn to move." Therefore, each year the Basketball Poets memorize and perform more than a dozen poems that contain four to six stanzas. Mentzer encourages teachers to explore the use of movement in their teaching, so students can learn more effectively.

"After the poetry session, we play basketball," added Mentzer. "Basketball was the major motivator and reward initially for students to attend to a reading/writing/poetry lesson. Now, the students enjoy the poetry and basketball equally."

Students spend twenty minutes on the court, divided into teams of five or in pick-up games. At times, other activities, like dance, are included in the second half of the session. Every meeting involves elements of both poetry and a sport or activity that the kids enjoy.

The Basketball Poets show their moves on the court.

"I post the poems on the wall outside the gym, and I do let poets who want to read their work or other's work read aloud to the group," Mentzer stated. "We show high respect for each other's work, and other students in the school honor that writing. When poets are given praise for their work, they are stimulated to keep writing. The only poems I require students to write are the initial poem to get into the club and a final poem to be included in our book at the end of the year. However, on any given day, I will receive at least one poem. One student brought me a poem a day over twenty consecutive days, until he moved away."

Mentzer's poets might check out books from her library. The group sometimes studies a particular poet such as Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, or Langston Hughes. Participants who are the first to read a new book from the library and provide a short review receive "first reader awards." The first reader's name is written on a basketball sticky note and pasted into the front of the book. It is a powerful incentive for the kids to read new selections.

"Sharon Creech has sent more than 100 copies of her book, and each child gets his or her own copy," reported Mentzer. "Because many of my kids come from homes without books, it is a big deal to receive such a gift from our favorite author. The kids honor books because they are Basketball Poets."

By earning their membership and holding to high standards, the poets demonstrate that they are an "elite" group. They scramble to be one of the first 25 students in the fourth grade and the fifth grade to write a poem in their own words and submit it to Mentzer. She often receives poems at the start of school. Students who have waited since the previous year to join Basketball Poets often have written a poem over the summer and have it in hand on the first day. By the end of the first two weeks of school this year, Mentzer had more than 50 poems and a "waiting list" of students who weren't among the very first to "apply" for the club.

These fifth grade Basketball Poets enjoy reading and writing poetry as well as sports.

"The team aspect is key, and students will help tutor their teammates who might be struggling in a subject to keep their grades up and help them remain in the club," observed Mentzer. "By raising the bar, I have created a group that excels far beyond what most expect from them, especially since a good percentage of my group are at-risk kids. Because many of them will strive to be on athletic teams in middle and high school, they must learn to keep their grades at a C or better to play."

Following the progress of former Basketball Poets, Mentzer has found that many are captains of their schools' ball teams and high academic performers. She expects excellent grades, exceptional conduct, and poetry in their own words, and students sign a contract to signify their acceptance of those expectations. They adhere to the contract because they want to stay on the "team."

"A Basketball Poem"
by Keyhamis S.

Basketball is my sport to play
I play this sport every day
When I get on the court, people look at my Js
Because when I get on the court
It's my way
Today.

"Once they see they can achieve academically -- many didn't know they could -- that boost in self-confidence in the classroom keeps them succeeding," Mentzer said. "Their competitive drive on the court helps them push one another to succeed in the classroom as well."

In contrast, some of Mentzer's Basketball Poets are academically and intellectually gifted. They often are already on the honor roll and love academics, but lack confidence in athletics. Those poets gain the physical prowess on the court that was absent before they joined the club. No matter what obstacles they face, members of Mentzer's poetic "team" come out on top.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

12/8/2006