Blackout poetry and playful reading
This #Take5 blog explores and illustrates the power and potential of blackout poetry and is a thing of real beauty. Just have a look at the amazing way Aimee Merrydew uses it to enhance reading and writing across her literature programme – and pause and think about how to adapt this to your own context.
We love blackout poetry and have used it with students and staff-as-students to help particularly with approaching policy documents. After reading Aimee’s blog we plan to use it with PGCert LTHE staff to help them think through student issues with reading, hoping to persuade them to use this creative strategy with their own students. What would your angle be?
Picture: Aimee Merrydew
Key words: Creative teaching and learning methods, blackout poetry, academic reading literacies, critical analysis
Academic reading: What are the problems and how can we overcome them?
The ability to read critically is a core skill in any degree, one that serves students well long after they leave university. Yet, it’s a skill that many students struggle to build for various reasons, including not understanding what is meant by ‘critical reading’ or how to read for academic purposes. These academic reading struggles are exacerbated by the common assumption that students (should) already know how to read critically by the time they arrive at university, as well as the demand for educators to ‘deliver’ a large amount of course content in a limited amount of time, leaving little room to teach academic reading strategies. As a result, this core academic practice is seldom scaffolded in disciplinary learning or taught as part of the curricula in practical and overt ways (Maguire, et al. 2020; Bharuthram and Clarence, 2015; Hermida, 2009). Instead, it is typically outsourced to university-wide learner developers and librarians, who are tasked with developing students’ academic reading literacies through extra-curricular workshops or tutorials (Rhead, 2019). How can we support students to build their academic reading literacies through disciplinary teaching and learning? What strategies can academic educators use to help students become effective academic readers?
This blog post introduces a creative writing technique I adopted in my teaching to provide English Literature students with a tool to read literary texts critically. The technique is blackout poetry.
What is blackout poetry and why did I decide to use it in my teaching?
Blackout poetry is created by redacting words from an existing document, usually with a black marker pen but you can use other materials (e.g. white correction fluid, paint, or a different colour font when done digitally). Imagine a heavily redacted FBI file: blackout poetry often looks very similar. The remaining words form something new – a poem – and new meaning.
Image: Niina Pollari’s blackout poem, titled ‘Form N-400 Erasures’ (2017). Pollari made the blackout poem by redacting pages from ‘Form N-400’ (officially called ‘Application for Naturalization’) to confront xenophobia and hostile immigration policies under the Trump administration.
I started making blackout poetry with students when teaching in the School of English at Keele University. I was writing a conference paper based on my PhD research on blackout poetry when it struck me that the technique holds promise for supporting students to read texts actively and critically. Since my own research explores the pedagogical potential of blackout poetry, I was curious to see how students might respond to this type of activity and whether it could aid their critical analysis of the literary texts.
My initial goal was to use the blackout poetry activity to encourage students to conduct character analysis within specific texts under study. Students took to the activity like ducks to water – making blackout poems that summarised a character’s traits and role within the primary text. Excited by their responses and creativity, I started using the activity with students for other purposes: to identify key themes in the texts and even reveal problematic aspects or limitations (e.g. re-write moments in The Picture of Dorian Gray from a feminist perspective).
Image: Blackout poem made by Aimee Merrydew, created by redacting an extract from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).
Despite these opportunities, the pedagogical potential for creative methods such as blackout poetry to build academic reading literacies is not widely researched. In what follows, I provide step-by-step instructions for a blackout poetry activity you can use to help students learn how to read for academic purposes. While my example focuses on English literature teaching and learning in an in-situ setting, the activity is transferable to other disciplinary contexts, sources, and modes of study (as I demonstrate shortly).
How can blackout poetry be used to aid academic reading?
Students can participate in this activity in-situ or online and synchronously or asynchronously. When in-situ, students can make their blackout poems and share physical copies with their peers by passing them around the group (with permission). If you opt for an online setting, you can create a Padlet for the students to share images of their blackout poems or encourage them to post their images in the chat on Teams (or whatever video conferencing software you use). Both options enable students to view and discuss one another’s blackout poems.
Step 1: Introduce students to the text and the method through which you want them to read it, in this case redacting it to make a blackout poem from the remaining words.
Step 2: Model the process of making blackout poems and provide the required materials (e.g. source texts and marker pens) so that students understand what blackout poetry is and how it can be made.
Step 3: Share the intended session goals or learning outcomes with students and explain why the activity is beneficial for their learning.
Step 4: Ensure students understand their role within the activity and how long it should take them to complete. For instance, this activity can be done independently or in groups. If it’s an independent reading activity, let students know they’ll work alone to make their blackout poem. If you want students to work together, you can ask them to assign one person to identify key themes within the text, appoint another person to be the designated redactor, and so on.
Step 5: Allocate time after the activity to discuss the blackout poems as a whole group. This discussion activity not only creates opportunities for students to share their experiences of the activity and what they have learnt about the text by actively engaging with it, but also allows them to learn new interpretations and co-create knowledge by sharing and discussing the blackout poems together.
What do students think?
The blackout poetry activity is generally well-received by students. Here are some of the comments I received from students over the years:
- Redacting the text made reading it more fun and engaging, especially for students who disliked the set text for that week. For example, during the discussion, one student admitted they found the text boring to read before the seminar, but the activity inspired them to make more blackout poems from other extracts to explore key issues. Blackout poetry was a way into the text for them.
- The process of creating blackout poems from extracts encouraged students to read slowly and really focus on the words on the page, helping them to identify and critically analyse various themes and issues they might have otherwise glossed over or ignored.
- The blackout poetry activity supported them to approach the text from different angles. For example, students created multiple blackout poems from the same extract but approached each version from a different theoretical perspective. Some students were inspired to use this activity to plan their close reading essay, enabling them to identify key themes to explore more fully through their assignment.
- One of the more surprising, albeit equally exciting, pieces of informal feedback came from students who opted to work in pairs to co-create their blackout poems. These students valued the opportunity to work collaboratively; they felt the process of redacting the extract together helped them to develop critical reading skills by encouraging them to discuss and compare their thoughts with one another, helping them to make informed decisions about how to present their blackout poem.
How can blackout poetry be used in different contexts?
Many students experience challenges when learning to read for academic purposes, regardless of their discipline or level of study. Blackout poetry has proven useful for helping students to address these challenges across various contexts. For example, after a talk I gave on this topic as part of Professor Chris Headleand’s Pedagogy and Pancakes online seminar series in October 2020, Dr Katherine Haxton informed me that she used blackout poetry with students ‘to redact abstracts of scientific papers to create very short summaries of the key findings’ during a science communication session (2020, personal communication, 7 December). Dr Nathalie Tasler (2020) explored blackout poetry as an autoethnographic research analysis tool and method for translating German academic texts. Morales-Rodas et al. (2021) used it as a technique for English language teaching, whereas David Hassler et al. (2020) employed it for the purposes of informing teacher education and professional development.
Blackout poetry can be used in many other ways to aid academic reading. How might you use this method in your own context? Have you already used blackout poetry in your teaching and/or learning practices? Do you feel inspired to share and discuss blackout poetry activities with others?
I’d love to hear from you and learn how you’re using blackout poetry for educational purposes! You can get in touch with me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter (@_meraim) and even share your ideas and blackout poems more widely using the #CreativeHE hashtag to reach the #CreativeHE community.
Bharuthram, S. and Clarence, S. (2015) ‘Teaching academic reading as a disciplinary knowledge practice in higher education’, South African Journal of Higher Education 29(2), pp. 42–55. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280087294_Teaching_academic_reading_as_a_disciplinary_knowledge_practice_in_higher_education
Hassler, D., Pytash, K. E., Ferdig, R. E., Mucha, N., and Gandolfi, E. (2020) ‘The Use of Digital Poetry to Inform Preservice Teacher Education and In-Service Teacher Professional Development during COVID-19’, Journal of Technology and Teacher Education 28(2), pp. 403–413. Available at: https://www.learntechlib.org/p/216343/.
Hermida, J. (2009) ‘The Importance of Teaching Academic Reading Skills In First-Year University Courses’, Social Science Research Network Repository. Available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1419247.
Maguire, M., Everitt- Reynolds, A., and Delahunt, B. (2020) ‘Reading to Be: The role of academic reading in emergent academic and professional student identities’, Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 17(2), pp. 1–12. Available at: https://ro.uow.edu.au/jutlp/vol17/iss2/5/.
Morales-Rodas, L. Y., Galimberti, J. V., Cerda-Solís, G. M., Riera-Guachichullca, E. J. (2021) ‘Blackout poetry: Re-envisioning writing strategy in English learning’, Polo del Conocimiento, 6(3), 246–266. Available at: https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7926937.
Rhead, A. (2019) ‘The trouble with academic reading: exposing hidden threshold concepts through academic reading retreats’, Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education 15, pp. 1–15. Available at: https://journal.aldinhe.ac.uk/index.php/jldhe/article/view/502.
Tasler, N. (2020) ‘Blackout Poetry and Pancakes’, Adventures in Academic Development [Blog], 20 October. Available at: https://acdevadventures.blog/2020/10/20/blackout-poetry-and-pancakes/.
Aimee is a Curriculum Developer in the Keele Institute for Innovation and Teaching Excellence at Keele University, where she specialises in student success. Prior to this role, Aimee taught in the School of English and worked in learning development as a university-wide academic skills coach. Her pedagogical interests are varied, but often centre around the use of creativity and collaborative annotation technology to promote academic literacy development and nurture educational communities. Alongside her teaching roles, Aimee is writing a doctoral thesis on the pedagogical potential of collage methods in contemporary US experimental poetry. You can find out more about Aimee’s teaching and research interests via her website (www.aimeemerrydew.com).