WITS Voices: On Non-Violent Resistance

By Imani R. Sims, WITS Writer-in-Residence


33 student eyes, all staring at the screen as Martin Luther King Jr. takes the podium:

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.

 In our current social and political climate it is our duty, as teaching artists, to offer an opportunity for our young people to speak up. My students rose to the occasion. I asked them to create an epistle poem that gave voice to their silence. One of my students wrote a letter to a store clerk addressing the discrimination she witnessed. Another student chose to write an open letter to the America. In it, she spoke about the history of racism and her dreams for a world where people of color are celebrated.

The epistle poem is unique in that it directly addresses audience and is signed by the writer. This form poem offers students the opportunity to be accountable for their words and demand accountability from a specific audience.

A well-known poet, Khary Jackson, has a humorous take on the epistle poem. He performs “An Open Letter to Walt Disney from the Brothers Grimm” in this video.

A few tips you can use to teach the epistle poem in your classroom:

  1. What is an epistle poem?
    1. A letter from on party to another.
    2. It always addresses a specific audience.
    3. It is always “signed” by the intended speaker.
  2. What are a few topics students can tackle in epistle poems?
    1. Moments of injustice.
    2. Racism.
    3. Freedom.
    4. Love.
  3. How to wrap the middle school brain around big ideas?
    1. Ask them to take a moment to write specific examples of the above topics.
    2. Ask them to briefly describe big ideas in small groups.
    3. Brainstorm definitions as a class.

Typically, I show my students this concrete epistle poem by Marie Summers. This is a short and visually gorgeous poem that uses clear language to assist with the spark of inspiration!

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Finally, I like to offer help with revision by giving students a set number of poetic devices to add to their work.  For example, I suggest adding:

  1. Two metaphors.
  2. Two similes.
  3. Imagery (I ask students where are places you can add color, sound, or smells).

For other teachers, I hope this short lesson offers your students an opportunity to use their voices for non-violent resistance.


imanisims webImani Sims spun her first performance poem at the age of fourteen. She has gone on to teach performance poetry to youth and adults, publish her first collection of poetry entitled, Twisted Oak, on Requiem Press, and founded an interdisciplinary arts production company, Split Six Productions. Her latest book of poetry, (A)live Heart, was published in October 2016 by Sibling Rivalry Press.

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