Poet Laureate in the Classroom


On March 10th, Tucson got a new Poet Laureate. The Writing the Community Program couldn’t be more excited to announce that it’s one of the mentor teachers for our program, TC Tolbert, who has been teaching poetry to students in Tucson’s public schools since the fall.

So how does TC, a celebrated poet who has taught poetry in college and graduate school classrooms, approach the task of teaching poetry to elementary and middle schoolers?

Here is a glimpse into one of his lessons, based around the theme of “Dia de los Muertos.”

After some introductory activities and conversations, TC asks his students to write the name of the person they will write a poem about and then “make a list of everything they can remember about that person, using their senses: What did they look like, what was their favorite shirt, how did they smell, what did they like to eat, what was their favorite thing to do.”

After about fifteen minutes of this activity, he reads an excerpt from “Elegy for a Dead Labrador” by Lars Gustafsson:

Our friendship
was of course a compromise; we lived
together in two different worlds: mine,
mostly letters, a text passing through life,
yours, mostly smells. You had knowledge
I would have given much to have possessed:
the ability to let a feeling—eagerness, hate, or love—
run like a wave throughout your body
from nose to tip of tail, the inability
ever to accept the moon as fact.
At the full moon you always complained loudly against it.

You had a habit of catching butterflies on the leap,
and munching them, which some people thought disgusting.
I always liked it. Why
couldn’t I learn from you? And doors.
In front of closed doors you lay down and slept
sure that sooner or later the one would come
who’d open up the door. You were right.
I was wrong. Now I ask myself, now this
long mute friendship is forever finished,
if possibly there was anything I could do
which impressed you.

TC reads this excerpt twice, and he points out the author’s use of specifics and simile.

Next, he asks the students to write a poem about the person they have been preparing to commemorate through the Dia de los Muertos activity.

The students work for about twenty minutes, and are encouraged to use specifics and similes. After awhile, TC asks them to share. The poems go into the Dia de los Muertos box, just as they would at the Dia de los Muertos procession.

One student wrote this beautiful elegy:

I remember

I see Fire House 51, truck 81. The man is my dad. He tells me about firemen calls. I taste Bill’s food. It was blah but Bill makes good candy. I hear calls and fire vehicles and check the air tank and the siren. Two years later I smell flowers and see a wooden box that has my dad in it.


If you found this lesson inspiring, you can check out more lesson plans from the Writing the Community program here in the teacher resources section of our website.

If you find TC inspiring, as we do, you can read more about the moment when he became Tucson’s Poet Laureate here.


Aisha is one of the coordinators of the Poetry Center's Education Program.