Purple Rain: Inspiring Poetry in Youth

Summer of 1984, a girlfriend who was a long-standing, avid Prince fan invited me to see Purple Rain with her. Up until then, I had been on the fence about Prince, but Purple Rain made me a believer. I cannot express the electrifying transformation.  However, the movie and its theme song captured me with its lush purple majesty. I heard the song in my sleep, and the following Monday I went and purchased the album.

I had just been contracted by two  schools in Oakland, deemed challenging, and located in the flat-lands (another term for ghetto/underfunded marginalized) to do poetry work shops, with 8th graders who were failing.  I had convinced the head of this program that I could get students reading and writing through poetry, working with these students twice weekly for ten lessons, under the umbrella of California Poets in the Schools.  I was motivated.  I was determined.

The Tuesday after seeing the movie, I brought in the sound track of Purple Rain and the class went wild. We had one of the most engaging discussions we had ever had, and several of the boys who had not written any poems before, (only turning in blank sheets with their names as I had insisted every time, every student had to turn in something) actually wrote poems about what they taught Purple Rain was. The last 10 minutes of the class when I asked for volunteers to read their poems, almost every hand shot up, and we went over the class period. I was elated.

I wish I could put my hands on the class anthologies I produced that year with those two classes, but they are in storage somewhere. I was as proud of those students as they were of themselves, as were their teacher and the school. They all dug deep and wrote some amazing poems. I used Purple Rain for many years, but it was that album, and that moment, that made me incorporate playing music and discussing lyrics into teaching young people to write poetry, and I still do, even with college students.

Purple Rain expanded my pedagogical practice.  To be effective at teaching, you have to meet students where they are before you can take them somewhere else. You have to know their language, what turns them on, who they are being and who they are afraid of being. You have to delve into the mystery of Purple Rain and see what you make of its meaning, just like they are trying to fashion meaning out of their life.

Prince, thanks for helping to make me a more effective teacher, and for providing a space for students to hear, translate and share their voices.

purple rain, purple rain

i find you in the wetness

of this magical purple rain…search

 

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