Newbery-inspired poetry and journal activities for high school

April 12, 2018

Author Jason Reynolds (left) is now a Newbery-honoree—among several other awards—for his verse fiction book 'Long Way Down.'

Use Long Way Down, the 2018 Newbery Honor-winning book by Jason Reynolds, to build poetry and writing skills and inspire self-discovery through journaling.

Explore part of our ongoing series weaving the Newbery Awards titles into your classroom’s literacy journey.

The following activities are designed for high school language arts or writing classes. Long Way Down deals with topics such as gun violence and drug use and contains mature language. 

Its publisher Simon & Schuster describes the novel this way: “An ode to Put the Damn Guns Down, this is National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestseller Jason Reynolds’ fiercely stunning novel that takes place in sixty potent seconds—the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.”

Long Way Down will foster deep discussion and reflection about a timely issue for teens. In a style best described as “verse fiction,” Reynolds’ main character, Will, struggles with the death of his brother at the hands of gun violence. Set in an elevator, Will confronts his feelings of loss and revenge on his way down each floor of his apartment building.

Word Games

Anagrams are featured prominently in the novel. Increase student vocabulary and mental elasticity with anagram exercises or word teasers of your choosing. Our partners in words at Merriam-Webster also have a free anagram game on their site called Typeshift.

Analog word games like Scrabble can also combine play and learning. For a greater challenge, have students create their own crossword puzzle with vocabulary from the book.

Feelings Journal

While the novel touches themes that are indeed mature, many of your students or their peers may face the realities of poverty, violence, and loss daily. Having your class journal privately about times when they’ve identified with Will’s experiences can be a powerful way to help them conceptualize the story and their own feelings.

Journaling is a versatile way to guide students through processing emotions and reactions to literature. Make this time as structured or as freestyle as you choose. Some questions you could pose for guidance could include:

• Was there a time you were motivated to act out and ended up thinking better of it? Or did you go through with it. How did you feel after? Who did you affect?

• Have you ever experienced peer pressure? How did you react? What advice would you give others in that situation?

• Think back to a time you experienced loss. What did you lose? How did it affect you?

You can let students keep their journaling to themselves, or use these to springboard a discussion about the novel’s themes.

Our Story

We think the most stylistically unique aspect of Long Way Down is its structure. Each chapter is a different poem that while beautiful on their own, when read together they weave a complex narrative.

Taking a novel you’ve read as a class, a popular movie or album, or even a completely new story your class composes as a group, have each student write a poem that acts as a part of the overall story. The finished collection will form a “book” that is all their own. You could even “publish” copies of the book for each student or have the class perform your novel for parents or other classes.


Host a poetry slam! “Slam poetry is a form of performance poetry,” says Britannica School’s new entry on slam poetry. “It combines the elements of performance, writing, competition, and audience participation. It is performed at events called poetry slams, or simply slams.”

That Britannica School entry includes some quick guidelines for hosting your own slam. We’ve also partnered with the slam pros at Young Chicago Authors to bring the art of performance poetry to educators with an exciting new event:

PASS THE MIC: A spoken word workshop for educators

Can’t attend? No worries. We’ll be sharing highlights the event during a Facebook Live broadcast and recapping the results afterword.

CHECK HERE to see if your region is one of our state-wide Britannica School subscribers. 

Try this with your class? How did it go? Tweet us feedback to @BritannicaLearn.

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