Lesson Plans

Fighting Words: Poetry in Response to Current Events [Contest and Workshop]

Image by Jordan Roth. United States, 2016.

Image by Jordan Roth. United States, 2016.

Announcing the 2020 Pulitzer Center Poetry Contest!

How can poetry be an effective response to current events and under-reported stories? How can we use poetry to connect global issues to our local and personal contexts? Students are invited to explore these questions and make their voices heard in their entries to the Fighting Words Poetry Contest.


  • 1st place: $100, publication on the Pulitzer Center website
  • 2nd place: $50, publication on the Pulitzer Center website
  • 3rd place: $25, publication on the Pulitzer Center website
  • Finalists: Publication on the Pulitzer Center website

Eligibility: Any current K-12 student in the United States or internationally may enter.

Deadline: Friday, May 15, 2020 11:59 PM EST

Submission guidelines: Go to the Pulitzer Center website and select a story (see workshop guide below for suggestions). Write a poem of any form and length that includes lines from the story. Use “With lines from “STORY TITLE” by JOURNALIST NAME, a Pulitzer Center reporting project" as your epigraph.

Submit your poems using this Google Form. The form will ask for some basic information, and you will upload your poem to the form as an attachment. You may also upload an audio or video file of yourself performing your poem; this file is optional, but the text file is required.

If you have questions about these guidelines or if the Google Form is not accessible to you, please email hberk@pulitzercenter.org.

Judging criteria: Poems will be judged by the following criteria:

  • Success of the poem on its own terms (craft, linguistic style, emotion, etc.)
  • Successful inclusion of lines quoted from a Pulitzer Center story

Previous contest winners: Read the winning poems from 2019 and 2018.

Schedule a Workshop to Prepare: Educators who would like to prepare their students to craft poems for this contest can contact hberk@pulitzercenter.org to schedule a digital or in-person workshop for their students facilitated by a Pulitzer Center education team member. Alternatively, educators may use the workshop guide outlined below, which includes presentation materials and printable handouts.

Need a version of this workshop that students can explore independently?

These downloadable lessons include student instructions and fillable worksheets. If students do not have Internet access, you can print any Pulitzer Center news stories easily by clicking the printer icon at the top of the page. Suggested news stories are included in this workshop below.

Workshop Description:

In this workshop, students will examine the intersections of poetry and journalism. They will have the opportunity to explore under-reported news stories, analyze poems that respond to those stories, and write their own poems using a pressing story that speaks to them.

Poems produced in this workshop can be entered into the Fighting Words Poetry Contest for the chance to win cash prizes and publication.


Students will be able to…

  • explain the connection between journalism and poetry
  • analyze the connection between a poem and the news story by which it was inspired
  • make a personal/local connection to a Pulitzer Center news story
  • write a poem that includes lines from a news story

    Discussion Questions:

    1. What is an under-reported story?
      • What under-reported stories are you aware of in other parts of the world right now?
      • What under-reported stories are present in your community?
    2. How can you make people aware of the under-reported stories that matter to you?
    3. How can journalism be an effective way to spread awareness?
    4. How can art be an effective way to spread awareness? What can poetry contribute, specifically?
    5. How would you compare the job of a journalist and the job of a poet?
    6. How would you compare journalism and poetry?


    1. Watch 0:00-5:05 of the New York Times documentary “Inside a Suicide Prevention Center in Puerto Rico.” While you watch, consider: What makes this an under-reported story? Why should we care about it?

    2. Read and listen to the audio (1:55) of “Permission” by Noel Quiñones. While you listen, underline any lines you hear that you heard word-for-word in the documentary.

    3. Discuss the poem:

    • What lines jump out at you as important, interesting, beautiful?
    • What is the subject of this poem? What under-reported stories can you identify?
    • In what ways is the poem similar to the documentary? In what ways is it different?

    • How does the speaker of the poem express personal connection to the subject matter?
    • Why do you think Quiñones chose to construct this poem as a pantoum?

    • What does “119 syllables” refer to?

    4. Read Quiñones’s commentary on the poem:

    “In the aftermath of Hurricane María, Puerto Rico has been struggling to rebuild and been denied federal grants to do so. While reporters and news stations have focused on people’s access to food, water, and electricity we are seeing a new crisis develop. The New York Times published a mini documentary entitled ‘Inside a Suicide Prevention Center in Puerto Rico’ at the beginning of January highlighting the mental health crisis now taking hold. As a third generation Puerto Rican, I have never been able to shake the pain of being from a place that is not quite a country and not quite a state. We have always lived in a precarious identity and while many state Hurricane María as the beginning of our traumas, we have suffered since America’s invasion 119 years ago.”


    • Revisit: What does "119 syllables" refer to? How is this related to the content of the rest of the poem?
    • Does Quiñones’s commentary change your perspective on the poem in any way? What about your perspective on how poetry can respond to under-reported stories?

    More Model Poems:

    Want to explore winning student poems from previous years, and the news stories that inspired them? Here are the 2019 winners and finalists and the 2018 winners and finalists.

    Exploring Your Story:

    Now you will have the chance to choose an under-reported story that speaks to you.

    1. Take a few minutes to explore the headlines/images/article summaries for the articles listed below. Select the one that most interests you.

    2. In the next 15 minutes, read the corresponding article. While you read, highlight phrases that jump out at you as important, interesting, or beautiful. These should be phrases that capture the feeling of the story.

    3. Find a conversation partner with a different article and discuss:

    • What is your story about?
    • What local and/or personal connection can you make?
    • What is one phrase that you highlighted, and why?


    1. [Optional] Take 5 minutes to create a cento from the lines you highlighted and other language in your article. A cento is a poem comprised entirely of quotes from other texts. (Find example centos here.)

    2. Take another 15 minutes to write a poem that includes lines from your cento and your own original writing.


    1. Share your poem with the class and receive your peers’ feedback. See if they can guess what your story was about.

    2. Here are some suggestions for how to give good feedback to your peers:

    • Mention lines or words you thought were especially powerful or beautiful.
    • When you say that you “liked” or “didn’t like” different aspects of the poem, say why.
    • Consider the question: How did the poem address the subject of peace and conflict?

    Suggested Stories:

    Text and photo stories:

    Video stories:

    Educator Notes: 

    Community Agreements:

    Writing, especially writing poetry, can be a very personal experience. As a result, it is important to create a space in which students feel free and supported in expressing themselves. Before beginning the workshop, students should agree to a set of community agreements. Time permitting, you may wish to establish these guidelines collaboratively with the class. A basic sample set follows:

    1. During reading and discussion time, I will be an active participant. I will listen to my peers and to my teacher with the understanding that they will do the same for me.
    2. During writing time, I will respect silence and my peers’ concentration.
    3. During sharing time, I will listen to and be supportive of my peers.
    4. During feedback time, I will share at least one positive comment before making suggestions for improvement. When making suggestions, I will state them not as things my peers did poorly, but as things they could do better.
    5. After this workshop, I will not share anything that my peers have said or written with anyone outside the workshop unless I have gotten the consent of the person who said/wrote what I would like to share.

    Students should additionally be introduced to good ways of expressing support for their classmates while they share their poems without interrupting concentration, such as snapping their fingers.

    More Suggested Resources:

    Students may use any story on the Pulitzer Center website to write their poem. If they are selecting a story on their own, they may find it useful to explore this page, which categorizes our reporting by issue.

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