Education Chat

New Directions in Achievement

Marty Mentzer, innovative North Carolina physical education teacher, discussed her Basketball Poets program and other alternative teaching and learning ideas.

New Directions in Achievement
August 24, 2006

Guest: Marty Mentzer, physical education teacher at Supply Elementary School in Supply, North Carolina, and creater of the Basketball Poets program.

Anthony Rebora, (Moderator):
Welcome to our live chat on creative ways to boost student achievement. This chat builds on Teacher Magazine’s newly published Achievement Issue. Our guest, Marty Mentzer, certainly has some creative ideas. Mentzer is a PE teacher at Supply Elementary School in North Carolina who’s created a unique (and quite successful) program that combines poetry with basketball. She’s going to discuss how this program has helped improve student engagement and achievement, and offer her thoughts on other alternative teaching and learning ideas.

We’ve go a lot of good questions, so let’s get started.

Question from Diane Goudy, Fairfield High School Career Tech Instructor:
What is the kids and parents reactions to this movement poetry?

Marty Mentzer:
Kids and parents love it! Having fun is the first objective. The student will learn more readily if he is having fun while he is learning (sometimes my kids don’t even realize they are learning). Parents have been very supportive. I have had fathers write poems with their sons. I have had moms, step-dads, grandmas and aunts come to see their children perform and finally have something to be proud of--parents actually tell me getting to come to school to see their child perform in Basketball Poets is the first time they have gotten to come to school for a positive reason (most of the time it was because their kid was in trouble). Parents get involved and volunteer with the kids. Parents buy their kids books as gifts. All good results.

Question from John Shacter, consultant and teacher, Kingston, TN:
Making claims is always easy.

What objective evidence is there -- in terms of greater student gains in, say, math and English -- that this is not just one of thousands of distractive educational FADS?

Marty Mentzer:
Very good question. For a program to be deemed “successful” for increasing achievement in students, gains should be quantifiable. Though this is the utmost challenge for a program like mine because it is difficult to isolate Basketball Poets from other intervention strategies and factors being utilized to help these “at-risk” students, I do have results. Using data over the past three years from End of Grade Tests (EOG’s) in our school, Supply Elementary, the following observations can be made:

1. On the 2005 EOGs, all 22 of 5th grade Basketball Poets passed, (21 scoring Standard Level III and IV and one student scoring II with one standard error of measurement (SE)).
2. On the 2005 EOGs, all 20 of 4th grade Basketball Poets passed the Reading EOG (19 scoring Standard Level III and IV and one scoring II with one SE), and 19 out of 20 passed the Math EOG.
3. On the 2005 EOGs, 68% of 5th grade Basketball Poets scored a Level IV (the highest Standard Level). When all 5th 2005 EOG scores are considered, 48% scored a Level IV.
4. On the 2005 EOG’s, 41% of 5th grade Basketball Poets scored a Level IV on the Reading EOG, compared with 31.3% of the entire 5th grade population.
5. There is a high correlation for the effects of the Basketball Poet Program closing the achievement gap in reading for African-Americans by the 5th grade over the last three years at Supply Elementary. In 3rd grade (where there is no implementation of Basketball Poets), African American students at Supply Elementary scored below White students on the Reading EOG by significant margin. By 5th grade, African Americans at Supply Elementary scored above White students on the Reading EOG by 2 percentage points in 2005, and within 2 percentage points for the last three years. This evidence is significant because a higher percentage of African-American students (approx.50%) are served by the Basketball Poet Program versus the African-American population in the school (approx. 25%)
6. Considering particular students, there were two students who did not pass the Reading EOG as 4th graders (scoring Level II) who became Basketball Poets in 5th grade. Subsequently, they scored Level III at the end of their 5th grade year.

Other measures of success of the Basketball Poet Program include:

1. All Basketball Poets maintain a C or better GPA.
2. All Basketball Poets write an average of one poem per week, and have a poem published in a book.
3. All Basketball Poets read, memorize and perform over a dozen poems per school year.
4. Basketball Poets who have been tracked through their middle school years have continued writing poetry, have become captains of athletic teams, have maintained high GPAs, and have been nominated for National Awards. (I have collected anecdotal evidence to support this claim).

Question from Roslyn Johnson, Resource Specialist:
Have you read anything in the field of behavioral momentum that inspired your theory?

Marty Mentzer:
As I developed the program, our school was enlisting a Positive Behavior System (CARE program). So I developed my program as an outgrowth of this program and of my inherent belief that if a child is positively motivated and rewarded (Basketball being a high motivator for my kids), they can be inspired to succeed academically and behaviorally. The latest book I read that really inspired me was Boys in Crisis by Paul Slocumb. Because a large percentage of my Basketball Poets are male, the book helped me in understanding how boys communicate and how I can more effectively communicate with them, as well as motivate and teach them. Also, Ruby Payne’s work on teaching children in poverty has been confirming of my work.

Question from Faith Felice Student teacher, MLK Jr. Elementary:
Hi Marty, I wanted to ask how you would use some of these strategies with first graders.

Marty Mentzer:
Poetry works great for 1st graders. Read poems aloud to them. Have them move to poetry. Nursery Rhymes work great. One of my Basketball poets in 4th grade came up with a program called Poems for Poets where he and a couple of other Basketball Poets go into a 1st grade class weekly and act out poems and help the younger kids learn about writing and performing poetry. The younger ones emulate my Basketball Poets. In my 1st grade PE classes, I teach one stanza of Tyger, Tyger,(and other simple poems) having the kids move to the poem for a warm-up and it works great! Give it a try. Resources for that age group can be found at the Poetry Alive! website (

Question from Kira Shepherd, Civic Education Inititaive:
I was thinking about using skits produced by students to increase students interest in and awareness of political campaigns and voting. Any suggestions for how to facilitate this exercise?

Marty Mentzer:
Great idea! The Basketball Poet program has had such a positive impact on my students as far as their public speaking is concerned. They develop the confidence and ability to speak in front of an audience. This should transfer to what you are trying to accomplish. As far as skits, I have had student’s working in small groups of 3-5 students, and having them come up with the ideas for the topic, give them about 10 minutes to come up with the skit and let each group present to the entire group. I teach them presentation points ahead of time--1)Face your audience 2) Confident stance 3) Project your voice and 4) Fill the space. I have also taught audience manners with such activities. As far as facilitating--give your students room to create and they will come up with the ideas!

Question from Paul J. Smith, Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center, Little Rock School District:
What criteria do you use to select the classical poems that you chose to use with the students?

Marty Mentzer:
My criterion for selecting the classical poetry to use is quite simple. First, I choose poems that my kids are familiar with from reading the book Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. Sharon includes the actual poems in the back of her little book about a teacher, Miss Stetchberry, introducing poetry to her student, Jack. These poems, (“The Tyger” by William Blake, “The Pasture” by Robert Frost”, “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams) appeal to kids because of their rhythm, meter, subject matter, and because they are found in the kid’s favorite book! Secondly, I choose poems that kids can move to and feel the rhythm of when they read them. Thirdly, I choose the classics because this poetry has withstood the test of time and I feel it is important for kids to be exposed to literature as such. Lastly, and probably most importantly, I choose poems that the kids like! I have expanded from the poems found in Love That Dog to include poetry by Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni (also important for their ethnic roots), Carl Sandburg (also important because he lived for a time in the mountains of NC, our home state), and Edgar Allan Poe. My kids have also been exposed to a traveling troupe called Poetry Alive! out of Asheville, NC, who perform many of the classic poems. After hearing poetry by a certain author, i.e, Ogden Nash, then we may choose to study other poems by that author. I also use the Poetry for Young People series of books and often have my students pick a poet to study.

Question from Bill Dickinson, Jonathan Levin H.S., Bronx, N.Y.:
In our urban setting, do you see a way of doing similar activities (ie. basketball) in connection with a different ‘arena’ such as rap-music (as opposed to poetry) and, if so, do you have any specific suggestions?

Marty Mentzer:
Absolutely! My kids have worked some with rap. We had a fellow in our community who was a clean rapper--and also blind. He came in and did some songs and it worked great. Use your resources. Rap is an artform and is poetic. Maybe have the kids bring in their favorite clean rap song and just start by talking about it? Then progress to writing rap and performing it. Let me know if y’all get anything going along those lines. Sounds great.

Question from Barbara Lovejoy, Brigham Young University adjunct professor:
Has this program been effective with English Language Learners?

Marty Mentzer:
I have had several Hispanic students in my program and it is a great way to help them with the English language and vice versa we may be able to learn some poems from their culture. I work poetry into all my PE classes and my English Second Language kids learn the words as they do the movements to a poem and it works well. Good question.

Question from Paul J. Smith, Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center, Little Rock School District:
Have you thought about what other games might work with this program other than basketball?

Marty Mentzer:
Sure--other sports that are popular with kids in your area or school would certainly work. Team sports in particular would keep with the philosophy of Basketball Poets. Soccer, hockey, football, volleyball. Whatever sport or activity motivates the kids to work the poetry/reading/writing end of things would work. It just so happened that basketball was popular with my kids and I didn’t have to order any equipment because basketballs were readily available.

Question from Lisa, teacher, Broadfording in Maryland:
How do you motivate someone who is hiding behind a disability?

Marty Mentzer:
Focus on their ABILITIES. I have had kids with all sorts of disabilities in Basketball Poets (ranging from BEH, to EMH, ADHD, dislexic, obesity) and I have found that belonging to a group that the school looks up to and admires has been the best motivator for my kids. Once these kids are seen for their abilities (i.e. publishing a poem, or playing ball or just belonging to the Basketball Poets) they stay highly motivated. Then, other kids see the Basketball Poets as a prestigious (sp.) group and they want to belong as well and will come out of hiding.

Question from Jan McLaughlin, Science Consultant, NH Dept. of Education:
Marty - do you work collaboratively with any science teachers about developing similar “active units” for science...I could see some fun connections with a force and motion unit...

Marty Mentzer:
What a great idea. I have not yet worked with the science aspect or science teachers, but you have just given me the thought, especially as science does need more emphasis. Science teachers might think about developing a Force and Motion unit of students and teach science through movement and maybe you could even find science related poems to do. I could see the “Force and Motion Unit (FMU) of my Basketball Poets performing poetry—I will contact my science specialist and look up some poems. Thanks for the question.

Question from Carla Monroe, Research Scientist, UGA:
What effect has this program had on discipline?

Marty Mentzer:
Basketball Poet Program has definitely reduced behavior problems. Positive peer pressure works wonders. Because students are proud to be recognized as a Basketball Poet, they conduct themselves properly. They sign a contract which specifies they will not fight and that they will demonstrate proper conduct throughout all their classes. If they break the contract, they are suspended from Basketball Poets. Basketball Poets learn proper manners--i.e. when we have a visitor each poet must go up to the visitor and introduce himself/herself and shake hands. We learn and model good behavior and discipline problems decrease.

Question from Henry McHenry, Substitute tchr, Albemarle County, Virginia:
Why do physical movement and bodily experience get less and less attention in the higher grades? How would a program like yours work in high school?

Marty Mentzer:
Physical movement is essential to life and learning. I agree with you that these experiences need to be provided throughout a student’s schooling. I think Basketball Poets would work just fine with upper grades. I am working on getting the program started in the Middle Schools and Alternative High School in our County. The classic poems work at any age and basketball/sport are popular with kids of any age. Students of any age are creative with coming up with movement, choreographing--just giving them the opportunity to create is essential.

Question from Linda Mahoney, Assistant Professor, Mississippi University for Women:
What stimulated you to combine reading, poetry and play?

Marty Mentzer:
I chose poetry for several reasons---First, I personally love to read, write and hear poetry. Second, I felt kids would be able to relate to poems that might help them express their feelings. There is no right and wrong in poetry--that is another reason I chose poetry--It gets a kid writing, without worrying to much about the rules--we get to that later. Discovering the book Love That Dog by Sharon Creech was a big inspiration for me and stimulated me to expose kids to that book, which is the story of a boy, Jack, discovering poetry through his teacher. I have always loved to play and am just a big kid, so I wanted my kids to be able to experience play--in the form of pick-up basketball, which they already love. Combining all these elements--reading/poetry/play just came naturally to me.

Question from Bernard Otieno, Math Teacher, Wilkinsburg Schools,PA:
With a lot of emphasis on data, tests and meeting AYPs, what are some of the ways in which teachers can tap students’ potential in other areas of art to reduce the monotony?

Marty Mentzer:
I was very fortunate to be able to start my program because I had the freedom as a PE teacher to find my own ways of tapping into my kids’ potential. I feel strongly, as you seem to, that allowing students opportunities to create art in school will help them stay motivated to be in school. There is much research to support the necessity of Arts and Movement and that including such programs will increase test scores and help us meet AYP’s. My school met AYP and all my poets passed the EOG tests. We just have to show that our programs, which build a kid’s confidence because he is allowed to express himself artistically, WILL help him achieve in school.

Question from Brian Miller, Supervising Editor, Technology, Harcourt Achieve:
What role does technology play in your program? Would video games or other software be able to complement the other aspects of the program?

Marty Mentzer:
My students do use technology a bit. They use word processing programs on computers to type their poems and they browse the web for poetry websites that may allow them to type in a poem or learn about their favorite author. I would be interested in learning about video games and other software that could be used to enhance my program.

Question from Paul J. Smith, Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center, Little Rock School District:
In case a school does not have a basketball facility to use, do you think your program might work with like dance as the physical activity in conjunction with the poetry reading/writing?

Marty Mentzer:
Absolutely, the Basketball Poet Program can be modified to fit your needs and facilities available. I chose basketball because it was a high motivator for my kids and I am comfortable teaching the sport. My friend Randy Miskech, who was quoted in the article, is currently starting a Basketball Poet Program at a school where there is no gym—however, there are playgrounds with hoops available. I think dance would be a great activity to integrate with the poetry concept. The main thing is the teacher’s passion for the activity and for poetry. That passion will be transmitted to the kids---and “poof” there you have the “Dancing Poets”!!

Question from John Murphy, parent:
Ms. Mentzer, I have an athletic, active nine-year-old son who has some learning disabilities. He’s not intimidated playing sports, but he is intimidated reading. It is my experience with him that physical activity enhances his capacity to learn. His school has,unfortunately,no program similar to yours. Have you attempted to use your program on an individual basis? Do you think it could be effectively translated to the individual student? Thanks for your time.

Marty Mentzer:
First of all your son is not unusual---most of my initial Basketball Poet boys were very intimidated by books—wouldn’t even touch one, but as time progressed and with basketball and sports as a motivator, they would read a poem in order to play ball. Now the momentum has escalated to where my kids are bringing me poems all the time and telling me they made A-B honor roll. I think some of that motivational strategy might work with the individual student—HOWEVER—the power is in the group, the team, and the positive peer pressure that if my buddy is reading a book and that is cool, then I want to do it too. Maybe you could find a teacher in your son’s school that would be willing to read the article and try a initiating a program similar to mine. Tell them to feel free to contact me.

Question from Hector Preciado, Teacher, Firebaugh High School Lynwood, California:
I am new to the profession, and my school is on block schedule. I will be teaching Language Arts. I think any curriculum that integrates movement is great! Can you send me any literature, or direct me to sources where I can find anything on “movement-based instruction?”

Marty Mentzer:
Welcome to the profession! Because you are on block scheduling, does that mean you have a larger block of time where it would work well to get your students moving? I hope so. There is so much evidence out there that movement-based instruction works. The article on my program in Teacher Magazine provided some great resources-Brain Gym and S’cool Moves---and of course Basketball Poets. I am presently working on putting together a packet of resources for teachers to use in their classrooms/gyms. Check my website and feel free to contact me and I will be glad to help you. Another good site I mentioned in another question is

Question from Robert McKethan, Associate Professor at Appalachina State University:
Marty, to what extent have classroom teachers bought in to your integration of language arts and physical education (basketball)? Are there other language arts areas applicable to your program?

I teach a physical education class for Elementary Education Majors and intend to your program as an example for integrative activities (with your permission).

Marty Mentzer:
I am glad to hear that you will be able to expose your Elementary Ed. majors to the program. You definitely have my permission. I feel strongly that we, as teachers, should be a team as we teach our students the curriculum. I try to integrate as much as possible and classroom teachers, of course, love it if I can help them with teaching kids a skill. I would love to see classroom teachers using movement to teach. Classroom teachers are on board with Basketball Poets---as long as schedules can be worked out for me to access their students for that extra 45 min. a week for Basketball Poets. The only drawback for classroom teachers is if they do not feel comfortable themselves with movement/sport---but my goal is for them to overcome that.

Question from Delphine H. Scott, HR Coordinator, Richland School District One:
Is your district/school developing concrete assesstment tools to assess the impact of the initiative?

Marty Mentzer:
I would like them to develop such tools. I very much want folks to know the impact of my program. Sometimes I feel like the lone ranger, trying to analyze all the scores and gather evidence that my program works. If you have any suggestions as to how to convince my district to assess the initiative please email me--I would greatly appreciate advice on this one.

Question from Conie Lorentzen, parent, Fairfax VA:
How does this work for the nonverbal disabled learner? If not well how do you accommodiate or modify?

Marty Mentzer:
It could work for a nonverbal, disabled learner to the extent that they could be with the group as they read and perform poetry--or they could be the audience, the cheerleader. If they write, that would be their main avenue for the expression and then others in the group could read their work. I have had an EMH child who had some speech and writing problems, but he wrote his own short poem and became a Basketball Poet--it worked well for the non-disabled peers to see his value as being part of the team. A student works to their own level in my program---and then, surprise, surprise, a lot of times they end up beyond their level and compassion develops from the exposure to someone who has to work that much harder.

Question from Chastity Butterfield, Writer, Thin&Healthy Inc.:
How can schools and educators partner w/ local businesses and community leaders to further promote the combination of movement and learning?

Marty Mentzer:
Local businesses and community leaders are very important because they are often able to provide the needed resources, funds through grants, etc. to start a movement program. I am very grateful for my community groups--Brunswick Electric Membership Corp and The Shallotte Jr. Women’s Club, Brunswick Beacon, Brunswick County Assoc. of Educators for all helping me keep my program growing. It sounds like you may work with a company concerned with health and fitness---any ways that you could support your schools would be awesome. Our schools in Brunswick County have partnerships with many local businesses--that is a great thing! So, if you make yourself available, visit a school--volunteer--offer a scholarship, award or grant--whatever you can do would be greatly appreciated.

Question from Natalia Kinch-Rice, Teacher, Wakefiled MS:
How does this movement support students in developing scientific critical skills and strategies?

Marty Mentzer:
Cross-lateral body movements work both sides of the brain, including the critical thinking skills side. There is so much evidence about movement being linked to learning. The creative aspect of my program helps them use strategies and thinking skills as they create a four-line poem with ab rhyme or as they put together a poem-puzzle.

Question from Mimi Sanderson, PE major (senior) at Chicago State University:
What advice do you have for me as a future physical education teacher?

Marty Mentzer:
First of all Hurray!!! Congrats on going into one of the greatest professions. I just had two student PE teachers and I encouraged them to try new ideas---see what works for your kids. Be creative, be energetic, give it your best--find out what motivates your students and work with that. Try Basketball Poets---and if you need help, just email me, and I’ll be glad to give a listen.

Question from Joe Petrosino, Mid Career Student , Penn:
How does building a community of trust impact student achievement?

Marty Mentzer:
Establishing trust between teacher/student is essential to learning. A kid will not care what you know until he knows how much you care. I have found this to be the case with my Basketball Poets. Many of them do not trust authority easily---yet, because they want to be an athlete, they will give it a try by trusting the coach. Once they trust that I will treat them fairly (and this is established right away with a contract that they helped create), they will focus in on the poetry or whatever it is that I am teaching that day. Also, my kids know that I believe in them, that they can succeed, that they do have a voice, that they are good writers and great ball players--I tell them all the time--and then when I need to call them down on something, they shape right up. They want the discipline and they want to achieve more and more. They trust that I will work them and help them to get there.

Question from Ron Lukenbill, Unit Director, MT Office of Public Instruction:
Have any of your Basketball Poets been invited to participate in local or regional basketball games or tournaments or to be recognized during warmups or halftime?

Marty Mentzer:
We are working on doing that this year--at the local Middle School. And we hope to attend a Charlotte Bobcats game. That is a great idea about performing at games.

Question from Kari Howard, Music Teacher, Franklin Music Magnet Elementary:
We have a very high ELL and low income population at our school and I would love to help our students with reading and spelling, as this appears to be their biggest deficiency. I am an instrumental music teacher at an urban elementary school. Do you have any advice for me as I attempt to incorporate word recognition into my music curriculum? I have also noticed that despite their language deficiencies, my students are very intelligent. I am often shocked to learn that they are sometimes the lowest achieving students in their regular classrooms.

Marty Mentzer:
I find the same thing. They are such smart kids, but just lack the skills to communicate. The lack of language imprisons the mind. said Paul Slocumb. Your kids sound a lot like mine, and I would encourage you to expose them to as much language through song, rap, poetry. I have used drums with my kids with E.A. Poe’s poem, Bells and it went great. Don’t be afraid to use language that may seem above them--they will get it. Maybe you could create some kind of club that would give these kids a boost--I am so glad your kids have you rooting for them.

Anthony Rebora, (Moderator):
Well, that’s all the time we have for today. Thanks for all your great questions. And I want to thank Marty for being so generous with her time and knowledge. We hope this discussion was an inspiring way to start the new school year. If you haven’t had a chance to read Teacher’s story about the Basketball Poets program, you can find here.

The Fine Print

All questions are screened by an editor and the guest speaker prior to posting. A question is not displayed until it is answered by the guest speaker. Due to the volume of questions received, we cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered, or answered in the order of submission. Guests and hosts may decline to answer any questions. Concise questions are strongly encouraged.

Please be sure to include your name and affiliation when posting your question.’s Online Chat is an open forum where readers can participate in a give- and-take discussion with a variety of guests. reserves the right to condense or edit questions for clarity, but editing is kept to a minimum. Transcripts may also be reproduced in some form in our print edition. We do not correct errors in spelling, punctuation, etc. In addition, we remove statements that have the potential to be libelous or to slander someone.

Please read our privacy policy and user agreement if you have questions.Chat Editors