A foster child copes with his past through poetry


Locomotion is a story about a family.

You might see the play, and you might read the book. Either way, you can connect to the story with these activities.

Locomotion, the Story

Everything has changed in the life of 11-year-old Lonnie Motion. He has a new foster mother, Miss Edna. He attends a new school in Brooklyn, N.Y. with a new teacher, Ms. Marcus. He even has a new best friend, Enrique. Lonnie, however, doesn’t want this new world.

Lonnie is haunted by memories of things before his mom and dad died. He worries about his little sister Lili who got placed in a different foster home. All these thoughts and feelings are bottled inside him – until he discovers poetry.

With the encouragement of his teacher, Lonnie explores the power of words to contain the past, to color memories, to cope with separation and to boost his confidence in this new world. But can a poem stop bad things from happening? Can a poem stop the world from changing?

This resource can be used by classrooms and families coming to see the production, or anyone interested in playwriting and poetry.

The Resource Carousel above has some of the key ideas from the play. There is also a video available above in which the cast of Locomotion talk about how they adapted the book into the stage play.

Learn More

Theatrical Tricks

There are a few drama techniques that are used to bring Locomotion to life on stage. If you are attending the performance, look for these: 


Memory Play 
In a “memory play,” a narrator typically speaks directly to an audience. As the play continues, scenes may move forward in time, or “flash back” to events that occurred in the past. The audience pieces the story together as the memories unfold. The playwright or the director will probably introduce signals to let an audience know whether a scene has been pulled up as a memory – or whether the story is moving forward. Typically, those signals use music, lights, sound effect, costumes or scenery.

Multiple Casting
It’s hard to believe but, apart from the role of Lonnie, all the characters in this play are portrayed by only two actors. “Multiple casting” describes the situation in which one actor is cast in many roles. Observe how the actors become a completely different character simply by changing their voice, posture, or costume.

Design Elements
In a theater, lighting, sound and the stage set are carefully designed to tell the story of the play. The lighting might be bright and sunny – or dark and moody. Particular “special” lights might be used to create certain effects, such as suspense or maybe to indicate that a person is talking to himself. Sound effects can be used to suggest a change in location – like a school bell or traffic sounds. Music might be played to affect the mood of a scene. Set pieces help an audience understand the situations in the story. In Locomotion, characters might stand behind fabric to indicate that they are present in Lonnie’s memory – but not physically present in his life.

Direct Address
Often in plays, the characters speak directly to each other as the audience watches through an imaginary “fourth wall.” Sometimes, however, a character turns to the audience and speaks in “direct address.” The character is still “in the play” but openly acknowledges that an audience has gathered to watch the play. [When an actor in a play speaks directly to the audience, it is usually not an invitation to talk back to the actor.]


Adaptation: From the Page to the Stage

Locomotion is a new Kennedy Center play for young audiences. It was written by Jacqueline Woodson, based on her novel of the same name.

The actors from the play were interviewed about how they were able to bring these characters to life. Watch their stories in the Resource Carousel above.

Go Deeper

Down To The Words
A journal is a terrific way to get your ideas and impressions onto paper and create a record of your world! Create your own journal from a notebook or a binder.

The trick is to set aside time to write in your journal every day. Can you find time on the school bus? Take time during recess? Tell yourself to write in your journal anytime you take a break for a snack or a drink.

The Power of Words
Lonnie’s teacher, Ms. Marcus, asks, “What is poetry?” What do you think it is? A poem is defined as a composition of words that shares experiences, ideas, or emotions in a descriptive and imaginative way. A lot of things can be poems: a greeting card, a prayer, or song lyrics. What makes a poem stand out as a “poem?” People say words out loud all day long. Do words become more powerful when you write them down? 

Try it! Seven Words

In Locomotion, Lonnie’s friend Enrique writes seven words that describe his life. Describe your own life in seven words.

Lonnie’s Language
Lonnie writes his poems in “free verse,” a form of poetry that frees itself from the traditional rhythm and rhyme and allows the words to flow on their own. This freedom, however, doesn’t mean that the poem doesn’t have to “say something.” A famous poet named T.S. Eliot once wrote, “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.”

Some poets prefer writing with rules that guide them as to rhymes, word counts or line counts. Other poets like to make up their own rules. Of course, you don’t have to be one type of poet or another. You can try any number of methods.

Try it! The Rewind Button
Writing about your own life is called “autobiography.” As Lonnie says “Writing makes me remember. … like somebody pushed the Rewind button.” Push the rewind button on your own life. Try the “perfect moment” exercise. Think back to a perfect memory in your own life. Make a list of all the objects or things in that moment. Make another list of all the thoughts and feelings in that moment. Then assemble the words in a way that brings your perfect moment back to life.

For Educators

The Power of Words
After students read the book or watch the play, creating their own poetry is a terrific way to connect them to Lonnie's sotory. When they engage in the activities in the Go Deeper tab, make sure to emphasize the connection of poetry to personal experiences.

Locomotion delivers its story by bouncing between the present and flashback. Educators should decide for themselves whether to share the full synopsis of the play with their students prior to the performance.

LONNIE, an 11-year-old African-American boy, is a foster child under the care of MISS EDNA, a middle-aged African-American woman whose own son serves overseas in the military. At school, Lonnie minds his earnest but overworked teacher MS. MARCUS and befriends ENRIQUE, a sassy Latino kid – but in flashback, we learn that whatever happened to Lonnie’s parents and his little sister, LILI, 4, remains a mystery.

Lonnie forges a tentative relationship with Miss Edna, his new foster mom. Lonnie is in the habit of hiding on the roof, and writing poems in his head as he watches the stars in the sky. Lili, his sister, has been placed in a separate foster home, where the foster parents wanted a little girl but not a boy.

In the classroom, Lonnie keeps a daily journal as a classroom assignment from Ms. Marcus. Lonnie fills his journal with poems that attempt to capture the “truth” of his life. When Lonnie is finally able to visit his sister Lili in her foster home, he discovers that he and his sister are still fond, but growing apart. Lonnie And Lili reminisce about their happy days together as a family– and about the tragedy that disrupted their lives.

In the classroom, Lonnie admits to Enrique that his parents are dead. He writes the story into a poem – but at first, Ms. Marcus accuses him of having stolen the poem from a book because it is too powerful and sophisticated. Lonnie protests – and when Ms. Marcus finally reads his journal, she realizes that Lonnie is truly a poet. Lonnie begins to process all the challenges in his life through his poetry. When he is reunited with his sister Lili once more, Lonnie reads his poetry to her as a means of sharing memories – and holding onto his family.

The play models a high-functioning, at-risk young man who is engaged and inspired by the journaling and poetry-writing activities presented by his teacher. Through the production (and the book by the same name, on which it is based) young people can connect to and examine these key themes

  • The people in your life who are not there or are in danger of being lost to you (loss of parents, sickle cell disease
  • The foster care system and alternative families; part of Lonnie’s journey is learning to take care of his sister and adapt to their new family structures.
  • The power of personal expression

Prime students by asking them to look for the story and how it is told. In addition to the the storyline itself, ask students to:

  • observe the production elements: the costumes, sound cues, lighting and set. Ask them to watch for how the play shifts from one location to another; how the play moves back and forth in time;
  • examine the way the playwright tells the story: pay attention to how we meet the characters and how they reveal themselves. What scenes are in dialogue, and which are monologue/direct address? How does the play unfold? Encourage them to notice how the layers of the story peel away over time.
  • focus on the actors: How does a small cast manages to embody all the characters?


In the Go Deeper tab, we led students through two activities. After students have completed them, engage them in the following conversations:

The Power of Poetry
Ms Marcus introduces the class to several types of poems; she also tells Lonnie to focus on the ideas and emotions, not the correct grammar or structure of his poems. What is your approach?

Adaptation (making creative choices) -- creating a Stage version vs taking book & making it a play. Talk with your students about how the play that they saw or the scenes they watched above are different from the book they read. Discuss the challenges associated with translating a book into a play or movie.

By Way of Explanation...
The play deals with several topics with which students might not be familiar.

The Civil Rights Movement
Many African-Americans trace their roots through the period of slavery in America. With the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, slavery ended -- but African Americans were still not equal citizens under the law. For a hundred more years, African Americans were treated as “second class citizens” and denied the civil rights given to other people. For example, blacks were denied schools, jobs and housing because of the color of their skin. Blacks were not allowed to use the same water-fountains as white people. These rules, known as “racial discrimination,” sound ridiculous today -- but at the time, acts of violence and threats of injury were made to keep black people “in their place.”

From the 1940’s through the 1960’s, African Americans and their white allies staged marches, rallies and boycotts to end racial inequality. This campaign was known as the “Civil Rights Movement.” Protesters put themselves at great personal risk. They were often arrested, hosed down with firehoses. Many were harassed, beaten, even killed.

After overcoming these major hurdles, however, their efforts met with success. The Supreme Court and the U.S. Congress acted to ensure equal rights to all Americans, regardless of race.

Sickle-cell Anemia
Sickle-cell anemia is a disease inherited from the genes of a person’s parents. With this disease, red blood cells, typically round and flat, are shaped more like a “sickle” or a half moon. The condition results in complications that vary from person to person. Due to recent progress in early detection and treatment, most kids born with sickle cell anemia can now live healthy and productive lives.

Foster Care
When parents are not able to take care of children due to unfortunate situations such as death, disability, drug addition or prison, family members often arrive to care for the child left behind. If, however, no family members are available, the state places the child in a permanent or temporary household in the foster care system. Foster parents are citizens who have registered with the state to take care of children in need. While the state has official custody of children in the system, foster care parents look after the child’s daily well-being.
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