July 7, 2017
Celebrating Graduation with a Poem or Two
At the end of the 2017 school year, I was invited to a young woman’s high school graduation. I rarely get a special invitation to a graduation because I am just the visiting teaching artist, and I am rarely around when it is time for my writing students to graduate. Earlier that spring I had written with a young woman while she was attending school in DT. I was spending a few days at Salt Lake Valley Detention Center and searching for a few students who wanted to write poems for the Words Unlocked poetry-writing contest. Searching for students who want to write poems is my job for three months every spring.
After I presented my usual extremely brief introduction to poetry writing, the four girls in the English class began writing. This young woman I will call Bette (not her real name) started writing on her laptop and was very focused. After she had written for about 20 minutes, she allowed me to see what she was creating. I read it, and she was off to a good start. I asked, “How long will you be in DT?” She responded, “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Well, we needed a plan. I knew she really wanted me to help her perfect her poem, and that would take longer than the 10 minutes left in that period. I asked her, “Would you be willing to work on your poem after lunch if I can get you out of class?” She said, “Yes.”
That afternoon we worked on her poem for about 90 minutes. She would write, and then I would give her feedback, and then she would write again. When she finished the poem, she signed the Permission to Publish form and her poem was on the way to the contest. I thought that would be the last time I would see her.
A week before the last week of school, Bette’s teacher at her treatment program emailed me to ask me if I would read a poem Bette was writing for her graduation ceremony. I am always ready to write another poem with a student, and this was no exception. So, I drove in to meet with Bette the next day. Her graduation poem was interesting, but needed a little revising and clarification. We worked on it for about an hour. Here is what we came up with:
The sharp swords of temptation,
Rejection and guilt cut into me,
Lengthening my road to success.
A sea always wavering became serene.
A devil of my own making no longer in my head,
Finally I was able to express my hopes and dreams.
A tear, glistening, finds its way down my cheek,
A way to let others know I am cleansed.
Today I graduate.
So proud. The unsupportive words are
No longer tangible, palpable, words
No longer defeating my desire to progress.
No longer must I speak ruefully to them.
No longer ashamed.
Finally I am able to take the next step.
The future haunts my mind, gnaws at my soul
But now I know I have a light within,
Illuminating my path.
Today I graduate.
Today I am allowed to praise, to be praised.
Today I close an old door, shutting out
The memory of the darkness,
Of being lost in the world of chaos.
Today I step through a new door.
My future awaits.
Then I went home and decided to write apoem in response to both Bette’s graduation poem and the poem she had written to submit to the contest. I am not including the contest poem here because one stanza of her poem was quite personal. I read both poems at her graduation ceremony.
Beyond these walls
the world is wide,
like the toothy grin of a child,
ready to smile at you every morning.
The world is glowing like a bright fire, a hearth
ready to warm you.
The world is waiting like a mother waits by the front door
ready to adjust your hat for a cold day.
the world is waiting for you to move past your wild days,
your lost days of running, pointless as random winds
gusting through swirls of dead leaves,
Running from the harshness of words, remembered,
the sadness of words, unspoken,
Running fast into that endless wilderness
beyond the walls of words and memories until
your heart was broken wide open,
Ready for the wideness of the world, once lost, now found,
now ready for hope and love
like a door opening for a perfect child, who is you,
who was always you, who will always be you
smiling back at your wild sorrows, your so-young yesterdays,
Ready to be warmed by a fire burning by the hearth
of kind remembrance, greeted by the knowing grin
of joy in your soul, nurtured by a mother
Who lives in your broken heart, who is you,
who was always waiting, will always be waiting
to adjust your hat and your heart just before
you walk out into tomorrow.
BCS May 2017
Bette’s graduation ceremony/party was one of the best celebrations I have attended ever. Yes, we shared the poems with an audience of students, staff, teachers and Bette’s family, but we also watched a video about Bette, heard remarks from two teachers, Bette and another young woman accompanied a student and teacher who sang a lovely song, and of course Bette received her diploma. Then we all had a luncheon with sandwiches, chips, salad, drinks and cake. Wow!!! Bravo to everyone who celebrated with Bette. Bravo to Bette for achieving her goal of graduating.
July 5, 2017
Newsflash: A Writing Teacher Should Write
It is just common sense that, in a world even slightly approximating okay, the teacher should have mastery of the craft she/he is teaching. The dancing teacher should be a dancer; music teacher, a musician; technology teacher, a techie; a history teacher, at minimum – an amateur historian; and a writing teacher, a writer. Yes, it may be common sense, but I taught long enough to know that what happens in the public schools, especially in special programs like Youth in Custody classrooms, is often uncommon and anything but sensible. When teachers are required to be generalists and teach outside their areas of expertise, common sense is reduced to whatever works. Been there, done that.
So what is a teacher to do, even a teacher endorsed in language arts, when students need to, want to or are required to gain mastery in a specific genre of writing – argumentative or personal narrative essays, short stories, plays, business letters, poetry and more? Yes, what is a teacher to do? I say write. Obviously a teacher will not have mastery of all these genres, but a teacher can experiment with any genre students are required to write. Stated simply, teachers need to write. Even if you have little time to write, at minimum — write the assignments you give your students.
I know this may require a little extra prep time now and then, but in the long run, even in the short run, it will save most teachers all sorts of grief when students are struggling with these writing assignments. If you, dear teacher, have even superficially written part of the assignment you are assigning to your students, you will discover the strengths and weaknesses of the task your students must pursue.
Before I was primarily a writing specialist, I had a YIC teaching assignment that required I teach and do a wide variety of other tasks. In spite of that, before I prepared a writing assignment for my students, I would, just as I am advising, at minimum think through what it would take for me to complete the assignment. I am not giving you this advice so you can be just like me; I am saying this so you and your students will be happier – might even enjoying completing writing assignments.
A simple example. If I gave my students an assignment to write an ode, we would of course begin by reading some odes, probably by Pablo Neruda. Whose odes are more fun than Neruda? Maybe we would read “Ode to Tomatoes” or “Ode to the Watermelon” or “Ode to My Socks” or “Ode to Broken Things.” There are so many possibilities. (Hint: An ode is a lyric poem (meant to be sung) in the form of an address to a particular subject – singing that object’s praises. Make certain your students know that. People are not born knowing that.)
Next, wonderful writing teacher, you might write the object being praise, perhaps “socks,” in the center of a freeform graphic on a piece of paper or on the board, white or smart, and then randomly list all the observations and descriptions Neruda states about the object being praised. You get it.
Next, you want to select an everyday object and use the graphic again, but this time list all sorts of descriptions and ideas related to that thing. Now you are ready to write, to demonstrate to your students a possible way to make the ode out the ideas on the graphic and whatever else pops into your or their minds. It is harder than you might think. You need to have travel this road before you take them on the journey. If you don’t like this process or can’t think of anything to say, then think up another assignment. That has always been my rule: If I can’t do it, I can’t teach. Find another writing prompt.
Next rule: Teach authors you love, understand and feel certain your students will also like and understand. Make it fun. You get it. You probably already do this. Stop reading this and write something.
June 9, 2017
In Praise of “Losing” Poems: The Rewards of Honest Effort
This year 155 students in Utah entered the Words Unlocked poetry-writing contest. They wrote their poems in detention centers, secure facilities, and assorted treatment programs. Their poetry writing was perhaps inspired by the fact that in many cases they were completing an assignment or because there was nothing else to do or because they had something to say and thought they might have a chance to be published in the online Words Unlocked poetry anthology. Whatever the motivation, they wrote.
These young poets wrote under the instruction and inspiration of their YIC teachers, who cheered them on, offered advice, read their drafts, corrected their spelling errors and more, and submitted their best-effort poems to the big contest. All who gave this project an honest effort and risked having their say in rhymes and rhythms, stanzas and symbols, metaphors and music, alliteration and analogies, questions and question marks, bravo!!! Many students were first-time poets, taking a risk as real as driving a car on the freeway for the first time. Could they do it? Would their staff and peers laugh if they drove off the road, wrecked the rhyme and rhythm, stopped just short of making sense? I have read over a hundred of the submissions and can say absolutely: These young poets survived the journey.
Poetry worth reading most often begins with honest, extremely honest, expression of personal emotions, struggles, conflicts, losses, joys, loves and hopes. Poetry ends with the poet translating all those thoughts and emotions into carefully arranged words, lined up plank after plank — each stanza, a room in a well-built house of the heart. The honest poet always risks saying too much and communicating too little, risks the ridicule of the reader who thinks a clever poem should say something else, do something else – rhyme more, rhyme less, wear a different hat and dance a jig. How brave a poet must be!
So, congratulations to all these brave, honest poets who dared to have their say. The contest motivates but the writing’s the thing. To all of you, keep writing and daring to express your experiences. The world needs to know who you all are and what you think about life.
Coming soon to this website will be two anthologies of the 109 poems I helped students write during the spring of 2017, one for all the girls’ poems and another online anthology for all the boys’ poems. Some readers and young poets might be offended by
this binary split of the poems into categories defined by gender, but I had to divide them up into smaller chunks to the make the formatting more manageable and interesting. Another year I will divide the poems by some other criteria. If you have any suggestions, let me know.
Enjoy reading the work of these young poets. Their poems tell us some remarkable truths about their worlds — and ours.
June 8, 2017
Update and Correction: The Downside of a Poetry Writing Contest
Today I found out that the poem that was the winner of the 2017 Words Unlocked poetry-writing contest was plagiarized. Oops!!! That is no way to win a contest.
Today I learned how to use the free Plagiarism Checker.
The most amazing thing has been the graciousness of Christy Sampson-Kelly who runs the Words Unlocked contest. She was not angry at all, at least did not seem particularly upset in her emails to notify me about the whole mess. Of course, I am shredding the winner’s check and certificate, but she said that he could still have the poetry book. Quick forgiveness is a wonderful thing.
So I shredded the $100 check and the 1st Place certificate. This is reality. Is reality a little too harsh at times? Maybe, but there is something about all of this that feels like a slap in the face, in a good way. I can hear the universe shouting: “Snap out of it!!!” After all, how likely was it for young Utah poets to win the big contest two years in a row? When something seems too good to be true, it usually is.
Will I keep writing with young poets in JJS facilities? Yes. I always love the process of coaching students in the construction of their poems more than winning the contest. I love the contest because it motivates over 100 young poets and me to write poems every spring. Winning – could be good, could be bad. Writing poetry – always a great adventure.
June 7, 2017
Considering Word Unlocked 2017: Writing Poetry as a Competitive Event
A Brief History of Words Unlocked in Utah
After I wrote this post, I realized that as per usual the history of anything can quickly become tedious and boring. I feel a need to put this brief history in words, but I do not have an overwhelming desire to bore you, the reader, so I am offering this warning: Read this one fast; the next section is better.
The Fifth Annual Words Unlocked poetry-writing contest just ended with the announcement of the winners. Again, Utah’s young poets rocked! For the second year in a row a young Utah poet placed first in Words Unlocked.
Founded in the spring of 2013, Words Unlocked is a poetry initiative created by the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS) to motivate students in juvenile justice facilities across the nation to explore literature and develop their creative writing skills. In 2013 over 500 students participated; in 2017 over 1,200 students submitted poems to the contest.
Back in March of 2013 I was a happily retired language arts teacher who had taught for Granite School District in Salt Lake County for 36 years, primarily in Utah juvenile justice facilities. Since retiring in June of 2011, I had spent my days reading, writing, gardening, talking to my five cats, walking daily around the tree-lined sidewalks of my near-perfect Salt Lake City neighborhood, lunching with my friends and generally having a great time. Then one day I had a message from Travis Cook, a colleague and friend who works at the Utah State Office of Education, asking: “Do you think you could get us some student poems?”
I love poetry and over the past 30 years I had written a few poems for publication in the Promising Youth Conference printed programs, and so Travis knew that I might have a way to help students write a few poems. And, yes, he was asking the right person to get him those student poems.
When I talked to Travis, he told me about CEEAS, a new organization founded in 2012 to improve the quality of education in juvenile justice facilities throughout the nation and that Utah had signed on to the project as a CEEAS consortium member. Words Unlocked was one of CEEAS’s first initiatives, and Utah wanted to support CEEAS in their work. I agreed to be rehired by Granite School District as a part-time creative writing teacher. The quest for a few good student poems had begun.
In 2013 I went to two juvenile justice facilities, Decker Lake and Wasatch Youth Centers, to teach poetry writing workshops and gather up a small stack of poems to submit to the contest. To tell the truth, I was living on the edge of my knowledge about poetry writing, but I kept at it as did my students. The students wrote a few good poems, and when the contest results were announced, Utah had one poem published in the Words Unlocked anthology. It was a start.
In the spring of 2014 the students and I were at it again, plus other Utah teachers were submitting student poems to the contest. This time I expanded by efforts and included more facilities and students. In 2014 Utah had a 3rd Place and an Honorable Mention poem, plus five additional poems published. In 2015, Utah had one finalist and 13 additional poems in the anthology. Then came 2016!!!
In the spring of 2016 Utah finally made its mark with 19 poems in the anthology, including six finalists with 1st Place, 3rd Place, and High Commendation poems. What a poetry writing breakthrough for my writers and the student poets coached by other Utah teachers. And, again in 2017 Utah made its mark again with 15 total poems published, with 1st Place, 2nd Place and High Commendation poems.
Winning: How does that happen?
On a Monday afternoon in the middle of May of 2016 I was lying in bed with the flu when my phone rang. Suddenly a woman from Words Unlocked telling me that six of my students were finalists and that she needed to verify some information about which facilities were their temporary residences. Out of my fog and bed, I went to my computer and sent her the information she needed. Then I went back to bed thinking about what she had just said: “Six finalists.”
It took me about an hour to come to the realization that this could be a big deal. I got up and emailed her: “How many finalists are there?” I thought that maybe she was talking about students who would be published in the anthology. She responded: “13.” What? 13? What was happening?
I was totally awake now. I immediately looked up the six finalist poems. I had submitted 115 poems to the contest in 2016, so of course I could not remember those six poems. Would I remember the students who wrote them? I remembered three of the six finalists, and the other three were gone from my memory. Maybe this year would be like 2014 when Utah actually placed. When would we know?
A week passed and finally the big news. One of students had tied for 1st Place. How did that happen? And, who was this talented young man? With a bit of focused reflection, my old brain began to remember my doing a poetry-writing workshop in February of 2016 at Salt Lake Valley Detention Center.
I was in Dieter’s classroom and working with a group of older boys from “Bravo” section. Memories of this writing workshop were coming back to me. This was the workshop I almost gave up on.
It was during a time at SLVDT when lots of kids who belonged to gangs were in detention and fights kept breaking out, complete with the sound of those incredibly loud duress alarms and the thunder of DT staff running down the long DT center hallway.
I knew this facility well; I have taught there the last four years of my career. All of this chaos and violence was way outside the norm, and this old lady wanted no part of it. I seriously considered not finishing the workshop.
But, I am relentless and did not give up. I certainly made the right choice for the young man whose poem was written amidst all this stress would place first in the big contest. I have since thought that his poem, “Furious,” might owe its angry tone to the tension this young poet was feeling living in this place; this was a great poem born in chaos.
Finally I did remember working with him on this poem. He was a good writer with the ability to create vivid imagery and just-right metaphors and similes. He also liked to rhyme; we disagreed about all the rhyming. I am not a rhymer and always warn students not to let the rhyming overtake their poems, robbing the poem of every other quality including its meaning. He insisted on leaving in most of the rhymes, and he was right, especially the rhyme in the last two lines: “They try to dissect me. I guess they’re curious./ I don’t even understand: Why am I so furious?” See it works.
Also, I remember telling him that I thought one of his metaphors did not work with the rest of the poem. Surprisingly, he immediately got it, took my advice and wrote a better metaphor. Any seventeen-year-old who can do that poetry trick on command deserves to win a big prize.
I now know this young man’s name, but I could not pick him out of a crowd. Why did he win? (And, by brief association — Why was I connected to his win?) Well, winning is always part skill and part luck; how much of each were in the mix here? I am still pondering. I hope this prize-winning young poet is still writing.
(Coming next week: More Thoughts about Winning)
October 24, 2016
Three Myths about Writing Contests for Youth Writers
Myth #1: If a young person does not win, he or she will be psychologically damaged and never write again.
Yes, I have actually had a professional involved in this contest who objected to the whole idea of having students in Youth In Custody classrooms participate in a writing contest. I could not tell if the objector thought the problem with this project was the weakness of the students’ writing or the weakness of the students, but the objection definitely had to do with weakness, a lack of sturdiness all around and that the contest was exploiting that weakness. I have tried and tried to see this project from that perspective, and I just cannot see that the students’ writing is so terrible that it should be published or that the students are so fragile that submitting their stories to be judged will permanently damage them. I will continue to look for a student who is severely damaged by writing a personal narrative and submitting it to the contest. When I find such a student, I will consider ending the contest. I will keep you posted.
Myth #2: Writing contests have a negative impact on regular academic instruction.
It is true that it takes two or three hours of classroom time for a student to write a personal narrative and submit it to the contest. The student could be working on another assignment during that time. But, what does the student learn by writing and participating in the contest. Most students learn the following: (1) The stories have a structure; (2) They have a story worth telling; (3) Writing is a process, and the first draft can be improved with a little effort; (4) Longer is not always better, and good writing can be created both by addition and subtract; (5) Having an editor is a gift; and (6) Writing for publication tends to produce better writing. Are any of those lessons worth learning? I say, “Yes!!!” Are these lessons actually directly related to the Language Arts Core curriculum? Surprise, surprise. Yes!!!
Myth #3: The contest winners will have an inflated view of their abilities.
Now, I cannot guarantee the mental health of every student who enters the contest, writes an interesting story, and wins a prize, including the honor of being published. Many mental health professionals believe that happy people tend to be moderately delusional on an average day and probably have slightly inflated views of their abilities. A little delusion is about the same as a little encouragement and a modicum of self-confidence. I have found that students who believe in their ability to achieve usually continue to achieve. Confidence matters. If winning a prize or being published builds a student’s confidence, well, that’s good. Then we will have achieved our goal and can rest happy – briefly until we move on to the next writing challenge.
October 21, 2016
Writing: The First Lesson
Since the 2016-17 school year began in mid-August, I have been visiting YIC teachers’ classrooms and assisting students in writing 500-word personal narratives to submit to Untold Stories Utah 2017. When I teach creative writing, I often have to tell student writers, especially those who are having a difficult time getting started, to turn off the critic, that voice in their heads whispering, sometimes shouting: You can’t do this. Your writing is no good. You have nothing worth saying. If you write, you will just embarrass yourself.
Most, maybe all writers, even professional writers, have the voice of the critic shouting discouraging ideas in their heads; all that negative shouting has the potential to destroy creativity.
I have must confess that as soon as I started this blog and posted one small piece of writing, the critic in my head began shouting at me – loudly: Everything you write must be perfect. You are a writing teacher; you must not make any mistakes. All your ideas must be remarkable.
As evidenced by the lack of postings on my alleged blog for the past five months, the critic in my writing-teacher head has been killing my creativity. I forgot the first lesson of writing: Just write and don’t let the critic win.
Fortunately, now I am back to writing about writing, my experiences with student writers, and all the fun I have helping student writers craft their personal narratives. Yes, I am back. And, I am determined to document my adventures in harvesting the personal narratives of young writers, day after day, until the contest deadline on December 2nd, 2016. (I love saying that I am harvesting anything in October. It is so autumnal.) My goal is to harvest 160 stories to submit to the judges. As of this writing I have harvested 128 stories. Happy October Writing 2016!!!
June 8, 2016
Why Writing Poetry Behind Locked Doors Matters
Regrettably, many young people in state’s custody live portable lives, often troubled and troubling, and always on-the-move. We must perfect the craft of educating them on the go. The educational experiences of these students must be presented joyfully and relentlessly as if these students’ futures depend on the efficacy of these brief moments of intense instruction, including essential instruction in basic literacy, numeracy, technology, and the arts.
Yes! Arts education must be part of essential instruction; these students need to learn how to create songs, drawings, stories, and, yes! – poetry out of whatever life brings their way. Young people must be taught to embrace the lives they have now and create beauty out of chaos, to spin gold out of the rough straw that is life in the system. If they can learn to that, they can learn to do anything. The teaching of the arts behind locked doors matters; it will always matter.
And, of all the arts, nothing is more portable than poetry, which can be composed with a stub of a pencil and a scrap of lined paper, or just words and a beat repeated in imagination and memory behind a cold, locked, metal door. Words can unlock cold metal doors, words can unlocked old emotions and free the soul, words spoken from the heart and dropped down the page in carefully sequenced rhymes and rhythms, metaphors and stanzas, can create the order and form that real life refuses to deliver. Poetry is the artful arrangement of the world that life’s disappointments deny us. That is why the writing of poetry matters to us all and especially to young people in crisis who need to make order and sense of their lives.
Write a poem; remake a world. Write a poem; create hope. Write a poem; reframe sorrow. Write a poem; unlock joy. Write a poem; open a door. Write a poem; free your heart. Write a poem.
Bonnie Shaw, PhD, Youth In Custody Writing Specialist & Poetry Whisperer