Center for Poetry intern Jenny Crakes visited the Lansing STEM Academy on Tuesday, Oct. 29, to conduct a poetry writing workshop for the students there. Here is her account.
The Center for Poetry had a wonderful opportunity this week to collaborate with the Lansing STEM Academy, where middle school students are writing poems to enter the national River of Words poetry and art competition. Mrs. Karen Duquette, a volunteer and substitute teacher, runs Youth Mentoring Poetry Programs (YMPP), a creative writing workshop with 40 current student members. She provides writers’ prompts, a weekly after-school workshop, and individual mentoring during school hours. It’s a great way for the students to find opportunities for creative expression, and the kids we met at our assembly were enthusiastic about writing and intrigued to participate in discussions and activities.
All middle schoolers at STEM are entering the River of Words contest through an assignment to write a poem about either Michigan and water, or Michigan and a critical environmental concern. They must write a personification poem from the first person point of view (for example, from the voice of one of the Great Lakes), incorporating simile or metaphor, alliteration, assonance, and at least one rhyme. As well, they’re encouraged to do additional research and gather information on the topic they choose to write about.
Mrs. Duquette asked our Center to help inspire and excite the students to write their own poems. With her help and three other MSU student volunteers, I was able to put on a special assembly this Tuesday morning for about fifty 6th-8th graders, including an English class and all members of YMPP. RCAH freshman Libby Hoffman, and MSU slam poets Josh Schriver and Justin Cook, also came to the assembly and were tremendously helpful. As MSU students, our main goal was to interact with the kids about poetry and help create enthusiasm for their project; I was also asked to teach about personification and the first person point of view, as well as current environmental and water issues in Michigan. The best parts of the assembly for me were the opportunities to get to know the kids and answer questions, to hear their insight into the poems we presented, and to do activities with audience volunteers.
The school librarian, Mr. Fisher, helped us set everything up including our microphone and PowerPoint. Before starting the assembly, we had about 20 minutes to mingle and get to know the YMPP members, who arrived early, talking with them and answering questions about all sorts of things, including their writing. Some of them had brought their poetry notebooks to share with us. One student talked with me about the novel she was writing, and several students who write music sang together for everyone. As we got to know each other, topics such as nose rings, tattoos, and the U.S. Poet Laureate came up as well.
We began our presentation by playing highschooler Sabrina Walker’s performance of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” then asking the audience how they felt about the poem and what they thought made it powerful. The kids responded well to it and had insightful comments on dealing with prejudice and being comfortable with oneself. To discuss poetic tools such as simile and metaphor, Libby read aloud Mary Oliver’s “Mindful” and we called volunteers for a “Detective Focus Group” to search for poetic devices used in the poem. Josh and Justin performed their slam poems as we talked about personification and first-person point of view; they’d written ingenious original work to reflect the students’ assignment, taking on different voices, including that of water: “God surfed me before he said let there be light…You humans are about as much me as the earth is.” I presented some environmental issues the kids could research further, specifically the Enbridge oil spill into the Kalamazoo River, and the potential Asian Carp invasion of the Great Lakes. Finally, more audience volunteers came up to write a collaborative poem, pulling together their creative ideas with everything we’d discussed. They decided to write about the issue of deforestation through the voice of a tree whose forest was being cut down. Together, we brainstormed what the tree could say, and they wrote lines of the poem on a large poster, which they read to the audience. They seemed to enjoy the assembly, which is what I’d hoped for most.
I’ll be going back to the STEM academy with others from the Poetry Center next Friday. We’ll run a small workshop with 10 students to work on editing and revising their poems. This has been a great experience so far and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the students write. The enthusiastic help of volunteers and of my fellow staff has really helped to make this positive for the students.