Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Writers in the Schools — Mentoring and Modeling

A poet laureate may simply sit on his/her laurels and bask. Some of our US laureates and many local laureates have indeed done this. Louise Gluck comes to mind. When she was named US PL, she was up front about doing only the requisite tasks attached to the honor. This does not make her a poor PL. It was her choice as to how to approach and fulfill the office. Of course I must admit here that it irked me. I thought that she was cheating the public, being selfish, etc. This was MY reaction. We have certainly had Poets Laureate who were very active and made poetry more alive for the citizenry (Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, etc) and we've had others, like Gluck, who took the money and sat.

I was named  Poet Laureate of Rockland, Maine in April, will serve a minimum of 2 years. I am pleased at being given the honor of course, but more so for the chance to use my work, my voice to proclaim poetry city-wide and beyond. I definitely am not Gluck-ish. I want to promote poetry and give it its proper due along with other arts in our city. With this in mind, I started in May with a public reading of a poem at the wreath-laying ceremony before the parade on Memorial Day. I chose The New England Dead by Isaac McLellan. Its old-fashioned feel and its lovely lines were perfect for the occasion. It is an emotional poem, but not sappy. It rhymes, which is good for public occasions like this.  People liked hearing a poem being read, connected with it. Several expressed happiness at having a poet laureate in the city. I was happy too.

I followed that event with a June 10th reading of an original poem, Under This Flag, at the flag day celebration at the local Elks lodge. Again, people were happy to hear a poem. They appreciated and commented, saying "oh I used to recite poems when I was young" or "I can't write poetry myself, but I enjoy hearing poems." It is one thing for poets to give public readings in libraries or bookstores, where the audience is there FOR the reading  BECAUSE it is poetry, or because they know the poet and want to be supportive. It is quite another ball of yarn to insert poetry into public occasions. The audience is a different one. This is where the work is so satisfying, where poetry gets a bit blue-collar or civic. This is where so many true lovers of poetry come out of the woodwork and declare themselves.

Over my term as laureate, there will be many of these small but important appearances, bringing poetry wherever a poem might enhance an occasion or event. I will attend as many readings by other poets as I can in order to support them because I truly believe that poetry ought to be "out there" in the public arena, available to all. There is another event planned for early August which will bring poetry to the streets of town (shhhh, it's a surprise!) — and there will soon be a poetry box in the library... watch for it!

Now comes my big project: Writers in the Schools.

I have been thinking about this for a long time, wanting to get writers and kids connected, to get kids writing in such a way that doesn't seem entirely academic to them. I KNOW kids write. I WANT them to be proud of doing so and to have some solid mentoring in doing so. This program is all about mentoring, about working WITH kids and teachers to make writing one of the pleasures of being in school.

I am certain that poetry is an integral part of kids' lives, from the small child who enjoys making silly rhymes at play to the teen whose angst or joys find their ways into countless hand-written journals. But what happens to poetry (and other kinds of creative writing) when it gets "institutionalized" is that it stops being joyful and starts being "work." When I lived in California and went into schools as a poet, I noticed a resistance to "one more thing we will be assigned for a grade" and felt sad. Sad for the kids and sad for poetry. My mission therefore became promoting writing in such a way as to make it lovely and lively for kids again as it was for me growing up. We wrote poetry and we memorized poetry. We heard our parents reciting poetry at home. (Yes, I grew up in Maine and my parents recited poems in the normal course of family dinners and events). My grandparents had favorite verses they recited. My dad's whole family would sit around and compose funny verses at reunions or gatherings. I want to make poetry "normal" again. Where to begin? In the schools.

Of course there are many kinds of writing other than poetry. I feel it my duty to bring as much of that to the kids as possible, to expose them to variety and show them the possibilities of writing. I am fortunate myself to be in a community of writers who are passionate about the kinds of writing they do. I want to tap into that passion for the kids' sakes.

This week I met with a group of dedicated teachers from our two local high schools (Oceanside East and Oceanside West). We met for nearly 3 hours hashing out a plan. It felt SO good to hear their passion, to feel the excitement in the room as we talked about how such a program would work. They are gathering the needed steam at their end and I am gathering willing writers at mine. We will start in the fall with me presenting to the teacher workshop day and getting the information out to all faculty. This is important as the vision includes having writers come into all kinds of classrooms, not just English/Language Arts classrooms. This includes special ed, alt ed, gifted and talented. ALL KIDS.

I envision having a sports writer presenting to school athletes. Writing in the locker room? Maybe, or maybe not, but certainly kids ought to know that one can combine a love of football or soccer or track or volleyball with writing. I want to bring in a couple who write historical nonfiction. These folks are fantastic researchers. Loads of worthy help there. What about having a professional blogger come to talk about the many ways one can blog for fun and profit. A writer of dark fiction? Why not. What about writing to or about music? A former rocker who writes about being in a band could fill the bill there. Sure! Is there a place for writing about food? What is ekphrastic writing? Should we have writing in an art classroom? YES! What happens when we spend 5-7 minutes a day writing free, just writing to write? These are all topics the teachers and I discussed in terms of exposure to a wide variety of writing styles and motives. Then there is the cadre of poets to bring forward. I hardly need to say that I'm all over that part!

 Of course this IS a school-based project... thus we need to keep in mind the parameters of school schedules, time restrictions, and standards to be measured (learning outcomes). No problem. That is for the teachers. My part is getting the faculty as a whole on board, getting them to ask for writers to come to their individual classrooms, getting them to do a little writing themselves to model for their students. AHA! Now that is a wrinkle! I hope that this will happen, I will work to get this to happen. I am happy to teach the teachers to write creatively along with their students. Yes, I said ALONG WITH the students. To prime that pump, I have already sent a writing prompt to the group who met with me this week. Let's just see what they do with that! Ha! Ha!

As for me, the task is compiling a list of writers and getting them paired with the needs of teachers. Fortunately, the core group of teachers with whom I met is on board with getting those needs identified for/with me. I gave them a survey to help with this, and there is a plan to make some kind of a grid with needs and need fulfillment connecting — sounds a little like Math to me, but oh well! (hmmm, what about technical writing?) What was common to all of us who met this week became clear: a love of kids and the desire to give them the gift of writing. It is a gift with no strings attached. It is an investment in time and imagination. I am happy that there is excitement about this gift-giving project, happy to have it gaining ground.

By the way, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that both school principals are excited about this project. They have encouraged their teachers to embrace it. I will get them writing too, by hook or by crook!

Hopefully, by October the first of the writers will be in the schools, writing with kids and helping them to discover their hidden talents and passions for writing. School accreditation is happening in September so we are being patient in getting started, but I am hopeful that the project will take hold quickly after that, My BIG hope is that the program will result in the high school having its own literary journal and/or school newspaper. THAT would be fantastic!

If you are a Midcoast Maine writer with a passion for what you do and a yen to share, find me by email ( or or post here. I have something a little bit great for you to do! Think about the kinds of writing you do or the kinds or writing you love to read, and make suggestions. I will appreciate your input. I am looking for someone who writes for children. I am looking for someone who writes about science. I am looking for someone who writes magazine articles. Step right up and volunteer!

Stay tuned for updates on the progress of the project. I will blog along the way, share with you how things are working. I hope you will comment. PLEASE comment.


  1. How wonderful!!If I can do anything to help I would love to. I once put together a little plan for young children so simple rhymes and ideas of what they could write about. If you like I can Show you the plan.You are going to be known as poet Laureate Extraordinaire

  2. I'd love to see this. Right now I am focused on High School. There are so few excitements for that age group. I want to contribute to keeping them engaged and feeling like they are important through their own words.

  3. Carol, your writers in the schools idea sounds ambitious and wonderful. It takes the Poets in the Schools concept and enlarges it in a way that opens up a larger world to students. I like the idea of more of a "flow" between the genres, anyway, as I think it's more productive sometimes--and this gives kids more options. Best, Luanne

  4. How wonderful, I wish you were around when I was in high school! I am hoping to be involved in a new program here in Sacramento, CA, working with kids to get them writing creatively. The program is called 916 Ink. It is modeled after 826 Valencia, the writing program pioneered by Dave Eggers. I highly recommend checking it out if you haven't already heard of it! One of the ways they motivate the kids is the projects always end in publishing the kids' best works. They are so thrilled to see their work in print, even if it's a school-made book!