2011 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #8

Today was the eighth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.

It was a good day. I expected it would be. It happens in all the residencies I teach in detention facilities – a really bad day gets a few kids in trouble and then the next time I come in they do pretty well. I have four sessions left and the last three, I just found out, will be with a substitute in the class. That makes things really tough. Substitutes usually bring out the worst in them.

One girl got out yesterday so we had a new girl today. Pretty low key though she participated right off the bat. That doesn’t usually happen. It’s so hard to look at these kids and not know their stories, what brought them to such a place.

The word for the day was TRUST. Here’s their group poem:

Trust Feels like an unbreakable bond, like someone catching you when you fall.
Trust looks like two lovers holding hands and it sounds like best friends gossiping on the phone.
It smells like incense in church.
Trust tastes like leftovers your mom made and tears.

They wrote individual poems about trust and a few of them shared their writing. We did another group poem, a sort of mad lib.

This is the poem
that goes in the place where you have to stay on your toes
that flows because it runs through our veins
because we said so
and when thugs cry at night
happy, alone, solid,
this is the poem
that runs from the ground up to our soul.

Another warm-up we did was envelope poems. I have a stack of envelopes, some have cards in them, some have paper folded up. Some just have a postcard. The envelopes are sealed and they are all different. Different colors, shapes, sizes. Some have stamps. Some don’t. Some look like they’ve been folded in someone’s pocket for a long time and some have words written on the outside. The idea was for them to have written a poem that is inside the envelope. Some of them did pretty well with this. Those that didn’t, well, I think I need to do a better set-up to invite them to write.

I handed out copies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s How Do I Love Thee? I tried to get a discussion going about what they thought meant but that fell flat. I ended up just reading them the analysis. Then we brainstormed various ways you could let someone know you loved them without actually saying the words, “I love you.” They were slow to get started but eventually filled the board. From there I had them write their love poems that never used the words love. Again, only a few girls shared.

I handed out a copy of the poem You Learn (which I have attributed to Jorge Luis Borges) and this poem they felt more able and willing to discuss. They liked it a lot, especially the last line, “with every goodbye you learn.” Then they wrote their own versions of what they had learned and they wrote some marvelous poems. Really good stuff.

I read them the last pages of Hugging the Rock which then lead to a discussion about how come writers don’t make very much money. As I gathered up the folders one I asked one girl if she was doing okay because she didn’t share anything today and she usually does. She said, “I’m okay. But I don’t know what wrong me lately. All of the sudden my poems getting personal and stuck under my skin.”

I told her good. That means you’re a writer now.

2011 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #7

Today was the seventh of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.

We had a substitute teacher, the same one we had a week ago and that the girls have quite often. They should have been fine but they were rowdy, talkative, up and down all the time. When I came in two girls had already had incident reports filed on them. One more had been yanked out to talk to a counselor and mental health pulled a different girl out every ten minutes for check-ins which makes all the girls uncomfortable.

I persevered but I knew right away it wasn’t going to be one of their better days.

Several of the girls had pulled prompt cards on Monday so they could write on their own time. I didn’t know if anyone would share but three of them did. Long poems. I was pleased and they immediately asked if they could have new prompts for today. (At the end of class 4 girls took 2 prompts each.)

The word of the day was SATISFACTION.
Here’s their group poem.
Satisfaction smells like victory.
It tastes like your favorite food, something you just cooked, sweat dripping off your cheeks after you win a softball game.
Satisfaction feels like a ton of weight  lifted off your shoulders, a medal hanging around your neck.
It looks like somebody climbing the highest mountain in the world
Satisfaction sounds like windchimes, applause, someone chanting your name over and over again.

We did individual poems on satisfaction but too many of them veered off into inappropriate topics. We tried “I seemed to be, but really I am” poems and we had rounds of “I don’t get”, “this is dumb” and “I’m done,” even though the page was blank.
We tried some “I am” poems.
We tried to talk about Langston Hughes and “a dream deferred”.
We brainstormed nouns, adjectives, emotions, and verbs on the board, picked a few out of each column and wrote poems on that.
I handed out prompt cards of unfinished sentences and had them finish the sentence and write a list poem.
Some girls wrote. Some girls popped up and down and asked to sharpen their pencil before every poem.
When I stopped to ask one girl if she needed help she asked me if I thought they were doing good today. I asked her what she thought. She said she didn’t think they were having a very good day. She was right.
When I told them there were no treats to hand out today no one argued with me. They knew.
It wasn’t the best day but it wasn’t the worst. As the substitute they had today said, all we can do is come in with a pure and open heart. The rest is up to them.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2011|Tags: , , , , |11 Comments

2011 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #6

Today was the sixth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.

I confess, it was hard to gear up the energy to go back there today. Two bad sessions in a row knocked the gumption right out of me. It’s not that my other sessions have always gone perfectly. There’s always a time you hit the wall but you can still see over it to where you know you’re heading. But that last week left me feeling like I was floundering, unable to give them that undefinable something that is a gift from a teacher to a student, a power that I know comes with being able to voice your feelings.

I prepped hard all day Sunday. I had tons of writing prompts and ideas and lyrics to some of their favorite songs and a bag full of full-sized candy bars.

And oh how they surprised me. It’s not that they suddenly became devoted fans of poetry. It’s that they took chances and engaged with the process of writing. On Friday several of them had asked for one of my prompt cards so they could write some extra poems on their own time. They shared those before we got started today. Then it was time to do a group warm-up on the board. I loved how they all begged for a chance to pick the word for the day. The word they chose was NORMAL and here’s what they came up with.

Normal tastes like oatmeal and water and sometimes like Kool Aid.
It feels dull, boring, like tears or a paper cut ’cause life hurts sometimes.
Normal smells fruity like Mango-Tango and flowers and the air around you. It’s like when you walk into your grandmother’s house and it smells like food.
Normal sounds like your family talking, your favorite song on the radio, my mom.
Normal looks like a boy and a girl in love, a girl and a girl in love, a boy and a boy in love, a drag queen. Normal looks like the girls in here.

From there they went on to write their own poems on the topic of normal. One wrote about how normal for her means getting up early to take care of children that aren’t hers and making sure her mom has something to eat when she comes down from her high. Another wrote about how normal was being molested by her father. I was so proud of the writing they did even though I had to shove my hands in my pockets to keep from handing out hugs.

We talked about various poetic devices in general and then more specifically as it related to the song lyrics they asked me to bring in. And then they wrote their own poems modeled on the songs. They all participated and before I left, most of them had asked for new prompt cards so they could do even more writing on their own time.

What was different this time from the last two times? I don’t know. I was just thrilled for them to have such a good session.

One more thing was different from last week. This time, when I handed out chocolate, they said thank you.

2011 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #5

Today was the fifth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.

It’s killing me. Not just the work, which is emotionally draining, but it is killing my spirit. My confidence is melting.

We had a new student today and she loves to talk and loves to be the center of attention. Major extrovert. Good for her but hard to teach around, especially with little backup from the teacher. Because she was new, the rest of the girls in the class were more interested in hearing her stories than doing their work. I brought in chocolate as a treat for the end of the day and their comment to that, Whatever. I don’t care.

We did the word courage as a group poem. It took twice as long than usual. I read to them from Ruth Gendler’s book, The Book of Qualities. It should have been a nice lead from the emotions we did with the group poem but when I asked them to write one of their own they all said, “I don’t get it. Can we do something else?”
We watched Sarah Kay perform her wonderful poem HANDS and managed about a two minute discussion on hands before they wrote their own. Only one person wanted to share.
I gave up and moved to art, asking them to trace their hands and decorate them, telling them it would be some of the art we would use to decorate the poetry collection we were building. I brought in lovely zentangle hands and encouraged them to try some tangles. Nope. Not a one.
The entire day the new student was up and walking around, going over to read the other student’s work, constantly in motion, constantly talking (but she did do the work.) No matter what I said, she couldn’t keep still for long. The teacher finally said something.
Something happened with one girl. She was called out of the room and when she came back she just slumped in her chair and cried. I couldn’t ask why but I offered her paper and encouraged her to write about it. I told her she could tear it up when she was done. She just nodded, clutched the pencil tightly in her fingers, and continued to cry.
I don’t know what else to do to try and reach them. They won’t talk, won’t interact so the time just stretches on and on.
This is hitting every single one of my insecurities. 7 more sessions to go. I have no idea what I will use to fill the time.

2011 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #4

Today was the fourth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.

It was not a good day.

I confess, I like walking into a classroom of boys and being greeted with mostly positive energy. When I walk into the girl’s class, I am mostly ignored. I know they are in lock up and have no choice about attending the class. I know they have a lot of issues. But some days, well, as any teacher knows some days are harder than others.

They picked a word for their group poem, worked on it for a while but without much energy. They used it more as an excuse to chatter about other things and call out put-downs to each other. Halfway through they begged for another word and said they would do better. Softie that I am, I agreed to switch. We changed from TRUTH to LIES but the group poem fizzled out when every other comment from a girl was a negative about someone’s love life. There was no group poem today.
We moved on to haiku which they had requested to do. I handed out a sheet of paper with a dozen haiku on it. I asked them to read them then pick one they liked and tell me what they liked about it. I had barely turned around when they started with, “I don’t get it. I don’t know what to do.” Which quickly spiraled downward to, “This is dumb.”
But they did it. This much credit I’ll give them. All but one girl contributed thoughts about the haiku they read.
Then we talked about the “season” words in haiku and I asked them to find the season words in the samples they had. They did okay with that. But that wasn’t writing.
When I ask them to write their own haiku (after more discussion and brainstorming) it was just more chatter. I knew I didn’t have control of the class but I didn’t know what to do to get it back again. (That’s if I ever had it in the first place.) This is one of those times that I really wish I was a formally trained teacher with more experience and training to handle situations like this. When the few that wrote shared their work it was a giant step backwards from what they had done before. GIANT step.
I don’t think it was the haiku. I think they just decided that today was the day they weren’t going to write, weren’t going to work, weren’t going to cooperate. The girl who had written the poem that made her (and me) cry on Friday had lost her privileges for the week so she opted out of everything saying it didn’t matter what she did because she was already screwed. She kept mouthing out to everyone around her.
Midway we stopped to talk about what they did or didn’t like about poetry. Most of them said they liked poetry fine as long as they could write it on their own time and not in a forced poetry class. I understand them not wanting to write and being half-assed about it all but still, they are in lock up and they have to follow the rules, get credits toward graduation, etc.
No matter what I asked them the answer was no or I don’t care.
The two hours felt like 8 and I was completely drained when I was done.
I think this was one of the testing sessions that tends to happen each time I teach in lock-up situations. I need to come up with some really good and fun poetry lessons to share on Friday. I’m thinking of YouTube videos of poets performing their work. I also need to come in full of confidence to show them they haven’t beaten me.
I think what is the hardest about days like this is that I know in my heart how poetry and writing can help them think about their lives differently, how it can help them begin to heal. I know how writing things down can make things better, even if it is just for a sliver of that particular moment. I know how writing has saved me until I was strong enough to save myself.
But I can’t tell them that. I can only try to light a path.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2011|Tags: , , , , , |19 Comments

2011 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #3

Today was the third of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.

We had a full class but a substitute teacher. He seemed to really get into the spirit of poetry which I think made the session more fun for the girls. There were two girls absent on Friday. I had left them each a note with copies of the poems I had shared and the two poetry assignments for the day. I really didn’t expect them to do the work but both turned in not one but two long poems. I was quite pleased.

Before we got started the girl who’s poem caused such a reaction on Friday handed me a copy of her poem. She hadn’t put it in her folder on Friday saying that she wanted to recopy it. I didn’t expect to see it again. I thought that after she had written it and allowed it to be shared that she wanted to keep it to herself so I was surprised and pleased when she gave me the copy. But I was floored when a couple of the girls asked me read it again. I did and once more, just like on Friday, they clapped and cheered for the author. It was a great start to the day and, I think, a huge boost to the author.

The word they picked for today was beauty. Here’s their group poem.

Beauty sounds like little birds chirping in the morning and an angel playing a harp. It sounds like a waterfall, like the ocean waves hitting the rocks at the crack of dawn.
It tastes like a sweet strawberry dipped in chocolate, honey on your morning toast, an orange, chocolate turtles, a caramel apple. Beauty can also be bitter as a lemon.
Beauty feels like a baby’s bottom, gentle as rose petals, soft as silk.
It smells clean,like a fabric softener sheet, like a red rose, like Cherry Blossom perfume at Victoria’s Secret, like fresh cut lawn after the rain.
Beauty is graceful like a princess dancing at the ball. It looks like the setting sun, stars twinkling near the moon, a swan floating on a sparkling lake, city light.
Beauty looks like me.

After the group poem they each did a short writing on the topic of beauty. Unlike the boys, there’s no grumbling about not wanting to write (even though they know that’s why I’m there.) There’s one girl who wears a perpetual scowl and rarely writes more than two lines, no matter what the topic. She never feels good and is always in a bad mood. I can sense a world of hurting going on behind her eyes. I just keep opening poetry doors and hope that one of them will click for her.

There are two girls who have slightly unusual names and I continue to struggle with the pronunciation. It is frustrating to both of us when I mess one of them up.

Next we talked about how people judge them, brainstorming various ways of being judged on the board. Then they wrote about how they felt the world saw them. It might have been too soon for this prompt. I don’t know. Two of the seven didn’t write anything. The others all wrote about how they didn’t care what other people thought about them. By the third poem being read I got the feeling they were spouting back something they thought I wanted to hear, something they had talked about it sessions with their counselor. There were original thoughts in the poems but a lot of stuff that I think came from the therapy process this system uses. I’ll have to rethink how I introduce this to perhaps get a better response. One girl chose to write about her uncle instead of herself and did a great job. I think the two girls who chose not to write had a lot to say but weren’t quite brave enough yet to put it down on paper.

After that we talked about who they really were, who they would see when they looked in the mirror, who they wanted the world to see. The response was about the same. This was one of those exercises that didn’t go over as well as I had hoped.

I’m finding that lessons that fell flat with the boys work well with the girls and vice versa. We talked about list poems and did an example of one on the board then talked about how we could expand the list and enrich the poem. They also did a group Acrostic on the word POEM.

Power within
Overcoming struggles only I understand
Emotions come out
Memories last forever

I finished with reading some more from Hugging the Rock. They are all hoping the mother comes back and I think we’ll have the potential for some interesting discussion by the time we get to the end of the book. Even though I had told them that I had written the book and talked about some of my experiences while writing the book, for some reason today it clicked with them, that it was my name on the cover. They appeared to be a wee bit impressed. (The substitute teachers was a lot impressed.)

Before I left, four girls asked if they could pick a prompt card to write an extra poem before Wednesday. Write more poetry on your own time? Of course I said yes.

Monday, July 11, 2011|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2011|Tags: , , , , |2 Comments

2011 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #2

Today was the second of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls. We were missing two girls today so we were a small group of just seven.

When I got there they were just finishing PE and complaining about working out. Two of the girls chose to not get credit rather than do the actual work and I was afraid I would be dealing with the same thing in the class. There was no happy, Hey Miss Susan! or What are we going to do today?

WhenI work with the boys, even from the first day, they are talking to me, asking questions. The boys are usually much less interested in poetry than they are in talking to me. The girls, while all of them may not be interested in poetry, they’d rather do that right now than connect to me. I understand. I’m new. One more person with power over them (they think) or the power to hurt them. It all takes time.

After doing these types of workshops for a while I’ve learned it usually takes 3-4 visits before I feel I’ve made a real connection. And I’m not naive enough to think I connect with each kid. There are always some I don’t reach. I know I can’t save the world. Not even this little corner of it. I can only plant seeds in what I hope is fertile ground.

We did another group poem to start the day. I let someone pick one of my word cards. (Someone always loves to pick a card, any card.) And the word they picked was joy. Here’s the group poem they did.

Joy smells like chocolate, apple pie, cookies, and pizza. It smells like baby lotion and fresh air after the rain.
Joy feels like butterflies in your stomach, that feeling you get on the roller coaster just before your stomach jumps. It makes you feel like smiling and your heart is racing. You feel like crying and giving hugs.
Joy tastes like Starbursts, Skittles, Jolly Ranchers, fresh-baked cookies for Santa. It tastes Thanksgiving dinner with all your loved ones.
Joy sounds like jingle-bells, oldies in a car downtown and applause from the audience after you just won your Grammy award. When you are climbing a mountain and you finally get to the top and you scream, that’s joy.
Yellow is the color of joy.
Joy looks like Santa and the Easter bunny. It looks monkeys jumping on the bed, no, it looks like someone dancing. Yeah, someone dancing for joy.

All but one of the girls offered up ideas for the poem which was pretty good. I shared a few poems that I liked and tried to get some discussion going but other than a couple of comments, the discussion fell flat. Part of that is they just don’t feel comfortable with me yet and part of that (probably most of it) is that I’m not asking the right questions.

I’ll have to brainstorm more questions for the next set of poems I share. I think my insecurities really ramp up when I ask a question and there is silence. The four other adults in the room heard me but don’t speak up. (In other classes the teacher, probation officer or aides have all spoken up. Not here.) We moved on to what I was thinking of as another warm-up, the I remember poems. I had them brainstorm some things they remembered (recent past and more distant past) with no stipulations on happy or sad memories. I read them a few examples and then let them write.

After ten minutes, everyone was done except for one girl. She was one of the ones not interested in poetry. A bit of a smart aleck. Last visit she was willing to miss getting her fine art credits if it meant she had to write poetry and share what she had written.

I went over to check on her. She said she was writing about a friend she made in elementary school. She paused and then said, “He died last year.”

I asked her if writing it out was helping and she said yes.

We went around the room and everyone else shared their I remember poems. They were good. Better than I think they thought they could be. A few of them surprised the teacher. (I love it when that happens.) I looked over at the girl in the back of the room and asked her if she was done yet. She said no but promised she would finish it if I would just let her write. I nodded. At least she was writing. And she wasn’t mouthing off to stir things up. She bent back over her paper.

I shared Maya Angelou’s poem Life Doesn’t Frighten Me. We talked about fears a little bit and I read some examples of variations of Life Doesn’t Frighten Me that some other students had written. Then I turned them loose to write their own versions. When I checked in on the girl in the back of the room she was hunched even closer to her paper, her nose almost touching her desk. I leaned close and asked her if she was done and she shook her head no. The rest of the class shared their new poems to much snapping and clapping. (Snapping is what they use instead of applause here and in many of the units but try as I might, I can’t seem to get in the habit of snapping instead of clapping.) I finished up by reading a few more pages of Hugging the Rock. I got a few responses to my questions but again, not much. I was getting ready to thank them for their participation in the day when a hand popped up in the back of the room.

“Done! I’m done.” The teacher was surprised but complimented the girl on finishing the assignment when she had a habit of blowing things off. I asked her if she wanted to read it. She shook her head. I asked if she wanted me to read it for her and she said, in a voice barely above a whisper, “Please.”

That girl, that sullen, I don’t want to do anything and I’d rather have an F girl, she wrote THREE PAGES. Both sides. As I read, she curled up into a ball on her chair, pulling her shirt up to cover her face, all but her eyes which stared at the desk. I read about how she remembered her friend that she met when she was in the fourth grade. I read about how she remembered him sticking up for her when things were tough, and how she remembered all the fun they had together. I read about how she remembered when he was changing into a difficult teen and how she consoled him when he broke up with his girlfriend. I read about how she remembered her own life turning upside down, about how her father kicked her in the stomach and how CPS took her away. I read about how she remembered lashing out, running away, spiraling downward. I read about how she remembered this friend, this special best friend, shaking her, telling her to get her crap together because she was better than this.I read about how she remembered being sent from home to home to home until she landed where she is today.

And then I read. . . I read about how she remembered getting a phone call from her cousin last year and how she remembered finding out that this friend, this special best friend that she always knew she could count on, was dead.

When I finished reading there was silence in the room. The author of this powerful piece was still hunched over her desk, tears streaming down her cheeks. Iput my hand on her shoulder and she was shaking. I wanted to pull this young woman into my arms and hold her and let her cry as much as she wanted but of course, I couldn’t do that. I thanked her for the beautiful writing, thanked her for sharing her precious memory with us.

The room exploded in applause.

This is why I write poetry. This is why I teach poetry.

When we let it, poetry heals.

2011 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #1

Yesterday was the first day of 12 sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.

This is my first time with an all girl group, usually I work with the boys. There were subtle differences, less posturing and more giggling. There were more things in common, one tough kid in the back of the room who carried the chip on her shoulder like a flag. One who was determined to not get involved but then couldn’t help herself. Several that sent out “do not get too close to me” vibes one minute and the begged for attention the next. And one, that one that is always in every class, that just loves poetry, jumps right into everything and has a couple of poems already written that I just have to read (her words) before I go home.

This is also a new facility for me. Not too far of a drive but boy was it hot! When I left the temp outside was 99 degrees. There’s no AC in room, just a fan and the door and windows open which mean we were swatting flies away the entire time. I was impressed that they were able to write with it being so hot.

This is my first time trying out a two hour session. Two hours is a long time when the girls don’t talk a lot but things usually open up after a few sessions. What two hours means is more poetry prompts which yields more poems for them. But I have to break it up so they aren’t writing for two hours straight. This is the part about teaching that is always the hardest for me, trying to figure out how much and exactly what to say to them before giving out a prompt. One friend told me she found that her sessions went better with less talking and more writing. I can see that but I also feel an obligation to teach more. That could also be a pressure I put on myself. I’ll be checking in with myself after each session and see how that evolves.

I started off with telling them a little about me and my writing but it was easy to see that didn’t interest them so we went right to work on a group exercise. I have cards with various emotions on them and let one student pick a card. She picked WORRY so we brainstormed the five senses and how worry would look, taste, sound, smell and feel. This is the group poem they came up with when they were done.

Worry tastes sour like lemons, salty like sweat and tears.
It smells like a wet dog, a dirty diaper, gym socks left in the locker.
Worry feels like sandpaper, snakeskin and it makes your heart ache like you’ve just been stabbed.
Worry sounds like shattering glass, a dripping faucet and all those crazy thoughts debating in my head.
Worry is unrecognizable, like a shadow in an abandoned house.

After that they went on to write more about worry on their own.

Then I read them a few poems without much reaction or interest in participating in the discussion. Hope to do better with that tomorrow.

When I had absolutely no idea what to do next, I pulled out my magazine poetry. I gave each girl a stack of words and phrases cut from magazines and they arranged them into poems. Then they glued them onto paper so they could keep them. I need to find more simple, easy to do in a short amount of time art projects to keep on hand for fillers when needed.

I finished the session with reading them the beginning of Hugging the Rock. I figure I’ll read a bit each session and we should be able to finish the book by the last day.

Not a bad start. The heat complicates everything. (Never done a summer session before.) Now I’m scrambling to put together ideas for tomorrow.

Thursday, July 7, 2011|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2011|Tags: , , , , |12 Comments

Poetry Friday – Poems by incarcerated teens

It’s Poetry Friday! And I’m trying to jump back on (and stay on) the Poetry bandwagon. I don’t know why it’s so tough for me except that I am in short supply of confidence in the poetry department so it always makes me hesitate and then, usually, the time has passed.

Tonight I realized I’d never posted more poems from my incarcerated teen poetry project. The past month their work has been on display at the deSaisset museum at Santa Clara university as part of the ArtsConnect program sponsored by Arts Council Silicon Valley. Below are the displays they made with their poems (kind of a 3D effect). The backgrounds are a combination of paint and collage. You can click on each photo (they are all different) to see the larger version which makes the rest of the poems legible but I’ve put a few here in the post as well.

It’s so very hard to get teenage boys to dig deep about the emotional stuff in their lives. Compound that by trying to get boys who are locked up, away from their family, their girlfriends, and in some cases, their children, and asking them to write about their feelings is rarely embraced. And yet that’s just what these boys did. Session after session they wrote their hearts out for me.

For those of you who don’t know about the project, there is a list of links at the bottom of the post to tell you a bit more.

Now, the student work.

From Arts Connect 2010

I’m the aspirin always getting taken from the medicine box
Trying to fix for a minute but it never lasts too long
I wanna be like a giraffe with my head about it all
I’m at the top of the ladder where I can never fall
I’m an eagle, a leader, I soar through the sky
I don’t play with the pigeons because their mind is not right
I’m caged like an animal but want to be set free
I’m a lion in the jungle I run my domain
Reality hits
I’m Daniel
an 18 year old looking forward to tomorrow

~~~ Daniel

From Arts Connect 2010




I’m a strong individual
Power so strong, the guy who couldn’t get visible
People get a visual
See, but they don’t,cause my life is invisible
Do what I want and times can get critical
Powers so strong, it feels like life is a miracle
but still
I’m invisible

~~~ Rudy

From Arts Connect 2010

I feel motivated to strive
And eat cuz I’m hungry,
I feel like a dodgeball
Being thrown around
I’m feeling sleepy
And language can’t explain
The unhappy thoughts in my  mind
I want forgiveness
And to wake up to a better day


From Arts Connect 2010


I’m like the devil in disguise
I sound like bombs going off in a city, like death to a man
I look nice but inside I’m crazy in the mind
I smell like gun powder, evil in its darkest form
I taste bitter and sour, like snakes venom and nothing more.
I’m nothing nice

~~~ Sergio

Kelly Polark has the Poetry Friday round-up today. Check out some of the other great posts.

*** For those of you who missed the series of posts about my 10 sessions teaching poetry to incarcerated young men, you can read them all here, in order:

2010 At-Risk Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 2 / Session 3

Today was the third and final session of trying to teach poetry to a group of at-risk teens.

Yes, final.

We tried. We pulled a few students in that seemed like they might respond but then other kids came in that really didn’t belong there. Doors opened and shut. Kids hollered obscenities at each other. We had some stare downs. The teacher sat with a couple of the girls and kept them chatting because the alternative was that they would be egging the boys on to misbehave. There was one girl who was in my face with her antagonism, informing me in no uncertain words that she didn’t know me, she didn’t trust me, and she wasn’t going to share anything with me. I said fine, write that down.

She did not. And yet. And yet.

There were a few who tried. They put down a word and then another and when I asked them to expand on it, to give me more, they did. Not great brilliant heart wrenching poems but that was okay. They did what I asked and they did more than the teacher or the principal expected they would.

There was the boy who wrote about his pit bull puppy and how sweet it smelled and how it tried to growl but it couldn’t.

There was the girl who wrote about the sad sky.

There was the girl who said she was going to make an impact on the world.

There was the boy who said all marriages are bad but music, music is good, as he tap tap tapped his fingers on the edge of the desk.

But then there were the ones who poked holes in their papers instead of writing on them. And then the boy who said he’d been on the outs too long and he needed to go back to jail. The one who said it was safer in jail than it was on the outside.

In the end, after talking with the teacher and the principal we decided that it just wasn’t a good fit. Not now. These kids all have something to say. You can almost see the words, the stories bubbling up in them but the guys have to maintain their macho attitude and writing and sharing their writing means asking them to put that guard down.

When it was time for me to go the kids were out in the yard having lunch. I walked to talk to each of the one on one, to tell them that I wouldn’t be back. They were surprised and yet they weren’t. When I said I wasn’t coming back they said, “Oh no,” but then they shrugged a shoulder or nodded or said, “It’s because we’re bad, right?”

And I told them YOU are not bad. It’s hard to write and it’s harder still to write and share when you have classmates all around you telling you you’re stupid for even trying. I told them that words were a great tool for getting their stories told and that I hoped they would continue to try and write. And then I said goodbye.

The girl, the girl who was excited about maybe seeing her work on the walls of the museum ran after me.

“Thank you,” she said. Then she surprised me by giving me a hug.

Tears filled my eyes as I walked by to my car.

It was enough to almost make me change my mind but I know this was the right decision.

Tiny seeds were tossed down and maybe a few will take root. But someone else will have to tend the garden.

Thursday, February 25, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , |12 Comments

2010 At-Risk Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 2 / Session 2

Today was second session of trying to teach poetry to a group of at-risk teens. I use the word trying on purpose. If you read yesterday’s post about the first session you know that I was scheduled for one group and then moved to a second class. That class actually did some good work yesterday but today they put another bunch of students in, 7 new ones I think, and most of them were of the same attitude as those in the first day’s class.

In other words, it was not a good day.

I decided to repeat things from the first day, teaching them a basic drill of learning to describe something with the five senses and hoping to encourage them to think outside of the box. I’ve used this drill before as a warm-up and eventually the kids get the hang of it knowing that they are going to have to start the session with taking a word like PROUD or KIND or HOPE and then stretching their imagination to describe it.

We did a group poem on the board and then I asked them to try it on their own. I passed out a sheet of what I call power words, positive words that I hope they can learn how to use to describe themselves. Most couldn’t grasp the idea of picking a word. I was flexible. Pick any word I said. A good word. Not a negative one. For a few that was enough to at least try to get started. I walked around the room trying to help but for the most part they ignored me, turning their back on me to talk to someone else. But a few wrote. A few lines. That was all.

I took in candy to reward the good behavior but they turned their nose up at it.

There was one student who was stirring things up with everyone around him, poking at his neighbors and refusing to write. I tried to talk to him. I told him how the guys in jail had written some great things and how I was looking forward to reading the great things he would write too. And he told me being in jail was easier because they had no choice. He did no work at all, just tried to incite everyone around him to act up.

I didn’t say it out loud but I had to agree with him. There are consequences for their actions or inactions in jail. Here, there were none.

What took us more than half an hour to do today would have been done in less than 10 minutes in any of my other classes. I spent more time asking kids not to talk or not to hit each other than I did teaching. When the session was through I felt like it had all been a waste of my time. I asked the teacher for any tips on how to work with these kids and she said she had none. All she could offer was that she would be there to step in if needed.

On the way home I thought about the other classes I’ve taught and how there is always a spark, somewhere. That one child you can see waiting for you to open the door for them. I don’t feel it here. I don’t see hope here and that is the saddest thing I can possibly type.

We will give it one more try on Thursday. I’ve asked them to consider hand-picking kids for the class, kids that want to be there, kids who have earned the right to participate in something special. I’m told that’s what they have done in the past they just didn’t, for some reason, do it for me.

I’ve never turned away from a class like this but depending on how things go at the next session, I might just have to accept that this time isn’t the right time, for this group of kids.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , , |16 Comments

2010 At-Risk Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 2 / Session 1

Today was first session with a new group of teens in the program for at-risk students sponsored by my local Arts Council. In the past my work has been with incarcerated teens. This new group is different. They are at a continuation school for at-risk students. Some of them have been in and out of lock-up. Some of them are attending here while awaiting a court date. It’s not my first time working with these type of a group but it was my first visit to the particular school.

It was a hard and horrible day that broke my heart.

The first few visits, sometimes as many as 5 or 6, are all about connecting with the kids. Letting them know they aren’t going to scare me away. That I’m going to keep coming back. That I’m going to listen to their stories and encourage their stories and help them tell their stories. I expect them to act up. I expect them to test me. I expect them to tell me they can’t write, that they’re no good at and that they just don’t want to do it. But I also expect them to eventually, even under protest, to put down a word or two, even if it’s foul language.

With this class I never stood a chance.

20+ kids funneled into the room wearing their bad attitudes like suits of armor. Their eyes blazed at me mostly in anger, some in disgust. They were loud and moving around and ignoring the teacher and ignoring me. There was never a moment of silence for me to step into and try to talk. The teacher turned the lights off but all that did was cause them to act up more. She tried again with the same results. I don’t know if she said anything. I don’t remember hearing anything.

Normally when there is a lot of noise in the class I can slap a book on the desk for attention. When I tried that today they laughed. Then they started swearing at me and flipping me off.

I have never missed an armed guard in the room more than I did today.

Still I tried. I passed out brand new folders with a few sheets of college-ruled paper in them. College-ruled paper is a big deal to these kids, just like the kids in jail. Normally they get the wide-ruled paper and they tell me it makes them feel like they are back in elementary school. Like they’re not good enough for real paper. One girl opened the folder and saw the paper and then looked at me. “All this paper is for me to use? It’s so nice. Thank you.” Her joy at such a simple gift gave me a shot of courage to continue.

I tried to talk. I got out a sentence. Maybe two. They turned their backs on me and started talking to each other loudly, making more rude comments. I searched my brain for something, anything to get their attention. I had nothing. I had stories to tell them but they wouldn’t listen. I walked around the room, looking at them, trying to make eye contact, asking a question or two. They laughed and made more rude comments. They told me they were here because they didn’t want to do anything and that I couldn’t make them. Of course everything was accented with more colorful language.

And they were right. I failed.

Standing there and letting them heap garbage words on me wouldn’t do either of us any good. So when the teacher brought the principal in and asked me if I wanted to go to another room I couldn’t help it. I nodded. I couldn’t do it. Not with these kids. Not with this group.

As I gathered up the folders there was one boy at the front who kept saying, “Not me. I wasn’t acting up.” And I told him no, you were fine. You did good. It was little enough to offer. But it wasn’t enough. Not for me.

It’s the first time I have ever walked away from a group.

They moved me to another class. Less students. More focus. More of what I expected. Not a lot of interest. Not a lot of attention but they did participate. They all read out loud and all but one came to the front of the room to do it. That was big. They didn’t believe me when I told them about how I used to be so afraid when I did public speaking I had to add in extra time to throw-up before I went on stage.

We did little poems. Acrostics to help me get to know who they were. They picked a word and described it using the five senses. And right away one of them got it. He thought outside of the box. He used beautiful and specific words. Then another one spoke up without prompting, sharing her thoughts. I told them we’d be doing more things like this when I came back tomorrow and there were no groans, no complaints. I wanted to cry. I was so happy.

When my time was up I went back to the first class because the principal wanted to have the kids apologize to me. This time the room was silent but the hostility level was still high. I could feel it when I walked back in. The principal made a formal apology to me and a few of the students hollered out an “I’m sorry.” But mostly they sat there and listened to the principal tell them how embarrassed she was, how hard she had worked for this program to be able to come to her school, and how, because of their actions today, they had lost the opportunity to work with me. They lost the opportunity to see their work on the walls of the museum. They lost the chance, for today, to be heard. As she spoke, I watched those kids slid down farther in their chairs. No one said a word.

I know the principal had to come down on them. They had been out of control and she was doing her job as best she could with what she had to deal with at that moment.

But I felt my heart breaking as listened. I thought about that girl who was looking forward to writing on real grown-up paper. I thought about that one kid who wanted me to know that he hadn’t been acting up. I thought about how every one of those kids was going to leave class today and go home to another place where they might not be heard.

I told them I was sorry too. I told them I was sorry I wasn’t going to get the chance to work with them, to help them tell their stories. I told them that every one of them was a person of value, that they all had stories to tell, and that it was important that they tell them. I said their stories might come out in conversations with a friend. A letter they write. A love poem. I told them the world needed to hear what they had to say and that I hoped one day find a way to tell their stories in an appropriate way.

And then I left.

I walked through the office and past a lounge where teachers gathered to ask me if I was going come back the next day.  It had never dawned on me that I could say no. No one would have blamed me if I had.

In the corner of the room was a girl from the new class they gave me. I told the teachers that student had done good work today and the girl smiled. I told her about the museum exhibit and how her work would be on the walls for everyone to see.

Her mouth formed a surprised “O” and she said, “Really?”

I nodded and smiled back at her.

Would I be back tomorrow? Of course I would.

Monday, February 22, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , |45 Comments

Poetry Friday – Poems by incarcerated teens

I’m so proud of the writing my incarcerated teens did with me that I decided to share some of it for Poetry Friday. Below are just a few of my favorites from what they did in 10 sessions of us working together. Because they are incarcerated I can’t post their names.

Don’t know why nothing goes right.
I try. I try. I try.
But it’s like one of the three little pigs . . .
Devil is the wolf.
I build.
It gets blown down every time.

I remember the day I would never forget
I remember it like it was yesterday
I remember something I would never get and never say cause I’m not strong enough yet,
but still I stand.

How Do I Love Thee?
I appreciate what you do for me.
I will always care for you.I’m grateful to have you in my life.
I’ll always respect you.
I will try to understand you.
Listening to you will be my first priority.

I remember when I was little and got raped without my consent.
I remember I hurt and I passed out.
I remember I was scared to get hurt.
I remember it went by slow.
I remember. I remember. I remember.

Looks like a new life, but not for me

I am a father, a son.
I wonder what life has in store for me.
I hear my family telling me to do good.
I see my son graduating.
I want to be free.

I am a father, a son.
I pretend to hold my son in my arms.
I feel hopeful.
I touch people with my words and make them believe in me.
I worry for my family’s safety.
I cry when I see my son cry for his daddy.

I am a father, a son.
I understand that it is up to me to change.
I say it is time for a change.
I dream the outs and being with my son.
I try to show my son I’m not a failure.
I hope to be home soon.

I am a father, a son.

Something I can share most people won’t bare
The staff or teacher will say don’t go there
Something I can share some people in here won’t care
They think they know it all inside and out there
Something I can share me I guess
I have a lot to say but some ain’t the best
Something I can share is my family with you
You’ll beat them til their face turns blue
I’m sharing right now my feelings with you
I’m not trying to talk down but I gotta
Let it out and if I can’t do it like this
Then someone please tell me how.

Lee Wind has the Poetry Round-up today.

Friday, February 12, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , , |9 Comments

2010 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 1 / Session 10

Wednesday was the tenth and last session of the incarcerated teens poetry class.

I wondered what my reception would be after the frustrating day we had on Monday. I walked into a mostly silent class. It was obvious the teacher had spoken to them about the previous session. I don’t remember who started talking first but soon the room was full of voices, not frantic talking but calm, respectful voices all apologizing to me for their previous behavior. They told me they knew they had disrespected me. They asked that I remember how good they had been all the other times and to let the good outweigh the bad. They went on and on until I had to change the subject because otherwise I was going to burst into tears and hug each and every one of them which wasn’t something I could let happen.

It filled my heart with more joy than I can say.

I asked them for one last group poem and because they wanted to make nice with me they tried really hard. They said they wanted it to be the best poem ever. I think they did a great job. Here’s their final group poem.

Hope sounds like a bird leaving the nest
a heart beating for success
it’s something that keeps you striving.
Hope is something you’ll never get rid of
it looks like turtles making a break for the shoreline
and feels like nothing else
like nothing can stop you
like the very pulse in your veins.
Hope smells like fresh air and morning dew
tastes like chocolate, a delicious flan with whipped cream and a cherry.
No, it tastes like victory.

We had some time left and I was still looking for some art to put on the wall so I handed out the nice drawing paper and asked them to spend some time studying their hands and then draw their hand. A couple of them got into that but most of them just wanted to trace it so I told them they had to put a Zentangle or something else in it to beef it up. Some of them really got into the detail but then they forgot the rules of the room and started adding gang symbols that they were not allowed to use. It took some back and forth, having the teach inspect them, but eventually they all passed inspection and we were officially done.

I handed back their folders with all their work. They seemed happy to be able to keep the folders which made me a bit sad, to think how a little thing like a folder could brighten their day. One boy immediately took all his poetry out of the folder and tore it into tiny pieces. I bit my tongue but it was hard.

Before I left I asked them to write a few lines about what they thought of the program. Here are a few of their comments:

– Susan I had a good time with you. Thanks for trying to teach me how to write poems.

– Thank you. I got to learn more about myself.

– Susan showed me a lot of great things I never thought I could do. She has opened my eyes a lot. I just want to thank her for giving us her time and show a bunch of criminals something new.

– This helped us get things out of our minds. It helped me a lot. Thank you for coming.

– I liked the poetry class. It was good getting some things out on paper. I just don’t like reading it out lout. I liked your class and the way you teach.

– I thought this program was really inspiring. I hope to get this same experience again in life. It taught me how talented I am. Inever knew how talented I was until I came here. I thank Susan for showing me the ropes ’cause now I’m willing to show the world when I get out.

– I learned a lot from you, Susan. I really appreciated your time with us. I really wish your time wasn’t this short, but I will use all all this knowledge to become a poet just like you. You did an eminent (his favorite word) job working with us.

– I think this program was good. It helped me express how I feel and my day go smooth. I wish you could stay longer but everything has to end I guess. The thing I really learned is not poetry but that there is no wrong way in doing things. You would always tells us to say what we feel and I always did. That made me feel like I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I just want to thank you for coming and sharing these things with us. I learned a lot from you and I’m looking forward to going to see my art at the museum.

I have been lucky with opportunities to teach poetry to incarcerated teens. It is never an easy experience but it is always worthwhile, even when it turns my heart inside out. I have a week off and then I start the second second at a different location.

Thursday, February 11, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , |13 Comments

Of Dogs and Writing – Being Kind

Today in my incarcerated poetry class the topic of my dog Cassie came up. I told them a little bit about her, how she was a rescue dog, and some of the troubles she had had before she came to live with us. When I told them them that one family had thrown her away for talking too much, some of the students got very animated. They all had solutions on how to fix the problem.

Kick her when she does that. Hit her, that’ll make her stop. You gotta start hitting her right away, when’s she a puppy. And keep hitting her every time she does bad.

I was, of course, horrified. I asked if I kicked them every time they didn’t do what I wanted them to do, if it would make them want to write for me? The room quieted down as they shook their heads. One boy spoke up and said he guessed it didn’t really work because he got beat on all the time and he still did bad things.

How much abuse do we heap on ourselves and our writing? I don’t know about you but for me, a lot. I write a line and then beat myself up for not writing a paragraph or an entire page. I finally write a page, reread it and then tell myself how much it stinks. I pull apart my plot and compare it to other plots and then yell at myself for not being unique enough or clever enough or smart enough or, well, you get the idea.

Of course I’m going about it all wrong. Being mean to my writer self doesn’t make me want to sit down and write any more than kicking Cassie would have have made her stop barking all the time. Cassie’s change in behavior was a result of time and kindness. I put in a lot of time with her, a lot of time that we thought we would never see any progress at at. And instead of abuse she receive nothing but love. She still makes some noise but the nervous barking that seemed to have been her biggest problem is virtually gone.

I wonder how much my writing would improve if I tried the same thing?

2010 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 1 / Session 9

Monday was the ninth session of the Incarcerated teens poetry class.

It was a hard day. I should have known that going into it thinking everything was going to go smoothly was a sure sign that things would get turned upside down. I needed some display art to add in with their poems so I thought we’d just do some simple torn paper mosaic collages. They had done a lot of small poems so I thought if they did a small background then I could put their poem in front of it and it would pop. I did a practice one myself at home. It took me 15 minutes.

I have long saved colors from magazines so I had a large collection of paper for them to choose from. I spent a couple of hours going through it all to remove all the red and the blue. When I spread it out on the table, colorside up, it was a rainbow of choices to choose from. I took in my example and showed it to each of them. I explained what we were going to do and handed out the base paper. I showed them the example again. Then they went up a few at a time to pick out their paper.

Big mistake on my part to use the magazines because even though they knew the room rules, even though I told them multiple times to use the color side ONLY, they still turned every single piece of paper over looked for women and booze and words and inappropriate colors. What was I thinking? And then, even when they got back to their desks, they couldn’t, wouldn’t grasp the concept. I felt like I had walked into a new room instead of the room full of smart young men I’d been working with for a while.

Eventually a few of them did it although I don’t think anyone got into it. They were doing it to get it done so they could do something else. Unfortunately for them, the something else was more college of letters to spell out the title of the project.

Art fail on my part but lessons learned. And the teacher urged me not to think too harshly of them (I didn’t really, it was more beating myself up for not thinking it through better) because it was Monday and Mondays are hard for them. Many of them get to see family on the weekend so it makes Monday that much more stark when they are reminded of not being able to go home yet.

We did do a group poem on the topic of freedom and they did a wonderful job with it.

It was a reminder day for me. A reminder that there are no sure things in life. The lesson plan you think is perfect can fall apart and you have to improvise. The art project you think is easy could become too hard for some people to do no matter how much time you give. The book you are writing becomes a mountain that keeps kicking you off each time you think you’re getting closer to the top.

The trick is to keep coming back for another round and not giving up.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , |7 Comments

2010 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 1 / Session 8

Friday was the eighth session of the Incarcerated teens poetry class.

I love the familiarity with the students in the class now. The way they greet me and the way they finally call me by name instead of “Mam” all the time. I love the way they grumble and then give me a sideways smile before they settle into their work for the day.

Friday was a mish mash. Since we only have a few sessions left it’s time to start thinking about the display for the museum exhibit. I had hoped to do Glogs with them but further investigation into their options at school made that not possible. The teacher knows more about them now and can utilize the learning path FreshBrain made for them for the future but it was just too much for this time with them. A Glog would have been a great way for them to add music and graphics and video to illustrate their poem but the restriction on the Internet usage is too great. In the future what I will do is put together a batch of approved graphics and music on a flash drive so they can upload from there.

They picked out their favorite poem to copy and illustrate but they are haphazard at best and I don’t know that it shows their work to their best efforts. Sometime between now and Monday I need to come up with a better way for them to do something, I’m thinking a collaged background that I can mount their poems to. It has to be something they can finish quickly.

Their thoughts are scattered as many of them are in and out of the class doing testing. One student is getting ready to exit next week. We spoke a little bit about his fears. I can see him trying to wrap his brain around the enormousness of the changes ahead of him. Another one, the next one to exit in March, is learning about going to college to study business. It was the first I had heard him speak of it and it made me smile because, if you could see this student you’d see success written all over him. He has the charisma to succeed if he just applies himself.

I’ve been reflecting on what worked and didn’t work in these sessions. I’ve made some goofs, as I often do. It’s a learning experience for me as much as it is for them. This is the third time I’ve tried individual art projects to illustrate a poem and each time it has been less than successful. I think I need to drop that idea for now. The word books were a great idea in theory but I may have introduced them at the wrong time. I think having them give me a word for the day each session is great and they could keep a list and then we could build a book toward the end. I chose small accordion books that were easy to make and could fit in their pocket. My idea was to laminate them with packing tape when they were done. But only a couple of the students is into the idea of having it to take with him. Another is trying to copy long poems onto the tiny pages. So I’ll have to think some more on how to work this with my next group. I do love that they now have a list of words that matter to them. (Hmmm….maybe I can get them to do some art with their words if I print them out large and let them collage them?)

I read them a lot of poems but I don’t think I read them enough. I blame that on my poor memory. I need to find poems in the off-season and then make a list so I can find them easily. Trying to scan a dozen books each night before class doesn’t work very well.

I find I feel more confident in dealing with the students than I do with poetry itself. So many things I just “do” and I’m not good at figuring out the how and why and explaining it to them. What’s worked best has been doing a group poem with them as a warm-up to writing. They’re a vocal group and they all love to get the attention from giving a great line for the poem.

We had the opportunity for an impromptu math lesson when they teased that I was going to take their work and get rich on it. I showed them a bit about how the publishing world works with advances and royalties and the length of time between payments. They shook their heads at the dollar amounts and told me someone had done me wrong with my contract because I couldn’t live on that. Then they asked me why, why do I keep on doing it?

For love, I told them. Still, they shook their heads, not able or willing to comprehend my craziness.

I do get rich off of them but not in the way they feared. I get rich with emotion and real life. They don’t realize it but they give me inspiration to carry me into writing for a long, long time.

Saturday, February 6, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , |11 Comments

2010 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 1 / Session 7

Wednesday was the seventh session of the Incarcerated teens poetry class.

We’re past the halfway point in the class so I knew it was time to get them to go deeper, if they could, if they were willing. I read them THE JOURNEY by Mary Oliver and we talked about the poem. A few of them seemed to make the connections I was hoping for and spoke of being the change they needed in their own lives. We did a group poem on the board about their teacher and then they used the same model to write about someone in their family. From family members we moved to writing about themselves, about who they were, what they thought of themselves and where they saw themselves going in the future. There was the usual grumbling about all this touchy-feely stuff but it was good-natured, for the most part. They took a little time to settle into it but then they wrote some very revealing poem about their hopes and dreams and fears. Fewer volunteered to read them out loud which is normal when we get to the tough stuff.

There were a couple of students under a veil of anger for the session. I don’t know why. But even in their anger they wrote some wonderful words. I read their pages and told them to remember what good, honest work they did even though they were angry. How good work came out of intense emotion. I’m not sure they believe me but the seed was planted.

One student wrote about how he was getting out soon and his concerns about being able to handle it on the outside without being drawn back into his old ways. I was so happy to read what he had written because he had been on my mind a lot lately, wondering, as he was, what would happen when he got out. Of course the fact that he wrote a poem about wanting to do the right thing is no guarantee that it will happen but I hope that the act of having written it down will at least make him think twice before going off the right path.

Each time I leave them I have to remind myself that my job is not to fix them. It’s not to offer them a list of solutions for their problems. My job is to light a path to help them see that there are always other options, other choices to make with their lives. To help them see that words have tremendous power. And to hope they will use that power for good.

Thursday, February 4, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , |2 Comments

2010 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 1 / Session 6

Monday was the fifth session of the Incarcerated teens poetry class.

There’s nothing like opening the classroom door and being greeted with a chorus of "Susan! Susan! Susan!" to make a girl feel great. I’m sure it had more to do with getting out of some regular schoolwork than it did with poetry but hey, a girl can hope.

We had another new student. This guy is the type who always wants to be the center of attention and he gets it by going over the top with everything he does. It was a little sad because the group was writing some deep, hard stuff but the new guy was being flip. He’s only there for a short time and I only have 4 visits left so I don’t expect to make much of a connection with him. I just hope he doesn’t pull any of the others into his loop.

We did some more work with list poems. I thought I’d start with something light-hearted so I wrote I WISH on the board and had them each give me a line. I was expecting some goofy or outrageous stuff but no, they went right to my heart again. Then they worked on some I REMEMBER poems on their own and shared them. Again, all of them (except for the new guy) went right to the heart of their lives before. They accomplish great work in ten minutes of writing, the kind of gut-honest stuff I wish I managed in quick poems.

I gave them some more time to finish their Valentine’s Day cards and poems they were making for the special people in their lives. Some of them were anxious to show me what they had done. One student used his art time to copy all his poems into his own notebook, nice and neat, so he would always have it. I told him he would get to keep all his own papers and he said that was fine but he liked having them all in one place. I told him I understood. I hadn’t realized he had been doing this all along.

It’s hard not to look at them and wonder what their personal stories are. I don’t know any of them. I don’t ask and they don’t tell, except for what they share through their writing. I find myself making up little stories about them, stories I know can’t possibly be true because in my stories they are all still innocents, young boys caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In my stories they all find that writing and reading can offer them another way to deal with all the crap they have to deal with in their life. It can help them find a path, a different path, and help them make a change in their lives, a change for the good. Hey, a girl can hope.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , |2 Comments

2010 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 1 / Session 5

Friday was the fifth session of the Incarcerated teens poetry class.

It was a light writing day, as I knew it would be, because I had promised they could make Valentines. We used the first part of the session to get caught up on the word poems and their word books and then I turned them loose with art supplies. I brought in a variety of paper and then I had printed out a bunch of different hearts that they could cut out and decorate. Some of them asked the teacher for printouts of script letters so the could write fancy. These boys have some of the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever seen. I know a lot of it comes from tagging and writing things they are supposed to write in places they aren’t supposed to write them but still, beautiful penmanship.

A few of them asked for printouts of cartoon character couples. It wasn’t so they could cut them out and glue them on the cards but so they could draw them, just by looking at them. I hadn’t thought beyond hearts but by the time I left on Friday I had requests for roses, a single rose in a vase, more cartoon couples, and a penguin. I loved seeing them, (okay most of them,) so enthusiastic. For a little while it was easy to forget where I was, to imagine that I was in a regular high school classroom and these were regular kids, not kids who were already deep in the juvenile justice system.

There’s one boy seems so full of hurt and anger that I just want to wrap my arms around him and hug him until he really feels it. But he is also filled with words and that can only be a good thing. His writing is hard and honest. I don’t know how long he has been where he is or how much longer he will be there but I wonder and perhaps worry, if it will be enough for him. I hope so.

There’s one who, no matter what you ask him, he manages to work how wonderful he is into his answer. Self-esteem doesn’t seem to be his problem. His writing is filled with joy and love.

There’s one who never wants to do whatever it is we are going to do until he sees the other kids digging in. I never expect him to do much yet he always surprises me with a line or two that goes straight to the gut. I tell him this, this honest writing, is terrific and he shrugs it off.

There is one who loves to write so much that he writes in his free time and works ahead on the stuff we are doing. When he is writing I can see that same determination that I see on the face of so many other writers as they are doing what they love to do.

There is one who races through the assignments because getting to the end is all that matters to him. And yet even in his race, he captures the emotion of his moment.

There is one who is getting out soon and I know he is only doing what he has to do in order mark his time. I watch him sometimes and wonder which way he will go when he outside.

And there is one, the one I have been waiting to find in this group, one that I think is making the connection between words on paper offering a way to be heard and a way to free oneself to walk a different path when he gets out. I watch him struggle between what he feels and what he puts on the paper. I watch how he hesitates, wondering whether writing it down really makes a difference, and then I watch him stand up and read his work with pride. I watch him smile, just a little, when we clap for him.

I watch him and hope a spark has been lit.

Saturday, January 30, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , |5 Comments

2010 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 1 / Session 4

Wednesday was the fourth session of the new Incarcerated teens poetry class.

This time I felt prepared. I had some great poems to share. I had a couple of good exercises planned that I felt would help them probe some feelings. I was feeling like I knew just what I needed to do. Until I walked in the door.

As things were getting started the teacher mentioned that they had been asking about love poems and she had given them a couple of famous (translation, very old) love poems but they just couldn’t get into them. So I dropped the lesson plan I had in mind and went out of the box, which is never an easy thing for me.

One of the poems they had was How Do I Love Thee? and they just couldn’t get into. Well I’ve never tried to dissect that particular poem but we took a stab at talking our way through it together. Then we brainstormed all the different ways they could show someone they loved them without ever using the word love. This was a fun exercise because they started off silly, talking about making googely eyes at someone but then they got into the real stuff and talked about respect and listening and nurturing. Their words, not mine. When the board was full of words it was easy to see a pattern – many of the words they chose to describe love were also words that were showing up in the positive word book. A lightbulb moment perhaps for at least one of them.

We talked a bit about list poems and I had them do a quick one to get in the writing mood. I tore sentences from magazines that were questions and passed one out to each kid. Then I asked them to answer the question in a list. Those were the only rules. As always, they impressed me with the way they were instantly able to jump outside the realm of the expected and go somewhere else.

After that I gave them the assignment to write a love poem that never mentioned the word love. Though they grumbled a bit they soon got into it. The concept of freewriting is still new to them but once they put their heads down and get going, they really generate a lot of great words.

There was a new kid who joined the class this session. He had the haunted eyes of someone new to the system, wondering what it was he was supposed to do or so in order to pass the invisible test. Looking at him I was reminded of where I was, what these boys had done to get them here, and how, sadly, not all of them would be saved or changed by their experience.

It made me want to go around the room and hug each of them.

My word for this session is CURIOUS.

Thursday, January 28, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , |2 Comments

2010 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 1 / Session 3

Monday was the third session of the new Incarcerated teens poetry class.

I worked myself up into a worry funk before class today. I settled down once I got there but I really hate all the angst I pile on myself ahead of time.

As usual they were enthusiastic in their greetings. A little tough to get down to work (one kid wanted to make sure he was getting some sort of extra credit by participating because he really didn’t want to do it.) But once they got into it, they once again did great work. All but one of them remembered their books and the teacher took that one back to his room so he could get his. Some have worked ahead and picked out their ten words already. No one gave me a hard time when I asked them their word for the day. Some are decorating the pages and of course a couple are just writing the words down because they have to.

I had them do another poem based on their word from the previous visit. I gave them the option of another acrostic or one using the five senses. One student asked if he could do comparisons and I said yes. He did a great job. Tomorrow we’ll have to do two word poems to get caught up with one word/one poem.

Then I read them, Time Somebody Told Me from Betsy Franco’s book, THINGS I& HAVE TO TELL YOU. We talked about it a bit. I’m not strong on facilitating discussions with non-talkers but a couple of them had thoughts about it. One of them said it made him feel like he could change. I read a free more free verse poems and then we talked about writing free verse. I put an example on the board of a paragraph and then went back and took out words and showed them how it could shape into a poem. Then they wrote.

This time they all (well almost all) wanted to share right away. They are great about getting up and coming up front and reading their work. I told them how many people are afraid of public speaking and how great it was that they all seemed to be fine with doing it.

The one thing I wish I had done differently was to give them a topic to write on. Poetry is still new enough to them that they spend time flounder for what to write about. Tomorrow I’ll make sure to bring in a few topics to focus their thoughts.

My word for the day was AMAZING!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , |3 Comments

2010 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 1 / Session 2

Friday was the second session of the new Incarcerated teens poetry class.

As in every group or class there are some that love to talk and some that want to be invisible. This session I wanted to introduce comparisons. As always when I get to something semi-technical or with any sort of rules to follow, I lose confidence in myself. I don’t really know how to counter that except to keep on doing it.

I read some from The Book of Qualities and shared some examples but I think I need to build up my stash of examples. I also think just me talking for too long is boring to them so I really want to get them writing as soon as possible yet I struggle with not talking enough. I only have them for an hour though. I wish I had had some formal teacher training to help me with this sort of thing. I also think I need to come up with some more group poetry exercises we can do together at the board. It helps gets things flowing.

They’re a talkative group. Or some of them are. Some of them, of course, would like to melt into the seat and not have to talk at all. They’re good about standing up and reading what they’ve written and mostly good about encouraging each other. It’s interesting to watch the emotions go back and forth between them and imagine who might be on opposite sides of an imaginary line when they leave the classroom. Because they are so articulate I really have high expectations for their work yet I know that it is up to me to find the way to pull their words out of them and get them to put them on the page.

From comparisons we talked a little bit about the senses and how to use them in our poetry. Then I asked them to take the word they chose for themselves the first day and describe it with the five senses. They asked for an example and I did a quick one on the board for them with the word I chose that first day.

When they finished their sensory pieces we went straight to some art because I knew this first piece would take some time. We made little accordion books so that they can put one word on each page. The idea is that they pick a word each time I go in there. Then they can decorate the book and I’ll laminate it with packing tape and they will have it to take with them. It’s small enough to fit in their pocket.

Most of them did okay making the book. One kid worked ahead and cut something he shouldn’t have. Another feels like he has done all this before so he doesn’t have to do it again. He challenges everything as though he’s 100 years old and done everything there is worth doing in the world. Another student is writing a book of his own and asked me questions about how to approach publishers. I think he is going to have publishing questions for me at every visit.

I can’t tell if they liked the idea or even “get” the idea but they did it. One mistake I think I made is that I told them they could keep the booklets with their stuff rather than put them in their folders. I should have had them put them in the folders and give them to them at the end. Lesson learned for the next week.

My word for this session is HOPE.

And here’s the quick example I did for them on using the senses to describe our word of the day. My word was potential.


Looks like a room full of smiling young men
Smells like fresh rain
Tastes like that first bite of my favorite chocolate cake
Feels like hope
Sounds like the Universe clapping

Sunday, January 24, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , |2 Comments

2010 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop – Class 1 / Session 1

Yesterday was the first of 10 sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated boys. Since I have two classes this year they will be class 1 and class 2 (unique, I know.)

Just getting to class yesterday was an event as we are having huge rain storms here in northern California, accompanied by thunder and lighting and hail. I walked into the room and was greeted by cheers (they really like a break in their routine) and a couple of kids shouted out, “She has Sketchers!” Who would have thought that finally, after all these years, I’m wearing something (shoes) the cool kids want to wear.

This class is different from the group I had last year as they have a bit more freedom. You could the room was more relaxed (though we still have a guard in the room.)

I told them a little bit about myself and they were surprised to hear I was 51 years old. They guessed around 31. Good for my ego. We talked about what a rock was in the non-traditional sense. They got it right away and started rattling things off. Then I read them a few poems from my book, Hugging the Rock. This is a very smart group, articulate, and they jumped into conversation right away.

We did an acrostic poem about their name to help me get to know them better. They went right to dictionaries when they needed a word and had no trouble coming up to the front of the class to read their poem out loud. (Except for one kid.) This is going to be a lively group. I can already see a few distinct personalities and that is part of the fun of this type of work.

We brainstormed a list of positive words and I asked them each to pick a word for the day. I told them we’d do this every day that I come in. Next week I will have mini books for them to put their positive words into and keep.

This session is only an hour which I think is better than the 90 minutes I tried before. It means more sessions but I think I can keep their attention better. This group is going to keep me on my toes.

I had them vote on what they wanted to use for art, markers or colored pencils, and again this group picked pencils. I don’t know why it surprised me but it did. It’s good though since colored pencils don’t dry out and I already have a bunch of them.

I’m picking a positive word for each day that I visit them too. For the first visit my word is: POTENTIAL.

These kids are filled with it. I just want to point them in the right direction so they can see it too.

Thursday, January 21, 2010|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2010|Tags: , , , , |13 Comments

My Pitch for the Arts Connect Program

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to speak at our county budget planning session in support of the Arts Council program that gave me a grant for my incarcerated teens poetry project. There were several speakers who had several minutes to talk about how they were involved with various Arts Council projects. I prepped a 1, 2, and 3 minute talk and then, as often happens, altered it a bit when I was there. I told a few people that I would post what I said. Here’s the longest version. I didn’t get to say all of it but I did share most of it.

I am here to speak on behalf of the Arts Connect program which has given me grants to go into alternative schools and teach what I know how to do best . . . spill your guts on paper. But I am not only here to speak for the Arts Council. I am here to speak for the kids. They are locked up both literally and metaphorically. They have been in and of gangs, jail, and foster homes. They have learning problems, language problems, and a giant dose of attitude – but they all have something to say.

The lonely boy whose dad only cared about getting drunk and smacking him around wrote love poems for his girlfriend.

The boy who was an overachiever at everything, including being a gang member, wrote long poems about his family and how much they meant to him.

The boy who knew he might never get out of jail again wrote poems of apology to his mother.

Powerful stuff. Becoming involved in poetry helped open the prison doors of their souls. They became vulnerable and real. The simple act of me showing up every session, no matter how hard they pushed me away, showed them someone cared. It gave them hope. And if we can give them hope, we can help them make a change in their life.

Artists and musicians and writers need to go into these schools to work with challenged youth. We need to dare these kids to look at their lives differently. We need to give them new tools for expressing themselves.

A few years ago I did a year long residency at another alternative school. One of the most difficult students was Edgar. He was big, built like a battering ram. He had escaped a detention facility and had been on the run for two years. At sixteen he was back in the classroom and wearing an electronic surveillance ankle bracelet. He wrote about gang life, getting drunk, and hurting people.

He was the only student who ever made me feel afraid and I never really felt like I connected with him until the day I asked the class, “If you could go back and change something in your life, what would change and why?”

Some kids went right to work writing. But not Edgar. He just leaned over the desk and held his head in his hands. When I asked him what was wrong he told me he didn’t have enough paper. I put a stack of paper on his desk.

Then he told me no, he meant, there wasn’t enough paper in the world for him to write about it all. He said he’d change everything. Then he said that it didn’t matter. That he had screwed up, he was going to court the next week, and he knew he was going to be locked up again.

I didn’t ask any questions. I just told him to write. All the other students finished and left but Edgar kept on writing. When he finally got ready to go he told me that writing was hard but that it made him think.

And sometimes it even made him feel sorry for the things he had done.

That’s why we need programs like Arts Connect.

Thursday, May 14, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , |20 Comments

Art Empowers Our Youth

A few months ago I had the chance to teach poetry to a group of incarcerated teens.

Today was the reception and opening of the display of the student work at the de Saisset museum at Santa Clara university. The program, Arts Connect, is sponsored by the Arts Council Silicon Valley and connects local artists with at-risk youth hopefully showing them how art can empower them to make changes in their lives.

I am reposting their poem for Poetry Friday because I am so proud of them, of the work they did and I am so happy to have been a part of this program in what could be the very last year. There has been a sudden push to cut the budget for this program.

has a beautiful life to it.

You sound like happiness, sadness, love
taste like fresh strawberries
and feel like soft skin, sandpaper, a brick wall.

Poetry is all the colors of the rainbow
and smells like freedom, incarceration, a sexy girl.

Oh poetry, you drive me crazy.

You make me want to scream, to feel, to heal.

You look like sunshine and moonlight in the city.

Poetry is feelings on paper.

I have been asked to join the Arts Council at the Board of Supervisors meeting next week in order to help convince the board of the importance of this program. I will have one minute to speak on behalf of the Arts Connect program and the impact I was able to make with the challenged youth in my class.

It is I who will be challenged.

How do you capture, in just one minute, the sight of a boy pouring his heart out on the page with no one standing over him telling him he is dumb for doing it? How do you show someone the pride of a young man standing up to read his poem to the class, a poem that exposes the deepest hurting part of himself? How do you tell an audience that the simple act of me showing up every session, no matter what they said or did or tried to do to push me away, that my showing up showed them that someone cared which meant that they were worth caring about, worth saving?

How do I show them the heart of these boys who had never written poetry before, who tried so hard at something so new, and who succeeded beyond my expectations?

What would you say if you had one minute to prove the importance, the impact of art on at-risk youth?

Friday, May 8, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , |33 Comments

Poetry Friday – Incarcerated Teens Group Poem

I recently completed teaching a series of seven sessions in a poetry workshop for incarcerated teens and on the last day they spent nearly an hour writing the following group poem. Though I posted it in my blog post on Wednesday when I talked about the session, I wanted to post it again today as it really touched my heart.

has a beautiful life to it.
You sound like happiness, sadness, love
taste like fresh strawberries and feel like soft skin, sandpaper, a brick wall.

Poetry is all the colors of the rainbow
and smells like freedom, incarceration, a sexy girl.

Oh poetry, you drive me crazy.

You make me want to scream, to feel, to heal.

You look like sunshine and moonlight in the city.

Poetry is feelings on paper.

The round-up today is at Adventures in Daily Living.

2009 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #7

Today was the last of 7 poetry sessions with a group of incarcerated young men.

I won’t pretend it was easy to go back there today. It wasn’t. Not after the rough day on Monday. I really had to psyche myself up, reread all the supportive comments people had left me, and then apply my usual mode of dealing with things I can’t deal with – fake it til you make it.

I had asked for permission to bring in some snacks for our last day and permission was granted but I wasn’t feeling much like partying when I stopped at the grocery store. Still I loaded up on tortilla chips, super hot salsas (tip from the teacher) and some cookies. But my confidence was pretty much shot.

I was up until 2am this morning making sure I had all their work typed up for them and scanning all their art. I kept the originals of the self-portraits for the display, as well as a few other pieces of art and gave the rest back to them. I made a copy of everything for the teacher as she has to give them a grade. I had to remove the Velcro closures on their portfolios in order for them to be able to keep them.

I wrote each boy a letter, personalized just for them and put it in a colored envelope. Then I went to bed but didn’t sleep.

This morning I struggled for a long time over what we would do writing-wise today and changed my mind three times.

When I got there I asked the teacher how they were doing and she said they were lazy today and might not want to work at all. She also said that the one boy who made me the object of his hate me had decided he was sick so he could leave class before I arrived. I was okay with that. Just looking at his self-portrait last night had brought it all back again. Not having to deal with him today was a bonus in my book.

She also said they were under a tighter watch as there had been an escape the night before so I really had no idea what to expect from the group when I went in. One of the avid writers, one who really spent a lot of time on all his work and obviously enjoyed the writing, was at the dentist. I was sad that he wasn’t able to be there with us.

The mood seemed good in the room and they asked for something fun and easy. They have always been good at brainstorming and today they were no exception. We filled the board with words and phrases and then edited for our favorites. I rewrote it on the board and they did a final edit. I decided at the last minute to do a group poem with them that we could do on the board, then revise together. A format I came up with last night and would serve as a model for a poem they would do on their own.

Here is the group poem they wrote.

has a beautiful life to it.

You sound like happiness, sadness, love
taste like fresh strawberries
and feel like soft skin, sandpaper, a brick wall.

Poetry is all the colors of the rainbow
and smells like freedom, incarceration, a sexy girl.

Oh poetry, you drive me crazy.

You make me want to scream, to feel, to heal.

You look like sunshine and moonlight in the city.

Poetry is feelings on paper.

After that they did one last poem on their own and as they finished, I handed out their folders and the letters. They were upset that I had to remove the Velcro but soon the room was buzzing as they sorted through the folders to see what they had accomplished. The guard today was new to me and they were anxious to show off all their work. They told him the story of the mirrors and the massive zit-popping orgy that ensued when they first saw themselves. Then they opened the letters and immediately had to check and see who had the longest one. They shared them with the guard and asked me if they could share them with the judge.

My tough guy, the one who stood up to me on day two, said, “I wish I had known you were writing letters. We could have written you letters too.” I told him he still could. I would come down anytime to pick them up.

When I brought out the snacks they were so surprised. The choruses of thank-yous were nice to hear. My tough guy spoke up again and said, “You didn’t have to do that for us.”

I just smiled at him feeling very glad that I had. My missing writer returned from the dentist right about then and I don’t think I was imagining the light in his eyes when he came into the room. Later the teacher told me that he was really worried and hadn’t wanted to miss the last day.

While they ate I asked them if they wanted to help me with my current book, Flyboy’s story. And they said yes. One, normally a jokester who takes nothing seriously, surprised me. He said it was only right for them to try and help me because I had already helped them so much. I found it a little hard to speak again right away after he said that.

So I told them about Flyboy and the troubles he was having. I asked their input on what a teenage boy would do in some of the situations I was putting Flyboy in. It felt good to hear their reactions match what I was doing with the plot. Sometimes, before I even got that far in the story, they’d pipe up with a suggestion and I would smile to myself because I had already written that very scene.

They hated the mom right along with me and wanted her dead. They were okay with him having a girlfriend or not having one and if he had one, it was okay if she did some things, even flying, better than he did. They understood why some of the things happened to Flyboy and his dad. They didn’t like it but they understood.

I asked them if they thought Flyboy would be able to forgive, as he needs to do in this story, and they said yes.

They said that with enough love, it was possible.

It was a good way to end the session because really, that’s what it was all about for me.

I love words. I believe they have enormous power. Power to do good, power to heal, power to bring hope.

It wasn’t an easy set of workshops but I wouldn’t have missed doing it for anything. And I would do it again and again. I asked them to each write down something they got out of the workshops and my favorite answer (besides the one who said he learned that revision wasn’t as bad as he thought) was the one who said he learned that he could get relief when he expressed his feelings on paper.

Color me happy. Mission accomplished.

As they were leaving they all shouted out more thank yous. I was pretty sure it was for the food. That’s okay. It was nice to see them filling their plates like regular teenagers enjoying an afterschool snack.The room was empty and I was ready to go. One student came back and held out his hand.

I shook it and he looked me in the eyes and said, “Thank you, Ma’am.”

He didn’t say anything else but I got the message just the same. And as clichéd as it may sound, It made everything worthwhile.

Grade for it all – – – I’m giving myself an A.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , |43 Comments

2009 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #6

Today was the sixth of 7 poetry sessions with a group of incarcerated young men.

It was not a good day. Not good at all. Before we even started the guard gave them another talking to about being quiet and listening to me and paying attention. I think his speaking up has made it more difficult for me but I don’t feel like I can say anything to him because of the situation I am working in.

We did love poems. It was their idea. But of course they suggested it a few sessions ago and I made them wait until today. My thought was that since it was their idea they would be more into it. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

I read some love poems. I even read an I love you NOT poem by Bruce Lansky. They laughed. They started quoting song lyrics. So we brainstormed love terms on the board. I started simple and asked them to think about the little candy Valentine’s Day hearts and what was written on them. I wrote the words on the board. Then they started calling out longer phrases, good ones. I wrote them on the board.

We worked together a bit more and then I turned them loose to work on their own love poem….or not love poem. The grumbling rose.

“I don’t love anyone. I have nothing to say. I don’t want to do this. I’m bored. This is stupid.”

Most of the comments were familiar. I got variants of the same ones every visit and eventually they would knuckle down and start to write.

The boy who gave me so much trouble the first couple of sessions complained and then actually wrote something honest to who he was.

Then when I went around to read and help I asked one boy if he said he had someone to write about and he said yes. He was about 10 inches from my face and he kept his voice low enough so that he and I were the only ones who heard. He said, “You. I hate you.You got me in trouble. I talked to staff and they said you told them I was causing trouble. You screwed up my program and now I can’t do anything. It’s all your fault. I hate you. I wish you’d never come. ” and so much more.

I kept telling myself not to buy into their drama but in the back of my mind there was this running voice saying mean things myself like, “I didn’t say anything. You got yourself in trouble. And much more.”

Then I went to one of the other boys who is usually cooperative and he said he wanted to write about this girl that he liked but he got locked up before he got the chance to tell her that he liked her. So we talked about how he could start it and he had written down, “I never told you” and I told him that would be a great list poem (we’ve done those) and he could start every line with that and figure out a frame for the beginning and the ending. So then he wanted to brainstorm some more and I was thinking that finally he was back with the program. I’m throwing out ideas and I said, “I never told you that I watch you….” and I’m thinking about how you watch someone across the room and he explodes and said I was calling him a stalker and went off for several minutes and stopped writing for the rest of the session.

Two of them yelled at me that everything had to rhyme or it was no good, even though we have discussed that poems don’t need to rhyme.

The good artist said he was going to tear up all his drawings and he didn’t want me to share anything at the museum. Then the other good artist said the same thing, that he didn’t want anything posted in the museum. After that no one wanted anything to be displayed, even though their names won’t be on them.

I felt like a babysitter who got locked in the bathroom while the kids I was supposed to be taking care of turned the house upside down. No steps forward today.

I don’t know how many steps backward.

Wednesday is my last day with them. It is hard to think about what to do for the final session. My plan was to do part day of writing, I don’t know what kind yet, and then, party time. I got permission to bring in some snacks for them though I have to say, it was hard to make myself go shopping for them after a day like this.

Grade for the day. B minus.

Today I’m finding it hard to see that what I am doing there is making any sort of difference.

Monday, January 26, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , |37 Comments

2009 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #5

Today was the fifth of 7 poetry sessions with a group of incarcerated young men.

We are coming close to the end of the sessions. Today I wanted to work on something a bit more poetic, more sensory. I also wanted to get them to revise some of their previous work. Last night I went through their folders (I bring them back and forth with me each time) and picked two of the strongest pieces and typed them up. But I didn’t give them to them right away.

I put some words on the board, strong and positive words. Then we brainstormed sensory words grouped under the five senses.  After that I read to them from the Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler. Their assignment was to pick one of the positive words and describe it as though it were a person using as many sensory details as they could. This was very hard for them, to use their imagination in that way. They couldn’t grasp the idea that courage or joy was a person. They couldn’t imagine what love would taste like.

Then they asked for another word to be added to the list.


I wrote FREEDOM on the board and soon the room was quiet while they wrote. I haven’t read their papers yet but I did walk around and read a bit while they were working on them and I think some of them did quite well.

After that I handed out their typed poems and talked to them a bit about revision. I told them it was important to make sure that they used just the right word in order to make sure that the reader understood just what they wanted to say. We talked about the difference between the right and the almost right word. They weren’t totally convinced so I didn’t expect much work out of them but they surprised me. Most, if not all, of them made changes to at least one of the pieces.

Then it was time for art. I’d say it was their favorite part of the day but not because they all love art but because it is more freeing, more chattering going on.

I had planned on bringing back some of their previous art pieces and letting them continue to work on them but instead I brought something new. I handed each of them a hand mirror (I got permission first to bring in the mirrors) and told them today we would draw self-portraits.

The reaction from them was totally unexpected.

Not about the drawing.

About the mirrors.

Where they are being detained there is one mirror in the center of a public place and it is more like a piece of polished metal with scratches on it. They line up in front of the tiny shiny spot every day to try and shave. When I gave them the mirrors  I gave them a chance to see themselves as they are now for the first time in a very long time.

I watched their guard drop, as they laughed, running their hands over the top of their hair, checking out their sideburns, and of course, popping zits. 🙂 Then they teamed up, holding one mirror behind another so they could each see the backs of their necks, their ears, their tattoos. It was an unexpected party time, boys being boys, talking about how good looking they were.

Eventually I got them to focus on the drawing part of the assignment and they started using the mirrors to try and sketch themselves. I don’t think any of them are in danger of being identified by their portraits when we put the display up in the museum but after some initial struggles, they all seemed to get into it.

The sad part of the day was that there was an incident with one boy that caused the guard to remove him from the class. I may not have agreed with the reasoning behind it but I know that they have to stick to their rules.

There is also one boy who, for the last three sessions, has shut me out. He didn’t at first. He participated just fine. Now he is fine with everyone else but suddenly he is anti-me. I don’t know what happened, if I said something to him that was taken the wrong way or what. He starts to work, then as I come around he scratches it out. He is the most gifted artist in the class but now he won’t draw when I am there. I asked him today, what I had done and he just shook his head.

I said, “Okay, you’re mad at me, I just don’t know why.”

And he said, “Yep.”

It hurts. But I need to let it go. I only have two sessions left with them.  I know I am doing my best. I am bringing in experiences and giving them chances and listening to what they want to say, to write, to draw. I am lighting candles that I hope will flame into something positive for at least some of them.

I can try, but I can’t touch them all.

Friday, January 23, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , |20 Comments