Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009

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

2009 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #4

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

The goal for the session was to end up with at least one poem or near poem that I could bring home, type up, and take back from them to revise on Friday. I wanted them to see their words printed out in the hopes that it might encourage them to want to revise, to try to improve their writing. What can I say, I’m a bit of an optimist when it comes to that sort of thing. Plus I love revision.

The group, however, does not share my opinion. In fact, several of them told me outright that they wouldn’t do it. When I asked the teacher if they had ever revised anything she said no. Sigh. Friday is going to be a rough day. I suppose I could not push the issue of revision but I am hoping that when they see the words printed out that they will realize some of the sentences could be more clear, more detailed, more specific.

They were fairly attentive this time and we started off with writing a bio poem about a member of the family.  The only rules I gave them were no booze, no drugs, no swearing, no gangs. We did a model poem together on the board and at every line someone mentioned beer. It’s to be expected. It’s so hard to get them to try and think outside their boxes.

Surprisingly they all went straight to work on their own poems. One started off just writing about drugs and booze. I reminded him of the rules and he told me that he couldn’t help it. It was all he thought about, the only life he knew and the one he missed. He knew he was going to be in jail for years and he didn’t see that it mattered what he wrote. He said, “We’re all just prisoners here. Who cares what we write.”

I told him I cared.

I asked him to just try a little harder and see what else he could find inside. I told he could write about someone other than himself if he wanted.  But he didn’t. He sat for all long doing nothing and then.

Then he wrote. About himself. About the good and the bad. He wrote one of the strongest pieces of all of them so far.

The boy with meager English skills wrote in Spanish about his aunt who wants him to come live with her when he gets out.

The class clown wrote about having no friends.

Another chose a seemingly simple phrase “I am the only boy in my house” and repeated it through the poem about his family and the things he had done that brought him to where he was today . Powerful stuff.

Some of them wrote poetry today.

And they don’t even realize it.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , |6 Comments

2009 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #3

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

The goal for the day was survival. I’m not joking.

When the teacher tells you right off the bat that they had managed to concentrate for SOME of the time before I got there but that now they were basically, well, a bit wild and crazy, you know it is going to be a rough day.

The good. They were comfortable enough to chat with me before things got started. It was the nice, easygoing chat I had witnessed between them and their regular teacher and it felt good to be included.

The crazy. They were actually really good at brainstorming words on the board. Not so great at coming up with a sentence using those words. And only two of them managed to actually write a poem. I asked for 5 lines which they complained was too long. This from the same group of kids who 2 days ago were writing 10 and 15 lines. But they are like many other teens in that regard.

We tried to work on editing/revising a poem for improvement but they are all taking it personally, saying that it means I don’t like their work. It doesn’t matter how many revisions I tell them I have gone through on a poem, they are different.

One of them managed to slip a drug reference past me when we were writing about water things. He wrote about ice and I totally blanked out on the drug reference until the second time I read the poem. Sigh. Too bad as it was the most he had written.

One of them worked very hard on several lines, trying to really capture the feeling he had inside. I think he did a great job but then he was afraid that the judge would see it and somehow make a judgment on him so he destroyed the page.

One of them, the one who stood up to me in the last session, has become very helpful of another boy who speaks very little English.

This time for art I brought my collection of words and phrases that I have been cutting out of magazines for years. I put a pile on each table and gave them a fresh sheet of paper. The idea was to do a collage, a positive collage, of the words that spoke to you.

They are all so conditioned with being in this place that they couldn’t grasp the outside-of-the-box concept. They lined words up in complete sentences. Tore words apart to make their own words. In the end, most of them just grabbed words without meaning and glued them to the page. At this rate I worry that we will actually manage the self-portraits or a decent poem for the display that is needed at the end of the project.

The hardest thing? Getting them to revise. It’s just not happening.

The next hardest thing? Getting them to listen, which the teacher said she has trouble with too.

My grade for the day? I’m sticking with a B.

Friday, January 16, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , |13 Comments

2009 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #2

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

The goal for the day was to get to a simile of 2-3 lines that they could then copy to a piece of art paper and illustrate with the art supplies I brought in. I told them the plan of the day and that art was only an option if the cooperated with me on the writing stuff. If not, we’d just keep writing.

The mood in the room was more relaxed this time, though still respectful. None of them talked directly to me but I was able to observe their interactions with their teacher and the guard in the room for the session. One student was feeling playful and there was some fun conversation between him and the guard and then him and the teacher. I enjoyed seeing them act like a normal group of young teens in class.

But they weren’t completely normal. They reminded me of that right away.

As I had on Monday I started the session with reading some poems to them in the hopes of getting some conversations going. Today I read two poems from HERE, BULLET. With the first one there was some interaction, not much, but better than on Monday. I had barely finished the second poem when someone spoke up. Someone that, after Monday’s session and what he had written, I had marked as not interested in participating. Not interested in making any changes in his life.

As always, this kind of work with kids surprises me.

This student kept his head down, staring at the paper in front of him. A pencil in his hand but the paper was blank. He was shaking his head back and forth.

I asked him if he wanted to respond to the poem.

He kept his head down and said, “No. I don’t mean to disrespect you but could you please not read any more from that book?”

He told me it reminded him too much of his other life and he didn’t want to remember that. He told me they all knew the mistakes they made and they didn’t need reminders of guns and war and killing to make them feel worse.

Each comment was prefaced with the, “I don’t mean to disrespect you.”

Once he started talking the rest of them added to his comments. Whether they all agreed with him or whether he was a leader in the group, I don’t know.

Did I feel bad for having read the poems? Yes and no.

Yes, because of course I am not going there to make them feel worse. I am going there to bring them hope and help them realize that it is never to late to make a change for good in your life.

No, because this student had the courage to speak up to me, a teacher, an authority figure. And he did it in a very respectful fashion.

I had to respond somehow and I surprised myself by staying calm. Later, in my car, I would beat myself up a little bit but in the room, I was okay.

I watched the regular teacher watching me. I watched the guard watching me. Everyone in the room was watching me except for this one student still bent over a blank sheet of paper.

I walked over to him and said, “Thank you.”

He didn’t look up so I continued to talk to the top of his head. ” I told him, “I can respect your point of view and I appreciate you being strong enough to speak up to me about it.”

I walked back to the center of the room and then realized I had to tell him one more thing.

I said, “When I came in here on Monday I had one opinion of you because of your actions that day. Today, because you spoke up to me and because of the way you handled yourself, you changed my mind. I now have a different opinion of you.”

This time his head popped up. His eyes met mine for just a moment before he gave one of those head ducks that substitutes for a multitude of responses.

After that, similes should have been a breeze.

They weren’t but that was okay. We struggled through them until everyone had something they could illustrate. After break I handed out colored pencils (to be counted before I left) and expected them to dive into the idea of color. Instead some of them were very meticulous with their drawing and others spent almost the entire time doing the most elaborate handwriting of their poems.

I asked them what subjects they liked so I could find poems they might enjoy. I was expecting cars or animals or something like that. To my surprise they asked for love poems. (Deeana – you were right!) Love poems and funny poems. To that I am adding poems that are filled with hope, poems that show you can change your life. As always I’m open to suggestions.

Hardest thing for me today? Still trying to get them to talk more than a sentence or two. That sort of comfort is only going to come with time. Well, and with me asking good questions which I can’t seem to keep in my head so I have to use lots of index cards. I think the nervousness I used to get in the classroom has disappeared but it took a part of memory with it when it left.

Next hardest thing? I didn’t do as good a job linking each exercise to an overall theme as I wanted to do.

Next hardest thing? Figuring out what to do while they are doing art. There are only so many rounds you can make of their tables looking over their shoulders while they are drawing but it doesn’t seem right to just sit down and wait for them.

Next hardest thing for me to do? Spell. Honestly I tell them not to worry about spelling but they are very concerned. Then they ask me how to spell words that I often mess up myself.

Grade for the day? I’m giving myself a B.

Friday the group that has given me the grant to be able to do this is coming in to audit the class. I hope I come up with some great ideas before then.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , |19 Comments

2009 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #1

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

It wasn’t as bad as my first classroom speaking experience 15 years ago when I had to swallow back tears after something a kid said to me and the teacher let slide. (Truly, I wanted to run from the room in tears.)

It wasn’t as good as some of my other class visits, like a mother/daughter bookclub where the girls WANTED to be there, WANTED to meet me, WANTED to do what I came to do. It was about what I expected which was probably fine for them, was fine according to the teacher, but considering the very high standards I set for myself, I graded it a C.

I brought in colored portfolios for them to keep their work in. They thought that was cool, especially when I said they could decorate them, within the rules of the hall. I’m bringing the portfolios back and forth so I can comment on them but at the end of the session, they can keep them. A couple of them were very excited about that.

Right now there are 9 of them but the group is fluid so it will be constantly changing. There are some troublemakers. (I know, they all are, but some are trying and some just want to stir things up.) I expected a couple of these so I am not surprised.

One speaks little English. He couldn’t, wouldn’t do anything. Wouldn’t try. I don’t know how much English he really knows but he used his lack of it as an excuse, no matter the options we came up with. Another only wants to write about sex and drugs. Everything is a joke. He has no respect for anyone in the class. I expected someone like him too. He is the type to try to keep in bounds, (He only wanted to write about being a cocaine addict.) He is also the type who, if touched, will write something outstandingly real. Two sitting next to each other tried everything I asked and one even read out loud. One worked non-stop but didn’t want to share. One kept his head down the whole time and did nothing. One wrote, mostly stuff that made no sense, but he wrote. Another was a boy who tried very hard the whole time. He even smiled while he worked. He is probably going to be my star.Then there was Mr. Tough Guy. He didn’t write much but he was very good at participating verbally.

Note – I am writing all this before I read their work that I brought home.

I started with a little background on me. Funniest part of the day was when I told them I was 50. They were shocked. 50 was supposedly to be a little old lady in their minds. I read some poems from my book, Hugging the Rock. I asked them some questions but only one of them garnered a response. We moved to some writing exercises, brainstormed some words on the board, and wrote some simple acrostic poems about their name and some words that described them. A painful process for most of them. A painful process for me. We also did an exercise where I took in lines from a poem that had been cut apart and let them put back together then I read the original. At the end of the session I let them vote on what they wanted for art tools – markers or colored pencils. I thought they’d choose markers but they chose pencils. Now to find them some good bargains on pencils, erasers and paper.

After the fact analysis. 90 minutes is way, way too long. I knew it was going to be tough. The teacher told me after the session today that they are used to getting a break every half an hour. I’ll do that next session which should help. I had originally thought to keep art apart from the writing because I wanted to keep their focus. Now I think I am going to art at the end of each session, an hour of writing to a half an hour of art. It will be the reward for participating. The cut up poem was a good idea in theory but I think I needed a different poem, shorter even. This one was 12 lines but I think half of that would be enough, more than enough, for them.

Biggest challenge – figuring out how to make an emotional connection with them.

Hardest things for me, facilitating conversation. How to fix that? I have no idea. Next hardest thing – making a cohesive session rather than jumping all over the place. How do teachers in the classroom do that?

Next hardest thing – remembering all the stuff I want to talk about. Not being able to pull things out of my head when I need them.

Internal problem I’m struggling with – the idea of teaching poetry. Teaching writing feels comfortable to me but this is supposed to be all about poetry and for some reason that is causing, as my grandmother used to say, a hitch in my giddyup.

Next visit is Wednesday. Hope I figure out some new tricks by then.

Monday, January 12, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , , |16 Comments