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.