Sunday, October 12, 2014

Bringing Poetry into Schools

For 50 years, bringing poetry into schools   BY KATIE WATTS


October 10, 2014, 2:11PM 

Maureen Hurley is a teacher poet with California Poets in the Schools, a collective of professional poets who bring literary craft into classrooms. This weekend they celebrated the group’s 50th anniversary with a conference at IONS retreat center in Petaluma, but before it began, Hurley took time to introduce the group and explain why and how they take poetry into classrooms.

What is the value of poetry?

Poetry allows us to examine our emotions and contemplate our thoughts. Doctor poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

Wordsworth wrote, “Poetry is human emotion recollected in tranquility.” Not that there’s much by way of tranquility to be had during this day and age. In the process of recollection, poetry gives shape and form and meaning to those constantly chattering voices inside our heads, and renders them into an art form.

What can poetry accomplish that prose cannot?

Prose is to poetry as math is to music. You need both, but prose is analytical, expository and tends toward the utilitarian. Poetry is like dancing with words.

Poetry gives shape to our innermost feelings and presents them in a tangible art form that others can enjoy and get the Aha! epiphany. The ancient Greeks dubbed poetry the mother of all arts.

How does the Poets in the School program capture and hold a child’s interest?

Poets create a personalized, standards-based grade level curriculum and infuse it with magic and mystery, often marrying theatre, music and visual arts with the literary arts.

Through the immediacy and approachability of our lesson plans, we offer poems from the great body of literature, as well as peer student poems as models. It’s a mirroring process. We write our poems based on other poems.

Imagine being a student cut off from writing about your feelings and thoughts. With the current state curriculum standards, most student writing is expository, or fill in the dots, and there’s no room for creative self-expression.

Then imagine these wild poets who come along, take language, damsel it up and shake it all about. Suddenly that stuffy poetry is equal parts theater and soap-box pulpit, coupled with innermost feelings fueled by wild imagination. Suddenly it’s fun.

Most kids discover that writing their own poetry is liberating, especially those who traditionally don’t do well in school, or have trouble accessing the language arts curriculum.

Because there’s no right or wrong way to write poetry, it’s a place they can excel. Then, their poems are published in a school handout or a book, and suddenly poetry matters.

Why do you do this?

As a poet, I’m a role model. I can reach those kids who traditionally fall through the cracks and show them how they can access their minds. Poetry creates a powerful tool for change and self actualization.

A former student from Mark West School, who didn’t think poetry was important, called me up at midnight to read me a poem he had just written out of the blue.

If the program isn’t at my child’s school, how can I help bring it there?

The best way to get poetry into the schools is through a parent volunteer, the PTA or a teacher. There are numerous school and community funding sources that can be used to fund a poet’s residency. We are trained to work with teachers to locate and develop funding sources.

Contact Sonoma-Napa Area Coordinator Meg Hamill at, (415) 221-4201 or go to

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