poetry & elementary school

“It’s wonderful to get children to start to write because it makes them happy…”
– Kenneth Koch

For the past school year I’ve been spending Wednesdays volunteering at the local elementary school. The school, with its colorful mural of sea creatures afloat in a deep blue, is separated from the ocean by a strip of road that sometimes floods to the parking lot and a bus stop where you can routinely find an abandoned t-shirt or shoe. This is the perfect backdrop for teaching poetry to 1st graders.

Since Jonie was born I decided not to pursue an adjunct career at any of the universities or community colleges on the island. When I was pregnant, I lugged myself and my growing stomach/alien entity to Manoa, which took about 1.5hrs each way in the car, to teach a couple sections of ENG100. Pregnancy made it so I always had to pee and I almost always feel asleep at the wheel on the way home. But even with a ridiculous commute and a changing body, I wanted to teach. Honest moment: I was afraid I would never go back to teaching once the baby was born, so I held on to that semester as tightly as I could. Like so many families, we realized it would be more financially viable to have one parent stay home. And with my adjuncting career more unstable and meager than my husband’s work-from-home web business, the decision was easy. I was getting copywriting gigs, which allowed me to take on projects at a mom-pace while trying to figure out this whole raising a kid thing.

I’ve surprisingly felt an immense amount of freedom by leaving university and department politics behind. I knew I would be happier to direct my energies to more positive spaces, but I also thought that I wouldn’t write as much without an academic community to lean on. I’ve found that there are so many virtual spaces to fill that void. But, when Jonie was about 5 months old, I got the bug. I missed being in a classroom. But teaching 1-1.5hrs away didn’t seem feasible or desirable. So I contacted the principal and community outreach volunteer at the elementary school down the street to see if they had a Poetry In The Schools program or if they didn’t, would they like to have one?

The response was a bit underwhelming, but it all worked out. An amazing 1st grade teacher (seriously, this woman deserves the highest praise/a gold-leaf medal/cookies/whatever) was interested in having me come to her class and teach poetry to her wonderfully energetic students. I was terrified because, while I had taught an undergraduate class about the theories on teaching poetry for K-12 (with many thanks to the great work Kenneth Koch did in New York), I had little praxis behind me.

The elementary school in my area is fairly underserved. It schools communities that stretch 13 slow miles from Kaaawa to Kahuku and encompasses 5 rural neighborhoods along a two-lane highway. Class sizes are larger than usual, and students come from various backgrounds that make individualized learning so obviously necessary, but difficult.

I’ve been reluctant to write publicly about my experiences because the school has a pretty tight privacy policy. For example, volunteers can’t have class rosters, even if the volunteer just wants to learn the students’ names. So, I’ve kept this experience fairly private, even though teaching 6 & 7-year olds has been extremely rewarding. I plan on continuing to volunteer next year, and hopefully can expand the program by recruiting other volunteers (if you’re interested, please, please get in touch me with me!) to make this a more expansive program. I’m also interested in hearing from other Poets In The Schools people from other areas and states that I can learn from/trade & share lessons with.

Wednesday is the last day of class at the school, so I’ve prepared an end-of-year packet with everything we’ve gone over since the fall. My stapler is tired, but I’m [shockingly!] not. I’ll write an updated blog post with some thoughts on our last lesson (ekphrastic poems) and, if I can get approval, maybe post a few poems by the students. If you’re interested in seeing my individualized lessons, or this quick-and-dirty poetry recap packet, holler & you shall receive.