Teacher Sara Primo and her class participated in Poetry for Life on-line training. This is her report on the poetry workshops the training supported. They learned recitation skills including the use of "call and response," to perform poetry with elders and how to create poems by asking open-ended questions around a theme.

“We’ve Got More Poems to Write”
Sara Primo, Germantown Friends School, Philadelphia, PA

I named my January Term class “Poetry as Courage, Poetry as Service” because I had two goals for the students who would take it: 1) for them to write and publicly, perform daringly honest poems and 2) for them to learn how to lead poetry workshops in the community.

On January 16th, 2015 twelve students and I walked to two nursing homes for our big poetry workshop day in Germantown. I barely did anything, other than lead us into the right buildings, write down everything I heard, and grin maniacally. I had rendered myself unnecessary: that rare treat for a teacher. I let go of the bike on that day, and my students coasted ahead with grace and power.

Here are some of the things I wrote down, that my GFS students said:

“When have you had two roads to choose between?”
“Just the words you’ve already said: that’s a poem.”
“That’s a metaphor – a powerful one.”
“What would we name this poem based on what it’s become?”

Here are some of the things said by the elderly workshop participants:

Do you do haikus?
Do you have any Maya Angelou?
I love life I lost it and then I came back.
Appreciate. I mean: mercy.
I predict a really good future for you.
It has rhythm, it has color. I’m still liking poetry.

Six students led a workshop in the morning at Wesley Enhanced Living at Stapeley, and six students led a workshop after lunch at Maplewood Manor. The second workshop started with a question: what are your favorite words? One of the elderly participants responded, “I really don’t have a favorite word.” At first it sounded like she couldn’t connect to the question, but it turned out she connected so well that she couldn’t choose between many favorites: food, airplane, thank you, or love. That is how the day of poetry felt to me. What had looked like hesitation rapidly turned into abundance… abundance from my teen-age students and abundance from their students.

To prepare, students had spent the two weeks prior participating in the type of workshops they would eventually lead (getting the occasional meta-view into my reasoning as a teacher); committing a published poem to memory; and writing a LOT of poetry (one poem per class). Various student prompts ranged from the concrete to the abstract: a poem about an object you hate, a place from your past you are still looking for, a gender memory, a confession, a poem about making an everyday object, and a persona poem from the point of view of someone you diametrically disagree with. On the last day of January, students disrupted traffic in the main hall, stepping up to a microphone to read their best work. Highlights included a confession of childhood bossiness, nostalgia for tomboy courage, and an insistence on taking up space.

Although we had a successful linkup with the elderly in mid-January, this same poetry workshop model proved applicable to other populations. One week after our trip to the nursing homes, five students from the course led a poetry workshop with Sarah Walker’s fourth graders. The poems they wrote were golden. Again, I sat in the back of the room writing down everything the fourth graders said and wondering at the seemingly effortless poetry pouring out of their process.

Our students shone in this work with the community. They were unselfconscious, validating, energetic, and attentive. What hit me hardest about this course, that I could not have predicted or insisted on, was how these GFS students were able to transform a physical space. Particularly in the afternoon workshop at Maplewood, we started out in a regular lunchroom with food leftovers still on the tables, with some ambivalent but mildly curious people who just wanted to be next in line for their long-awaited cigarette break. Forgive me for what might sound like hyperbole, but what happened over that next hour – to the space itself – can only be described as magic. It filled with a generative, positive, and enthusiastic buzz. The hard edges of that room softened. It was somewhere I could have lived.

One woman who had seemed distracted at first said with urgency at the end, “We could keep going forever; we’ve got more poems to write.” I hope my students heard her comment for what it was.

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The success of my class depended on four contributing people:

  • Rick Benjamin, my favorite poetry professor, taught me how to craft a workshop around a mentor poem and coined the term “thicken the air.” His course at Brown, “Poetry in Service to Schools and the Community” was an obvious inspiration for my January class.
  • Caits Meissner, a dazzling prompt-tastic poet/educator in New York City who co-taught with me for three summers, showed me the jaw-dropping power of loudly reading intimate poetry in high traffic spaces.
  • Gary Glazner, founder of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, and Poetry for Life via skypes and emails, gave me the confidence to work with the elderly population specifically; he is the reason I required poetry memorization and recitation as part of the student-led workshops.

  • Kathy Paulmier has built bridges between our school and the community that I got to merrily parade across in January. I am grateful for the ways she situates our school within our neighborhood.