Poets-in-the-Schools Program Changes Lives
by Beth Taylor-Schott
A multidisciplinary specialist is spending an hour with Mrs. Valadez’s third grade class. The students are working on emotional intelligence, community building, public speaking, language arts, divergent thinking, cultural awareness, and self-esteem. Of course, if you told the kids this, they’d think you were crazy. As far as they are concerned, they’re having fun — they’re writing poetry.
The Poets-in-the-Schools process seems deceptively simple. A poet comes into the classroom for an hour each week for six weeks. With the poet, students read poems, talk about them, and write their own. Today, Mrs. Valadez’s class is reading one of Pablo Neruda’s love sonnets. When they are done, the poet asks them about it. They are talking about simile, but nobody is worried about memorizing the term for a test. Rather, the students are interested in what similes can do for them as poets. The kids are particularly impressed by Neruda’s comparison of his wife to “summer in a golden church.” Next, the class reads student poems that have been inspired by Neruda. Finally, the poet reads one of her own poems and the kids enjoy giving her feedback on her use of simile.
By now the kids are itching to write. The poet invites the students to write a poem for someone who is special to them with a challenge to use a simile in every line. When they are done, students volunteer to read their poems. They have compared their loved ones to cherry blossom trees, to Napoleon’s tomb, to a leaning tower. Everyone eagerly anticipates the possibility that their poem will be one of the few chosen by the poet to be “published” (typed up) for the following week.
Indeed, children respond so spontaneously to these lessons that Lois Klein, who has been in the program for seven years, said, “We don’t really teach our students to write poetry. We help them realize that it’s something they already have inside. A class once wrote a poem for me in which they said, ‘You were able to unlock the poetry in us.’ That was the highest compliment I could receive.”
As simple as the process may seem, it is a powerful one. Students clearly learn to write compelling poetry. Many of the winners of The Independent’s own Young Poets contest — which is cosponsored and organized by the Santa Barbara Public Library — have been Poets-in-the-Schools students. (This year’s winners of that contest, incidentally, will read their poems tonight, April 13, at the Faulkner Gallery.) The program also inspires classroom teachers and provides a springboard for their teaching of poetry and creative writing.
But the real impact is a long-term one, as Perie Longo well knows. Longo has been a Poet-in-the-Schools in the Santa Barbara area since 1984, and the area coordinator for most of that time. It’s difficult for her to walk down State Street without someone coming up to thank her. “People tell me all the time,” Longo said, “you have no idea what you did for me as a kid. I love literature now because of you. You taught me to think outside the box. My life is richer because of you.”
Longo attributes the program’s impact to the approach of Poets-in-the-Schools and to the power of poetry itself. “Ever since the beginning,” Longo explained, “Poets-in-the-Schools has been about helping children see that there are lots of kinds of poetry. It treats the poetry of all cultures, and the voice of each child, with absolute respect. Children pick up on that. It helps them value their own voices.”
For example, in the second class Longo ever taught, a boy was inspired to write a poem about a tree. Longo didn’t understand the significance of this until the student’s teacher told her that the child had refused, up to that point, to even write his own name. Christine Kravetz, the current area coordinator, sees this same dynamic in her classes. She explains, “We give everyone a chance to be heard — not just the ‘best’ students. The process often gives confidence especially to kids who had not been thinking of themselves as academically successful.”
California-Poets-in-the-Schools (CPITS) began in San Francisco in 1964, the Santa Barbara program about a decade later. Last year, the statewide office for CPITS closed after severe cuts in funding from the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. Despite that closure, the Santa Barbara program survived and currently serves mostly third through sixth graders in 12 schools in Montecito, Santa Barbara, and Goleta. But with consistent state funding gone, the Santa Barbara poets now must also work on getting their own nonprofit status and finding new sources of funding.
Although challenges are mounting, the Santa Barbara program is actually expanding. Longo has mentored many other poet-teachers throughout the years, and the program is now larger than ever. In addition to Longo, Klein, and Kravetz, my husband David Taylor-Schott and I also teach. The program has added a number of schools in the past few years, including Roosevelt and Brandon last year, and now additionally serves kindergarteners through second graders.
Kravetz anticipates that the program will continue to grow. “Parents are asking us to come in more and more. They recognize that the arts, and literacy in particular, are important. In order to make sure that kids have these kinds of rich experiences, more local parent groups are stepping in.” She argues that the program has grown mainly through word-of-mouth because parents see the results. Unfortunately, since the program is mostly PTA-funded, some schools cannot afford it. Because of this, the group will be pursuing more grant-based funding for the future.
As the program expands, it can only impact more students. Some may even be as affected as a man who recently approached Longo in a coffee shop. As a college student, he had found himself profoundly unhappy. He looked back over his life trying to remember what had made him happy in the past. What experience came to mind? His time with Perie Longo, Poet-in-the-Schools. The young man subsequently went on to a successful — and satisfying — career as a writer.
The winners of The Independent’s Annual Young Poets Contest will read tonight, Thursday, April 13, at 7:30 p.m. in the Santa Barbara Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery. Winning poems will be published in next week’s Independent.