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
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
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
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.