My salad would like to meet Johnny Depp

That's one of the wilder poetic lines my hundred dollars produced.

Here's what I did: I obliged my class of poetry-writing students to come up with an idea for how to spend the money. The first suggestions pretty much missed the spirit of the deal: "Let's throw the money at a homeless person. The sheer waste of it would be so poignant." "Let's build a zipline on campus." That's about when I shut down the class discussion and asked people to think about it and e-mail me later.

The next week, two women in the class independently came up with the same idea: to do a poetry workshop at a local elementary school. Now THAT, I thought, could be good.

So I worked with the Service-Learning Center at Calvin and contacted a teacher at the Montessori public school downtown: multi-ethnic student body, good share of at-risk kids, lower socio-economic profile, and not much funding for the arts. My students and I visited the school for two one-hour sessions on separate days. Each of my students worked with two or three fifth-graders. We had lesson plans and everything. After the two sessions, we took the "manuscripts" back to Calvin and turned them into a pretty nifty chapbook. We used the hundred bucks to make plenty of copies for everyone. The copy bill came to $106.25.

When I brought the books to the teachers, they were so entirely thrilled. I suggested that we have a "coffee house" day so the kids could perform their poems for each other, and the teachers loved the idea. They're planning the event for later this month. They're inviting parents, serving cocoa and cookies, asking everyone to wear black turtlenecks and berets.

Honestly, I'm amazed how well this all turned out. My students went into it rather reluctantly. They were scared and uncomfortable, and ever so slightly resentful that I was requiring this of them. I worried too: what if this is all a disaster and my students decide it was a waste of time? And am I really doing service here? Or am I making my students do it, using them as a buffer between me and my own fears?

As it turned out, I did wind up working with the kids myself as one of my students couldn't make it one of the days. And I had a good time. My students did, too. Some of them wound up loving it. Others didn't like it, but had to admit that it was a good thing. Not every fifth grader was into it, but overall they did great. In the end, they just wanted us all to come back again.

Meanwhile, the teachers are so proud and pleased they can't stop thanking me.

So all in all, I'm just humbled. What we did was not that big a deal, but we made a little difference. Maybe, for some kids, an important little difference. Everyone--me and my students and the kids-- came out of this with a new (or renewed) sense that being able to say something in poetry is a kind of power, and that feels good.

I could have done all this without the money. And I probably will do it again, and nag my colleagues to do it, too. But the money got me to bug my students, and they got an idea, and that got us all moving. Spending the money to actually create the books was a smart decision, I'm glad to say. Having something to hold and show others makes it REAL. All of you know the sly pleasure of seeing your words in print.

Here are a couple of the poems I especially liked from our "collection."

Dear Mr. President
by Shanice Alexandra Steele

Dear Mr. President, I have to talk to you.
Dear Mr. President, why can't kids drive?
Dear Mr. President, why can't I go to the stars?
Dear Mr. President, when I get into office I will rule the world.
Dear Mr. President, soon it will be Mrs. President.
Dear Mr. President, can I get a call?
Halla, Mr. President, Halla to all.
(3 weeks later)
Dear Mr. President, why didn't you write me back?

Useless Things
by Jayla Cage

Talent w/o singing
A party w/o dancing
School w/o teachers
Music w/o singers
Boys w/o girls
Hair w/o curls
Soap w/o dove
A heart w/o love

1 comment:

Joonna Trapp said...

Now that was a good idea! I also did a service learning project with my writers this year--it was amazing. A lesson in religious tolerance and understanding. Hooray for you for finding something fine and meaningful.