why poetry? in school student day of poetry at oxford high school

By Jade Sylvan

Last Wednesday, I was excited to facilitate the first In-School Student Day of Poetry of 2016. It took place at Oxford High School, where poet Alex Charalambides performed and led poetry-writing workshops to two consecutive mixed-grade classes.

It was no surprise to me to see the kids start off each session wary of this new adult, and then begin to warm up and laugh along with Alex as he invited them to list examples of different ways to “rock out.” “In the car with your favorite song!” said one student. “Right when you get off work!” suggested a different voice. “When the boy you like likes you back!” offered another. I've seen this transition happen countless times before in similar Student Days of Poetry. Teens, who are so used to being told what to do and say, realize that they have the power to speak what's in their minds and hearts. They can express what's important to them, and learn something useful in the process.

Many students have negative experiences with poetry in school because the poems in textbooks are from another time and place, and are removed from their original contexts. Everyone who's been a teenager knows that young people often aren't so interested in times and places that aren't immediate to their lives. In these workshops, students are exposed to modern poems that deal with issues familiar to them. Then they're invited to write their own.

The class's creative writing teacher, Amy R. was thrilled with how the day went. “This lets kids see that poetry is alive today,” she commented. “It's not just something from a hundred years ago that you read in a textbook. It's happening now and directly relates to their lives.”

Still, some might say, why poetry?

Poetry is, at its core, effective communication. When we break down assumptions that poetry looks or sounds a certain way, what we find is a set of skills that lets us efficiently relate our experiences, opinions, and world-views to others. These are important tools for all aspects of life, and when kids are given the chance to relate on topics they truly care about, suddenly the stakes for learning these tools are much higher.

Amy mentioned the change in energy in her classroom throughout the course of the day. “Students who usually sleep in class were up and asking questions,” she said. “It's engaging for even the most reluctant students.”

Tenth-grader Dianne P. (standing at right in the final picture) was particularly excited to read her original work. Teachers and friends describe Dianne as shy and quiet, but during the sharing time at the end of class, she was the first to stand up to read her poem out loud. “If you put your mind and heart into poetry it can come out really great,” she told me afterward, “even if you never wrote a poem before.”

Over and over again, when I describe what we do with Student Days of Poetry, I hear from adults, “Wow, I wish we had something like that when I was in school.” So do all of us, I tell them. That's why we're doing this. So this generation of Massachusetts young people can grow up with all of the empowerment, expression, and critical skills that something as simple as writing poetry offers.