Lowell students are stricken by the poetry bug

by Jacquelyn Malone


When a Lowell student was told that a poet was coming for a Student Day of Poetry, he stood up and loudly complained, “No F****** way I’m gonna listen to no F****** poet.” But, according to Jennifer Zeuli, Coordinator of Language Arts and Literacy, grades 5 - 12 at Lowell Public Schools, that same student was waiting in line to ask Regie Gibson, the poet in question, when he was coming back to the school. He was also caught reading his own poem to other students as they gathered around him in the hallway.

Such can be the infection spread by Student Day of Poetry, Mass Poetry's youth program.

Jennifer Zeuli, who has been inciting this U-turn about poetry in Lowell schools, heard about Student Day of Poetry when she had a similar position with Masconomet Regional High School. Shannon Murphy, an English teacher in the school, wanted to sponsor a Student Day of Poetry and got Jennifer involved. “Laurin met with us a couple of times to plan the program,” she said, meaning Laurin Macios, the Program Director for Mass Poetry, and the event for 750 to 800 students was planned for spring 2014 with several poets leading workshops for small groups, an open mic for the students after the workshops, and then the poets who led the workshops reading some of their poems.

“It started off as an absolutely crazy day,” Jennifer said, not meaning what was happening with SDOP but rather the mishaps of the day. A 10th grade teacher was out, a senior was reported missing, and when the pizza order came for the poets (the school wanted to treat them to lunch), Jennifer was told there was no funding for the food. But things turned out almost fine: a substitute for the teacher worked out, the senior was found by police and they found funding for the pizza. But just when things seemed to be going gloriously, someone came to Jennifer and said, “The poets have no soda!”

The students survived the absence, but Jennifer swears that if she ever writes a memoir, it will be titled, “The Poets Have No Soda!”

"The workshops themselves, however, were amazing," she states. And it sounds as if the readings were, too. One of the featured poets was Jonathan Mendoza. "I watched the performances with about 800 students, and he began by reading a poem on bullying. When he finished the kids sat there in stunned silence." Obviously they expected poems about roses and Grecian urns, not a problem that faces the students of every school.

Since coming to the Lowell system Jennifer has been concentrating on the middle schools because the high school has its own language supervisor. She started with the Butler School where Lisa Stott had been working with Laurin to bring a workshop to her classroom. “I got to observe the really exciting program,” says Jennifer.

The next poetry project Jennifer worked on in Lowell was at the Cardinal School, a school with a small student population dedicated to young people with behavioral and emotional problems, the school the young man attended who expressed—shall we say?—his disgust with poets.

Michelle Butterworth, the teacher who was examining the possibility of poetry in the school, was concerned. She worried that most of the students would initially feel the way the outspoken kid did. She told Jennifer and Laurin the program would need someone “super special,” and it needed to be non-threatening because these kids were frightened by someone asking too much about their personal lives. “But,” she added, “You won’t find kids anywhere more in need of this in the whole state.”

“To say the day turned out fabulous is an understatement,” says Jennifer. “Regie came in and put 10 of the silliest words you could imagine on the board. Then he asked the kids to write a poem using all the silly words. Well, that was non-threatening. And it was great silly fun! Each kid tried to outdo the other in silliness!”

After he had gained their confidence, Regie turned the mood by telling them a story about words. His grandfather had given him a dictionary when he was young, and he had now carried that dictionary to four continents. What was the reason for such dedication to a dictionary? Regie believes—and told the students—“the words you know define the world you live in.” He talked about teaching poetry in prison where the inmates didn’t know words like “inspirational” or “transcendental.” You can’t be what you have never heard of, he told them.

“The whole class was captivated and wanted to know when he was coming back,” says Jennifer.

Laurin suggested Regie as a Poet in Residence, and Michelle, the teacher who had been concerned about getting the kids involved, said she would pay for it herself if she had to. But Title One came through with the funding. Regie will begin as a monthly visitor to the Cardinal School this year. He will also be working with Lowell High School Career Academy.

Besides engaging students who aren’t usually interested in poetry, Jennifer mentions another great value that poetry has for all students. “The Common Core tests for concepts like denotation, connotation and using the structure of a composition to communicate ideas or emotions. Poetry supports all of that,” she says. “And teachers can demonstrate the concepts by reading the poetry aloud and indicating how the words are working. With a novel like Moby Dick, those goals can be harder to deal with.”  Jennifer is not suggesting that schools ignore Moby Dick, only that poetry allows for much more practice with those intellectual ideas.

As Jennifer begins her second year with the Lowell school system, she is looking forward to the challenge of making language work meaningfully for all students. Infecting them with a contagion for poetry will be one of the tools she uses.

Jennifer Zeuli came into teaching through Teach for America, and had a great time doing a six-year stint as a high school English teacher in East L.A.  Since then she's taught first-graders, graduate students, thousands of teenagers, and a few cohorts of pre-service and in-service teachers.  Currently she's the Coordinator of Language Arts and Literacy, grades 5 - 12, for the Lowell Public schools, and the parent of the most adorable toddler the world has ever seen.