mass poetry's ever-expanding role in massachusetts schools

by Jacquelyn Malone

Every year Mass Poetry’s Student Day of Poetry grows larger. Last year we served some 4,200 students; this year the estimate is 6,000 students. Many of those students are registered for five regional events in the month of December. I talked to our Program Director, Laurin Macios, about the growth of our involvement with students and education. (And a couple of those involved in December events – Maggie Dietz, Robert Sykora, and Chrisanne Souza -- commented on the coming programs. See our highlighted text.)

This year’s growth comes mainly through expanding SDOP to five separate regional events. “We decided we needed to offer SDOP on a regional basis when we noticed the schools that took part were all within 45 minutes of UMass Boston, our location last year,” says Laurin. “Many teachers responded that they wanted to come, but the trip was just too far.”

Laurin began exploring other venues, and with the help of the following arranged this year’s five college campus events for Massachusetts high school students: Karen Sharpe, Worcester State University; Paul Marion and Maggie Dietz, UMass Lowell; Chrisanne Souza, Bristol Community College; Provost Winston Langley, UMass Boston; and Marla Solomon who, through the Five College Consortium at Amherst, sponsored an event at UMass Amherst.

I’ve used these statistics in another story for this site, but in this context I think they are worthy of repeating. Last year we found, through a student survey, that the day made a tremendous difference in student appreciation and involvement in poetry.  Before they participated in SDOP, only 34% of students reported an interest in reading poetry. After the day, 70% reported a desire to read poetry. And the number of students who were interested in writing poetry rose from 44% to 65%.

Working up enthusiasm

I asked Laurin what she thought made the day exciting. She suggested the order and variety of a typical program. “As a warm-up we start with the workshop leaders reading a short sample of poems. Then students divide up in workshops, first for the initial session and then they switch to a second. After lunch they gather for headliner performances.” Laurin explains that the program saves the best till last. “We end the day with an open mic, where students are often reading the poems they wrote in workshops that day. There is an overwhelming sense of community at the open mic, with students clapping, cheering, snapping, and just really showing support for each other.”

Not every event has the same workshops because the workshop leaders differ from event to event. A handful of workshops leaders at UMass Boston will be students in the university’s MFA program – young people to connect with a young audience. But Laurin mentions some of the popular subjects. “At one event we’ll have a workshop called ‘Poetry as Activism,’ about spoken word poems and political or social involvement. Another cool one happening this year is ‘The Bop,’ on writing in Afaa Michael Weaver’s Bop form.” The Bop is three six-line stanzas with a refrain at the end of each stanza. Generally the first stanza presents a problem, the second expands on the problem, and the third presents a resolution.

In addition to this year’s regional programs where several schools participate, Mass Poetry offers individual in-school SDOP events geared to a particular school’s schedule and needs. But, Laurin says, all are similar in design, with a final open mic where students cheer each other on as they read their poems.

Other student programs

SDOP isn’t the only program Mass Poetry sponsors for students. Many teachers utilize our Common Threads program in their English classes, using the poems selected each year to be read across the state in libraries, book clubs, and senior centers – anywhere readers love to congregate. And we also are putting high school student poetry on the T for the second time this year via our Poetry on the T program. The most recent ones will appear this December, alongside the poems of Pulitzer Prize winners, in ad space on the Boston MBTA.

And finally Mass Poetry also sponsors a professional development program that consists of workshops and seminars for educators on teaching poetic craft and technique. These workshops are led by successful and engaging poet-instructors and are geared toward high school teachers working with the Common Core Curriculum.

If you’d like to support our work with young people across the state, please donate here.