The Carrot-Fennel Soup of Self Care

Posted in Uncategorized on April 9, 2014 by writersintheschools

By Ann Teplick

Image

For twenty years, I’ve been listening to the stories of the children and teens I write with, in juvenile detention, psychiatric units, hospitals, hospice centers, and public schools. Many of these stories are chaotic. Many are traumatic. Many, ecstatic. And many, a slosh of confusion.

 

I am honored to be one of two writers-in-residence at Seattle Children’s Hospital, with Writers in the Schools. I work with the Education department in the classroom; on the dialysis, cancer, and rehab units; and in the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit (IPU), an Acute Care Crisis Stabilization Center.

 

I begin by telling each young writer they have very important things to say. I ask them if they agree, and they are emphatic with “Yes.” I tell them that the world needs their stories, and I invite them to write from the heart about who they are as a person.

 

But how does one receive, with grace, narratives that contain disease, fear, assault, self-harm, and feelings of hopelessness? How does one climb through the visuals of chemotherapy—a beautiful six-year-old boy, with a bald head and ashen skin? The girl confined to a head and neck brace, with a freeway of tubes and hook ups to machines, an amplifier to assist with speaking? The boy, shirtless, his scar, like a red rope, thick as licorice, which runs from his sternum to his belly button? And what about the photo he shows you on his laptop, where he is gowned and gloved, holding in each hand, each half of his defective heart, sliced by the pathologist, yellowed and spongy? Or the teenage girl with the feeding tube, who weighs sixty-six pounds? Or the girl with the cuts on the soft underbelly of her forearm? Or the boy who hears voices that will not quit? How do we travel with some of the sounds, sights, smells, and textures that we witness?

 

THIS IS HOW I BREATHE—

I inhale. My diaphragm and intercostals contract to expand my chest cavity.

My diaphragm flattens, moves downwards; the intercostals move the ribcage upwards.

I count to three. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three.

I exhale. My diaphragm and intercostals return to their resting position.

 

THIS IS WHAT I DO WHEN THE STORIES I HEAR ARE PAINFUL—

I try not to cling or push the pain away. I breathe.

I try not to react, in any overt way. I breathe.

I try to keep what I hear, from triggering painful memories of my own. I breathe.

I hold the pain, as if it were a baby bird: a Western Scrub Jay—head and plume, metallic blue.

 

LISTENING is the foundation of what we do—a deep listening, which I consider to be an art form, and which I continue to take seriously.

In his poem, “When Someone Deeply Listens to You,” John Fox, of the Institute for Poetic Medicine, says that this listening is like “holding out a dented cup/you’ve had since childhood/and watching it fill up with/cold, fresh water.” He says, “When someone deeply listens to you/the room where you stay/starts a new life.”

 

THIS IS HOW I LISTEN—

I know that the quieter I become, the more I am able to hear.

I am in the moment—without judging, shaping, or controlling. I kick my minds’ ruckus, and any assumptions I may have, out the door.

I keep my mind open. Fresh, alert, attentive, and receptive. There is nothing passive about it.

I don’t plan my next statement, or interrupt the speaker. My full attention is demanded.

When I am aware of my own thoughts and emotions, I let them go. Float. While remaining focused on the words I hear, no matter how difficult they are.

I come with empathy—I try to see the world as another person might.

I know there is nothing I can do to change the life of a person, but I know I can listen. And I know I can share the beauty of writing a poem, or a short piece of prose, a process that invites us to look inside ourselves, to better understand who we are. A process that has pulled me through backbreaking times.

 

THIS IS HOW I TAKE CARE OF MYSELF

I cook and eat plenty of soup…carrot fennel, lentil beet, garbanzo with shaves of pumpkin.

I wear pink flannel pajamas with sheep that graze the legs and sleeves.

I watch rerun after rerun of I Love Lucy, especially the episode where she and Ethel are working at the chocolate factory.

I write lots of poetry.

I make multi-media collages.

I headstand in yoga.

I’m in the woods, every moment I can be.

I think about the bravery and resilience of the youth that I write with, despite the challenges they encounter. I think about the way they walk taller and prouder, after they write and share their stories. Here is a sampling—

 

WORRY (12 year old)

 

I worry about my Dad.

He’s in the military.

I’m afraid of something

That could possibly

Happen out of nowhere.

I worry about someone in my family

Getting sick, like I did,

Then if something drastic happens,

Like becoming handicapped

Or dying.

Sometimes my worries feel like I’m

Running through a rusty electric

Barbed-wire fence.

Sometimes they smell like the rancid

Odor of the mushroom farm by our house

Which smells like manure.

Sometimes they sound like a banshee

Screaming in my ear

Or a hyena laughing in my face.

They are sometimes the color of sky

On a gray stormy day in Kansas.

When I worry, I find comfort in hanging out

With my family, like my mom—comfort

And confidence that the worry is not going to happen.

If my fears could speak, they would say

“You’re going to have bad luck in the future

And there’s nothing you can do about it,”

Like a fortune cookie.

This is what I say to them:

“I’m going to drown you out like a teenager

Blocking out his parents with heavy metal,

And I’m confident nothing bad is going to happen.

I am most courageous when my family is around me

And when everyone is healthy.

 

 

THINGS I WORRY ABOUT (a collaborative poem by a 6 and 8 year old)

 

I worry about doctor visits,

And falling into a bottomless trench.

Earwigs laying eggs in my ears.

Spiders that live in my ears.

Black widow spiders.

 

To calm myself, I think about my family.

 

I worry that I will be a frog,

Or be homeless.

I don’t want to fall off a cliff.

Sometimes I worry about Vampire bats

That suck blood. And sharks.

Centipedes, grasshoppers, snakes.

Being eaten by an alligator, or a bear.

 

To calm myself, I ask for help to get rid

Of the thing I am scared of.

 

I don’t like having bad dreams.

My worst nightmare is that I will stay little

When I grow up.

 

To calm myself, I read a good book.

 

I worry about being a vegetarian,

And about earthquakes.

I worry that my Hickman catheter

Will get pulled out of my chest.

 

To calm myself, I take a deep breath.

 

 

BEING BRAVE (an excerpt—12 year old)

 

Not quitting, even when you think you’re at your limit.

You’ve got to push that extra inch.

 

When you need to get an X-ray or an Ultrasound,

It’s only for the best, to help you get better.

 

Some of the scariest moments for my parents

Were when my heart rate was out of whack—

180 bpm, then dropping to 60 within a few seconds.

Also, my huge pupils, when I was in a coma for three weeks,

And my crazy-high blood pressure.

 

It was hard for me to see pictures of when I was in a coma.

There were wires and tubes coming out of me.

It was so scary knowing that that was me

Hooked to all those machines and taking medication.

That’s not me! I didn’t expect this!

 

 

CHAOS (a collaborative poem by a 6 and 8 year old)

 

As stinky as moldy egg salad.

A stinky bathroom.

Could taste sweet like Valentine

Sweet hearts ~ U Rock, I Oxo you.

A wolf, a grizzly bear, a dingo growling.

A great white shark chomping a human under water.

A traffic accident when cars are crashed together.

When a train runs over a monster truck.

When a plane flies low over this truck.

A yapping Chihuahua.

A whale hitting a boat.

Wrestling guys punching each other in the face.

A tsunami washing over an island.

Chaos is as heavy as a gun.

As scary as dead people coming out of your closet.

Like touching a skeleton,

Getting squeezed by a python.

A vat of wriggly snakes.

Like someone’s drawing with red magic markers on me.

 

 

MRI (12 year old)

 

I am as loud as a lion.

I am round like a doughnut.

I’m as white as a baby tooth.

I act like a magnet, so take off your metal.

You can take a nap as long as you have ear cuffs.

I’m like a toaster and when you’re done

You’re going to want to take an ice bath.

Hopefully, you’ll never have to enter me

But I do enjoy your company.

 

 

THIS IS JUST TO SAY (8 year old)

 

I climbed the ladder

Of your tree house

And I accidently broke it.

But that’s okay

Because I took it inside

And made a hammock for a bed.

It’s a good thing,

Because I’m stuck up here!

 

 

BUTTERFLIES (12 year old)

 

Limerick green, for the days I am happy—

The scent of green apples in a Tri Cities orchard.

Like the flap of bluebirds flying to Hawaii for a vacation.

As smooth as a blanket wrapped around me.

 

Red Pizazz for the days I am sad—

Like a rose wilting in the flower garden.

A drip of wind. As hard as rock.

 

Southern Glow yellow, for the days I am nervous—

Like this morning, waiting for the results

Of my bone marrow test.

I was told Chemo would be the only hope.

And it worked!

 

Carnivale orange for the days I feel alone—

Like when I’m super nervous or scared about something,

Like a bone-marrow transplant,

Which smells like burnt newspaper,

And sticky like Gorilla glue.

 

Cupid red, for the days I am surprised—

Like the surprise birthday party

Given by my mom and step dad

Before I came to Children’s,

Like butterflies circling around me

And landing on my shoulder, whispering

“Your family loves you.”

 

Teaching the Early Grades

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on April 2, 2014 by writersintheschools

Teaching the Early Grades

by Aaron Counts

Recently, I made the move from teaching writing to the seasoned veterans of high school for a group of third-grade classes in North Seattle. I can admit now that even after a long career working in high school re-entry programs and correctional facilities, the thought of facing down a gang of 8-year-olds had me a little shook. What kid-friendly poems do I have in my arsenal? How can I get at those higher-level ideas that I was used to discussing in classes with students twice the age of these not-quite-tweens? In building day-one lesson on the elusive definition of poetry, I called back to the words of the sage and legendary rapper, KRS-One. “Poetry is the language of imagination.” I had found my guiding principle.

In the era of high-stakes testing and curriculum aligned to national standards, there is an increasingly-small window in which students are free to exercise their imagination. Writing can be fun, and learning about writing can (and should) be fun, too. No matter how sharp a lesson we plan, and whatever great mentor texts we bring in to instruct and inspire students, one of the most important is making it something our students can look forward to. And like most things, we can get more excited about participating when we’re doing so in a relaxed, supportive environment. In that realization, it makes sense to me that the work of a teaching artist is much about building a community around words and imagination.

Before we even met, I set about to get to know this new group of students. I came early on my first day and scoured the schoolwork hanging in the hallways outside their classrooms for examples of their own writing. I saw essays about the life of groundhogs, plot summaries from book reports, and captioned drawings of the number 100 (from the 100th day of school art project). From those I pulled examples of sensory details, onomatopoeia and strong imagery—things like the grizzly fur of the groundhog, or the 100-shaped robot that smelled like marshmallows. But more importantly, I got to call the names of students I’d never met and use their writing as our first mentor texts. In the first minutes of our workshop series, we’re already building that community.

Not to be forgotten, though, is the students desire to connect with you, the teaching artist. To many of them, our visits to their classroom are still be a big deal. This is evidenced by how many questions they have about our lives and our writing, how high their hands shoot in the air when we’re looking for volunteers to read, or how they crowd around the stack of publications, looking for our pictures on the back of book jackets. They want to know as much about us as we’re willing to share.

Take for example, Larissa (not her real name) asked almost every day if she could touch my head. “I’d rather you didn’t,” I said. Then added, “but you can write about it.” There is a writing lesson in there, right? Well, there is for at least one poem, which included exactly what intrigued her about my shaved head:

I wonder.

it squishy?

Is it smooth?

 

In another class, I read a poem, called “Grind” that I had written for younger audiences, sort of an ode to skateboarding. Before I read, Pablo (again, a pseudonym) explained to the class in detail all the types of grinding tricks one can execute on a skateboard. Afterwards, he asked for a copy of the poem. The next day I walked into class with a freshly printed copy of the poem, with a new epigraph “for Pablo” under the title. Before I left for the day, he made a point to walk me to the door. “Mr. Aaron, thank you for bringing that poem for me. I really like it.”

But the best reminder of how younger students view our class visits comes from Christopher, who asks every day to read “The Jail Book”—his name for my non-fiction publication Reclaiming Black Manhood. He calls it that since I told them the bulk of the work in that book was conceived in a weekly class I taught at King County Jail. The book, despite its subject and title, had captured his interest. But one day, he decided he needed my autograph as well. The conversation went like this:

“Can you sign this for me?”

“Sure, but it isn’t valuable. I promise”.

“Well, can you like misspell something on purpose, that way it will be worth more.”

“Um, sure.”

“And write, ‘To my biggest fan’, but remember to make some kind of mistake.”

So I wrote, ‘Two my biggest fan’ and signed my name. In reply, I got a whispered “Yes!” and a small fist pump.

 

So despite my trepidations of working with early grades, I’m having a blast. The writing is fun, everyone wants to share what they’re working on, and I don’t have to compete with cell phones for attention. In fact, teaching young kids is a great reminder of what it means to be a writer. To put it the most simply, our job is Imagining, and imagination is as real as it gets.

 

 

High School Poets: Rich in Image

Posted in Uncategorized on March 31, 2014 by writersintheschools

High School Poets: Rich in Image

By Emily Bedard

 

Not long ago I found myself looking for a way to avoid some sticky poem revisions I didn’t know how to tackle. So, I picked up an essay on poetics by Robert Hass instead and read the opening description of the author looking at the Vermont countryside, covered in snow. Hass didn’t see snow until he was a young adult, he explains. And that is why the landscape is “permanently strange and vivid to me….Because it does not belong to childhood, it calls up no longing.”

 

When I read that, I felt a sudden insight into why my recent high school WITS class on image had turned out such acutely effective poems. Although I am regularly blown away by my students’ writing, I am also aware that there are many elements they are not masters of, especially in the context of 20-minute first drafts. Their lines are vulnerable to cliché (like the rest of ours) and their thinking can get squishy (like the rest of ours) and their syntax sometimes falls apart in the rush to get to the big moment (much like the rest of ours). But one thing they nail on a regular basis is image. Crisp image. Moving image. Wildly odd image. Their poems are full of them.

 

I like to point out to my students that although there are many things they cannot do—driving, voting, running for Congress, buying controlled substances—making killer images is not on the list. Just by virtue of reaching the age of 15, they have hundreds, if not thousands, of images at the ready. We talk about each writer’s store of images as an invisible atmosphere surrounding the physical body. When we pick up a pen, we are harvesting them, plucking a sensory impression out of the cloud and setting it down to see how it fares and where it leads.

 

But until this point, I’ve been thinking of these high school writers as being rich in image in spite of the fact that they are young. After reading Hass’ description, I began to wonder if perhaps it’s actually because they are young. Maybe their very proximity to childhood is what makes their imagery so searing and brilliant, so full of the longing that the adult Hass does not feel when he looks at the Northeastern woods. Maybe that’s what makes them able to write like this:

 

Have you ever seen the mirror break, with you

in front of it, the little jagged triangles and

slivers separated

by canals, tiny

rivers of change,

your face transformed into an

abstract painting by

a single touch

—Kierra  N.

 

Or this:

 

The pond surrounding

Was filled with fish

Shining like keys reflecting light

 

—Nate S.

 

Or this:

 

My feelings and words are jumbled

Like a Rubik’s cube all turned about

With flashes of red and yellow

Amidst seas of blue and green

 

—Ira R.

 

Or, breathtakingly, like this:

 

I paddle my feet back

Swish

And forth.

Light erupts

Like millions of polished diamonds,

Like a car’s blinding brights.

 

I remember

How the night sky is hooked between my toes.

 

—Hanna B.

 

I don’t know if I am right in my theory, and the truth is, it’s not really important if I am, except in one regard. If I am, then where young writers may otherwise feel their age to be an impediment, here it is a catalyst. If they believe in their freshness, their newness, their emergent eye as an artistic advantage, they might make more art. That would be good for us all.

The Case for Arts in the Classroom: In Pictures

Posted in Uncategorized on March 24, 2014 by writersintheschools

The Case for Arts in the Classroom: in Pictures

by Laura Gamache

My WITS work has allowed some terrific cross-genre experiments and collaborations with teachers and students, and I’m going to share a few of the more visually engaging ones in this blog post.

Eckstein Middle School, one of the two original WITS partner schools, was my WITS school community for seven years. In fall, 2002, I collaborated with art teacher Erin Shafkind, combining visual art with poetry to engage sixth grade kids who had art class fifth period because they didn’t participate in elective activities like language study, orchestra, choir or band. One of the activities was based on the color wheel. We made lists of the emotions surrounding the primary and secondary colors, and of things that are those colors, and combined the inner and outer color worlds in individual color wheels, and in a class-wide color wheel book where a poem for each color emerged by combining and ordering the separate students’ lines.

ColorWheelPoemanon

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Third Grade Poets: An antsy, burbling, cock-a-doodle-dooing kind of bunch

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on March 20, 2014 by writersintheschools

Third Grade Poets: An antsy, burbling, cock-a-doodle-dooing kind of bunch

by Erin Malone

There are so many great things about third graders, and at the top of that list for me is their exuberance for art and storytelling. They’re not afraid to try making things; the fear of failure hasn’t seemed to touch them. Isn’t that an awesome (I mean that in the true sense of the word, awe-inspiring) thing to witness on a weekly basis? I can tell you, it is.

And yet teaching this age group can be tricky. Third graders are often an antsy, crawling, burbling, doodling, cock-a-doodle-dooing kind of bunch. Look up here. Can you hear me? What did I say? I find myself repeating throughout our time together.

One morning I wanted the students to think about how mood and imagery go together. I needed the room to be very quiet, and I turned down the lights. Then I told them to imagine any color they wanted, and I asked them a series of questions to answer silently. What pictures does this color bring to mind? What feelings? Do they like the color? Why or why not?

They liked this exercise. The quick meditation put them in a thoughtful mood, and it showed in our discussion of two poems, “The White Horse,” by D.H. Lawrence, and a haiku by Ryota:

No one spoke,

The host, the guest

The white chrysanthemums.

Students were quick to point out the similarities between the poems—they’re three lines long and both mention the color white. We talked about how the poems seemed quiet, and why the color white suggests this. Then, having cribbed the idea from Kenneth Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? I told them to write two poems, one about a color that seems noisy, and one about a color that makes them feel quiet. They should use all their senses to help describe their colors.

Here are just a few of the fantastic poems they wrote:

Black

When I think of black

I imagine a nighttime sky,

and houses

with their shimmering yellow lights on.

When I think of black

I imagine my fish

and his pretty black scales

inside his tank.

–John-Joseph

 

Hot Pink!

Angry Hot Pink at midnight

stomping through the house crushing everything

in his way—Stop! Stop! You’re making a mess!

–Autumn

Red Hot Loud

The house was loud,

The guests, the owners,

the red TV.

–Brody

Yellow

Yellow is like

the first day of school

on a sunny day

in September. It is like

a shy afternoon

in December. It is like

sticky honey on warm

toast at the start

of your day.

–Daniel

I love the image of those quiet fish and how yellow brings to mind a school bus when I read Daniel’s poem, though he doesn’t mention one. I love that hot pink’s persona is loud and stomping, and that Brody perfectly mimics Ryota’s poem. Another success happened the following week, when I asked the students if they remembered what we’d learned last time. The boy who raised his hand doesn’t usually volunteer, and he doesn’t write much yet. But he recited Ryota’s poem from memory.

How Much Trouble Can You Get In?

Posted in Uncategorized on March 18, 2014 by writersintheschools

How Much Trouble Can You Get In?

by Jeanine Walker

“Hello, little mice,” J.W. Marshall addressed a 4th grade class at Lafayette Elementary yesterday. “Hello, ogre,” he encouraged them to respond, and they did.

Two days before his appearance in SAL’s Poetry Series alongside fellow poet Christine Deavel, who is J.W.’s wife and co-owner of Open Books: A Poem Emporium in Wallingford, J.W. spent over an hour with a group of twenty 4th grade poets. Just coming off a 9-week poetry residency with WITS writer-in-residence Karen Finneyfrock, the kids were primed with poetry practice and tools, and J.W. had them quickly engaged.

That “might be poetry,” J.W. told the kids of the mice/ogre address. He compared poetry to math: “In poetry, 1 + 3 might equal horses.” He went on to suggest that we can “make music” with poetry; we can make “wonderful silliness, dramatic action.”

J.W.’s warmth and kind attention saw that almost all of the students elected to read a poem out loud in front of the class, and he responded to each in turn with praise, questions, and suggestions. “Who’s going to hurt a piece of fruit?” was one of J.W.’s questions, and ten hands shot up. When writing about a color, J.W. suggested, try describing it using another color, “something that seems incorrect.”

ImageOne student remarked about the difficulty of poetic constraints, and J.W. responded a classtime later by assigning a poem with some rules, a letter written to an inanimate object, with three lines. “Next time you get an assignment you think is too narrow,” J.W. advised, “try to follow it and break it at the same time. How much trouble can you get in?”

The Catharsis of Angry Letters!

Posted in Uncategorized on February 24, 2014 by writersintheschools

by Eli Hastings, Franklin High School

With the unpredictable expanse of another residency laid out before you, it is reassuring to have a syllabus built that outlines, day by day, what you plan to bring to the youth.  But if there exists a high school where things ever go according to plan, it would be disorienting and probably unsatisfying to work there.  The chaos has a flow to it and you had better get flowing if you’re going to tap into the true energy of a classroom.  Sometimes lesson plans spill over into two days.  Sometimes you pull the plug on a lesson ten minutes in.  Sometimes you pivot so it looks like you meant to talk about sensory detail when in fact you were aiming to talk about metaphor.  And sometimes lesson plans bleed into one another as if they were meant to share blood.

I have worked for an organization called Pongo Teen Writing for many years, facilitating poetry writing with distressed and traumatized youth in jail. Every chance I get to teach, I bring in the Pongo model at least partially, at least one day.  One of the blueprints (structures) that we use with distressed youth begins with the prompt, “I just thought you should know.”  There is something intensely evocative in that stripped down opener that more often than not can put a goodly sized hole in a dam that a kiddo doesn’t even know she’s built inside.  We frame it as a letter—to someone who is unreachable (for whatever reason) to you now.  I share, as an example, a letter by a 13 year-old girl in Juvenile Detention to her mother, which reads, in part:

I just you should know how I’m feeling.  I just hate you….I hate you because you left me one night when I was 7 and never came back.  The police broke down the door to take me to foster care.  But even before that you brought home men who hurt me and did bad things to me, I hate you for pimping me out. I hate you for packing my nose full of white powder, which is why I have breathing problems now.  I hate you for getting me into drugs. I hate you because I ended up in a gang. I hate you…

 

I just thought you should know that no matter what you’ll always be my mom and I’ll always love you. 

Many Franklin juniors wrote letters to their own mothers; many wrote to exes, or foster parents or bullies that used to haunt their worlds, or to moved-away best friends with deep nostalgia.  Many letters seared me with the depth of love and many quaked with rage.  So maybe it was serendipitous that the next lesson plan in line was about anger.  I present two opposing kinds of anger: pet peeves vs. righteous indignation.  We read some rants from the Stranger’s “I Anonymous” column; we list pet peeves (cocky bicyclists, racist shopkeepers, slow drivers, girls that wear Ugg boots with short-shorts, etc.).  The kids have a blast with this and get to warm up by writing their own mini rant to the perpetrators of their pet peeve.  Then we move into righteous indignation, for which I use the metaphor of a sleeping dragon, i.e., “what awakens your sleeping dragon?” I share my own sleeping dragon: violence against women and kids.  I invite the students to share their own.  More importantly I ask them to write about their own and to focus particularly on why it is that this particular issue stirs them so deeply.

The two lessons morphed, of course, to such an extent that one student jokingly titled one piece, “I just thought you should know about my sleeping dragon.”  And at the end of the semester reading, I was unsurprised to find that many of the youth chose to read pieces that deftly and movingly wove the two lessons together.

A young woman wrote to her sister who had committed suicide in her presence:

I reminisce to the round of applause when I saw you walking down that runway, black pixie hair, big brown eyes, and lips that were carefully coated with cherry colored lipstick. I wanted to cut that rope that wrapped around your entire life…But I was five….I’m thankful to have known you for a little while because I get to tell this story.  My story. 

A young man wrote to himself and to the world around him:

I wrote this poem for me.  I wrote this poem because I saw today as an opportunity to do something I haven’t done in quite some time.  I wrote this to express myself….Now I know I don’t give a s#*@ what some judgmental idiot says about me behind my back…I wrote this poem for me…I wrote this poem to say I’m gay.

On the last day, halfway through the readings in our 6th period class, half the people in the room were weeping.  Duos and trios of kids held on to one another like survivors with tears and brilliant grins, too, standing on their faces.

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