The following post was written by Rob Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center.
This year has been a busy one for our Poet Laureate. I was thrilled to see a feature on “The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon” recently, which coincided with the newest chapter of the virtual book. If you haven’t seen it yet, do check it out—and if you’re a teacher or librarian who works with second or third graders, please submit!
For this post I want to focus on the complement to “Catalina Neon”—a Laureate project called “Wordstreet Champions and Brave Builders of the Dream.” Both have wonderfully playful names—the result of brainstorming sessions with the Laureate and the PLC staff that can only be described as magical—and share an ambitious goal: to transform the way primary and secondary school students encounter poetry. In the case of the latter project, the focus is on the nation’s third-largest school district.
Three times this academic year—in September, November, and February—Juan Felipe and I have traveled to Chicago to meet with high school English teachers from across the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system. We’ve gathered at the Poetry Foundation’s downtown headquarters, and we’ve all worked together to imagine how to teach poetry better to freshmen—who are in a transitional moment in their schooling, and for whom poetry might be a powerful tool for expression, for engagement, for comprehension.
Our gatherings with CPS teachers, in day-long professional development sessions, have been both rewarding and intense! Juan Felipe has found numerous ways to inspire the teachers, through exercises that push them to reimagine poetry (for instance: two rows of teachers face each other and chat with their counterpart in the other row; individual teachers walk between the rows, with a notebook in hand, and write down snippets of the conversations they catch—the basis for a poem) and insights into his own writing process. On the latter, our Laureate walked the teachers through his poem “I am Merely Posing for a Photograph”—he showed how lyric poetry can be a process of imaginative negotiations with Keats’s “Negative Capability” that mirrors the way we think and feel our way through a moment. On our last visit, Juan Felipe talked with Poetry magazine Assistant Editor Lindsay Garbutt about revisions—to poems published in the magazine, as well as poems like “@ The Crossroads: A Sudden American Poem” and others he has written recently, that respond to news of gun violence.
I’m proud to announce that “Wordstreet Champions and Brave Builders of the Dream” is now featured on the PLC’s website. And I’m especially proud the page features the teachers who make up the program, along with links to their respective schools. The more we’ve worked with these teachers, the more I think of them as heroes. Seeing them work together at the Foundation, and visiting them at their schools—we’ve been to George Washington High School, Marine Leadership Academy, and Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School—I witnessed firsthand their dedication, their generosity, their brilliance, as well as their powerful connection to the students they serve.
Over the years, I have been lucky enough to work on a number of ambitious initiatives—initiatives that seek to bring new audiences to poetry as well as highlight the art’s importance to any and all who encounter it. However, nothing has felt as important as “Wordstreet Champions and Brave Builders of the Dream.” This project offers the Library, the Poetry Foundation, and really the country the opportunity to not only see poetry’s impact on teachers and students—which we also saw in Laureate Natasha Trethewey’s “Where Poetry Lives” segment with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit—but to measure that impact district-wide, in ways that will help convince administrators nationwide that poetry is integral to students’ development. If we can empower teachers to be poetry ambassadors (and I believe our project’s participating teachers are just that!), my dream is to one day offer students from coast-to-coast the opportunity to learn what I once did: that poetry will help you see the world more vividly and deeply, understand how to make meaning in new and beautiful ways,
and contend with those moments in which no other way of speaking will work.