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Today was the second of 7 poetry sessions with a group of incarcerated young men.

The goal for the day was to get to a simile of 2-3 lines that they could then copy to a piece of art paper and illustrate with the art supplies I brought in. I told them the plan of the day and that art was only an option if the cooperated with me on the writing stuff. If not, we'd just keep writing.

The mood in the room was more relaxed this time, though still respectful. None of them talked directly to me but I was able to observe their interactions with their teacher and the guard in the room for the session. One student was feeling playful and there was some fun conversation between him and the guard and then him and the teacher. I enjoyed seeing them act like a normal group of young teens in class.

But they weren't completely normal. They reminded me of that right away.

As I had on Monday I started the session with reading some poems to them in the hopes of getting some conversations going. Today I read two poems from HERE, BULLET. With the first one there was some interaction, not much, but better than on Monday. I had barely finished the second poem when someone spoke up. Someone that, after Monday's session and what he had written, I had marked as not interested in participating. Not interested in making any changes in his life.

As always, this kind of work with kids surprises me.

This student kept his head down, staring at the paper in front of him. A pencil in his hand but the paper was blank. He was shaking his head back and forth.

I asked him if he wanted to respond to the poem.

He kept his head down and said, "No. I don't mean to disrespect you but could you please not read any more from that book?'

He told me it reminded him too much of his other life and he didn't want to remember that. He told me they all knew the mistakes they made and they didn't need reminders of guns and war and killing to make them feel worse.

Each comment was prefaced with the, "I don't mean to disrespect you."

Once he started talking the rest of them added to his comments. Whether they all agreed with him or whether he was a leader in the group, I don't know.

Did I feel bad for having read the poems? Yes and no.

Yes, because of course I am not going there to make them feel worse. I am going there to bring them hope and help them realize that it is never to late to make a change for good in your life.

No, because this student had the courage to speak up to me, a teacher, an authority figure. And he did it in a very respectful fashion.
I had to respond somehow and I surprised myself by staying calm. Later, in my car, I would beat myself up a little bit but in the room, I was okay.

I watched the regular teacher watching me. I watched the guard watching me. Everyone in the room was watching me except for this one student still bent over a blank sheet of paper.

I walked over to him and said, "Thank you."

He didn't look up so I continued to talk to the top of his head. " I told him, "I can respect your point of view and I appreciate you being strong enough to speak up to me about it."

I walked back to the center of the room and then realized I had to tell him one more thing.

I said, "When I came in here on Monday I had one opinion of you because of your actions that day. Today, because you spoke up to me and because of the way you handled yourself, you changed my mind. I now have a different opinion of you."

This time his head popped up. His eyes met mine for just a moment before he gave one of those head ducks that substitutes for a multitude of responses.

After that, similes should have been a breeze. :)

They weren't but that was okay. We struggled through them until everyone had something they could illustrate. After break I handed out colored pencils (to be counted before I left) and expected them to dive into the idea of color. Instead some of them were very meticulous with their drawing and others spent almost the entire time doing the most elaborate handwriting of their poems.

I asked them what subjects they liked so I could find poems they might enjoy. I was expecting cars or animals or something like that. To my surprise they asked for love poems. (Deeana - you were right!) Love poems and funny poems. To that I am adding poems that are filled with hope, poems that show you can change your life. As always I'm open to suggestions.

Hardest thing for me today? Still trying to get them to talk more than a sentence or two. That sort of comfort is only going to come with time. Well, and with me asking good questions which I can't seem to keep in my head so I have to use lots of index cards. I think the nervousness I used to get in the classroom has disappeared but it took a part of memory with it when it left.

Next hardest thing? I didn't do as good a job linking each exercise to an overall theme as I wanted to do.

Next hardest thing? Figuring out what to do while they are doing art. There are only so many rounds you can make of their tables looking over their shoulders while they are drawing but it doesn't seem right to just sit down and wait for them.

Next hardest thing for me to do? Spell. Honestly I tell them not to worry about spelling but they are very concerned. Then they ask me how to spell words that I often mess up myself.

Grade for the day? I'm giving myself a B.

Friday the group that has given me the grant to be able to do this is coming in to audit the class. I hope I come up with some great ideas before then.

*** Click here to read all the posts in this series.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.


( 19 comments — Leave comment )
January 15th, 2009 03:01 am (UTC)
Susan, you're listening to and connecting with these kids. I think that's huge!

Jack Prelutsky for humor? Or too young?
January 15th, 2009 10:26 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Becky, I'm trying.

Jack Prelutsky might work. I haven't read any for a while. I'll go check it out.
January 15th, 2009 03:34 am (UTC)
Sit down and wait for them. Get up and move around once in a while, but give them the gift of time and space.

I'm pleased things are going well for you.
January 15th, 2009 10:26 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Kelly. I'm okay with sitting still but every time I did that yesterday the teacher got up and started walking around. Sigh. So then I felt like I shouldn't be sitting.
January 15th, 2009 06:56 am (UTC)
It sounds like you are making good progress with them! My suggestion for you when they are doing art: you do some art too. I think sharing your artwork would be another way to connect with them. I also have a book of love poems that you are welcome to borrow if you'd like. Give yourself a pat on the back :-).
January 15th, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the suggestions. Me doing art is akin to stick figures. LOL.

I may take you up on the book. I'll let you know after I check what's on my shelves.
January 15th, 2009 11:27 pm (UTC)
It's OK, stick figures is fine. The point is to show them by example how to open up to expressing yourself in a medium that you're not necessarily comfortable with. I think they will appreciate that you made an effort.
January 15th, 2009 02:15 pm (UTC)

This is a wonderful story.

I agree with hulabunny about doing your own art. Just make sure that when you share yours, it's nothing so lovely that it will intimidate!
January 15th, 2009 10:25 pm (UTC)
Thank you. and there is no chance that my art would intimidate anyone. I can't draw or doodle or any such thing. :)
January 15th, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
It sounds like they're really starting to get into it now. The way you handled the one young man was so impressive. He gave you respect and you gave it back. I just sat back in awe.
January 15th, 2009 10:28 pm (UTC)
I don't know how into it they are but they cooperated which is all I could ask for.

As for that interaction - I didn't know what was going to come out of my mouth until I said it. In the past I think I would have teared up, feeling like I had done something horribly wrong, and probably blushed a bright red. So that has to be progress, right? :)
January 15th, 2009 10:38 pm (UTC)
Absolutely. I thought the whole exchange was phenomenal and exactly right. He told you how he felt and you responded with understanding and didn't get mad or put him down. Straight talk with kindness and honesty goes a long way.
January 15th, 2009 03:55 pm (UTC)
Kudos to you, Susan for taking on such a difficult task. Those kids will remember you.
January 15th, 2009 10:28 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Barb. I hope they remember me kindly. :)
January 15th, 2009 10:28 pm (UTC)
These workshops sound great! I think you did a wonderful job with these young men.

Fingers crossed that the audit goes well. I'm certain it will. :)
January 16th, 2009 03:08 am (UTC)
funny poems
Hi Susan,

It sounds like you're doing a great job with this group. Congratulations!

Have you considered reading from Polkabats and Octopus Slacks: 14 Stories by Calef Brown? I especially like "Funky Snowman." Although the poems may seem a little young for the group, they may spark more conversation than one might think. The teens might brainstorm other things the snowman likes to do and write about one thing. Then they could draw their own funky snowmen. Just some thoughts.

I hope the audit goes well tomorrow. :)
January 21st, 2009 11:38 pm (UTC)
Re: funny poems
I'm sorry I missed this reply! Ack. Thanks so much.

I like this suggestion a lot and will have to go see if I can find the book.
January 21st, 2009 11:20 pm (UTC)
I like the suggestion of Calef Brown, and think that his new book, Flamingos on the Roof (I think that's the title) might be good.

It sounds like you made an impression this session.
January 21st, 2009 11:39 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Two votes for Calef Brown - I need to check him out for sure.
( 19 comments — Leave comment )

Who am I?I was born on the Cancer/Leo cusp and share a birthday with Ernest Hemingway and Robin Williams. The similarities don't stop there as I can go from depressed to ecstatic without ever passing go. I feel scared most of the time though my friends call me brave and I find it easier to believe in my friends than to believe in my own abilities to make what I want out of my life.

Who am I? A wife, a mother, a daughter, and even, gulp, a grandmother.

Who am I? A writer who never gets tired of playing with words, even when the words are hard to find. A writer of books for children and articles for grown-ups and many things in-between.

Who am I? A motivational speaker, writing instructor, workshop leader and full-time follower of dreams.

Who am I? Read and find out.

Susan Taylor Brown

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