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

The goal for the day was survival. I'm not joking.

When the teacher tells you right off the bat that they had managed to concentrate for SOME of the time before I got there but that now they were basically, well, a bit wild and crazy, you know it is going to be a rough day.

The good. They were comfortable enough to chat with me before things got started. It was the nice, easygoing chat I had witnessed between them and their regular teacher and it felt good to be included.

The crazy. They were actually really good at brainstorming words on the board. Not so great at coming up with a sentence using those words. And only two of them managed to actually write a poem. I asked for 5 lines which they complained was too long. This from the same group of kids who 2 days ago were writing 10 and 15 lines. But they are like many other teens in that regard.

We tried to work on editing/revising a poem for improvement but they are all taking it personally, saying that it means I don't like their work. It doesn't matter how many revisions I tell them I have gone through on a poem, they are different. :)

One of them managed to slip a drug reference past me when we were writing about water things. He wrote about ice and I totally blanked out on the drug reference until the second time I read the poem. Sigh. Too bad as it was the most he had written.

One of them worked very hard on several lines, trying to really capture the feeling he had inside. I think he did a great job but then he was afraid that the judge would see it and somehow make a judgment on him so he destroyed the page.

One of them, the one who stood up to me in the last session has become very helpful of another boy who speaks very little English.

This time for art I brought my collection of words and phrases that I have been cutting out of magazines for years. I put a pile on each table and gave them a fresh sheet of paper. The idea was to do a collage, a positive collage, of the words that spoke to you.

They are all so conditioned with being in this place that they couldn't grasp the outside-of-the-box concept. They lined words up in complete sentences. Tore words apart to make their own words. In the end, most of them just grabbed words without meaning and glued them to the page. At this rate I worry that we will actually manage the self-portraits or a decent poem for the display that is needed at the end of the project.

The hardest thing? Getting them to revise. It's just not happening.

The next hardest thing? Getting them to listen, which the teacher said she has trouble with too.

My grade for the day? I'm sticking with a B.

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


( 11 comments — Leave comment )
(Deleted comment)
January 17th, 2009 02:57 am (UTC)
Oh I don't think it is just me...it's just hard because in my head I know the steps we should be going through. :)
January 17th, 2009 02:35 am (UTC)
Revision reluctance is definitely not an issue in just your class, so don't feel bad. And you are doing incredible work with them. I give you a ton of credit (and an A+!)

But I wonder if now is the right time to bring them to revision? You are asking them to do a lot of powerful work, and right now getting the words on the page probably feels like a huge accomplishment/scary endeavor. They might feel that you are asking them to change their ideas and feelings as opposed to how they are expressing themselves in that line/stanza. Maybe let them accumulate some work, then talk about the value of having distance on a piece, or do an exercise where you give them a phrase and see if they can come up with alternate ways to say the same thing--kind of back into the revision process...
(Deleted comment)
January 17th, 2009 03:06 am (UTC)
The grant is somewhat general, for "poetry" with the idea that at the end of the session there will be a display of their "work" put up in the museum of a local university.
January 17th, 2009 01:00 pm (UTC)
Ulp. That's some intense pressure, both for you and them. Would I want my work in a museum for other people to examine??? (Well, maybe I would, if that meant I was a famous poet whose every pen stroke was worthy of being dissected, but...) Anyhow, my point is that perhaps some poems that are written and deliberately destroyed will help free them. Help them see that they have control over what is out there on the page.
January 17th, 2009 03:04 am (UTC)
You may be right as it is too soon but, alas, we only have 7 sessions.

And yes, I think there is confusion about what I am asking of them. I had that discussion with one today...his idea was strong and I knew where he was trying to go because of what else he had said but as I tried to encourage him to rephase it in order to help the reader see it even more clearly he got very defensive.

My idea has been, from the start, to get a lot of material but so far I can't get them past one poem per visit. We do exercises but they are all very much in the box and not willing to step outside.

I like the idea of backing into it, though. Thank you. I'll see how I can try that.
January 17th, 2009 12:54 pm (UTC)
My students always moan and groan about revision...so I have to trick them into it with a game (example: each word costs money. Imagine you're paying the reader for every word they swallow).
January 21st, 2009 11:34 pm (UTC)
I am going to get the chance to try that on Friday with them. I brought up the word revision again today and even the teacher said that most of them were very stubborn against/about it. Sigh.
January 22nd, 2009 04:09 pm (UTC)
The word "revision" is dirty to them...but if you say, "Remix like a DJ," they totally get it!
January 22nd, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC)
Now THAT is brilliant! Thanks.
January 18th, 2009 12:10 am (UTC)
It sounds to me like a lot of pressure for you, too. Seems the agenda above you is for "performance". Did the grant people ask the young men what they wanted to get out of it, I wonder?

I seemed to spend my whole teaching life looking for compromises between meeting the needs of authorities and meeting the needs of the kids. Could a final exhibition be one piece from each young man, mingled with a great picture chosen from a library collection or something similar?

Whatever, the great thing I believe is that these young men are being exposed to a form of self-expression that might one day resonate with them. Kudos to you, Susan!
January 21st, 2009 11:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks BookChook!

The audit day was/is always a hard performance day for me. I feel more pressure, I think, than perhaps the artists and musicians who have similar grants because it is easier for people to see and hear what is being done.

Interesting idea about mixing their words with a great picture. I might keep that in mind for the next time I work with this sort of group. I could start with a picture at the first session and build toward it.

They are working on self-portraits now, using mirrors to help them see themselves.
( 11 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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