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  • July 13th, 2011 | 6:58 PM
Session #4 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Class

Today was the fourth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.

It was not a good day.

I confess, I like walking into a classroom of boys and being greeted with mostly positive energy. When I walk into the girl's class, I am mostly ignored. I know they are in lock up and have no choice about attending the class. I know they have a lot of issues. But some days, well, as any teacher knows some days are harder than others.

They picked a word for their group poem, worked on it for a while but without much energy. They used it more as an excuse to chatter about other things and call out put-downs to each other. Halfway through they begged for another word and said they would do better. Softie that I am, I agreed to switch. We changed from TRUTH to LIES but the group poem fizzled out when every other comment from a girl was a negative about someone's love life. There was no group poem today.

We moved on to haiku which they had requested to do. I handed out a sheet of paper with a dozen haiku on it. I asked them to read them then pick one they liked and tell me what they liked about it. I had barely turned around when they started with, "I don't get it. I don't know what to do." Which quickly spiraled downward to, "This is dumb."

But they did it. This much credit I'll give them. All but one girl contributed thoughts about the haiku they read.

Then we talked about the "season" words in haiku and I asked them to find the season words in the samples they had. They did okay with that. But that wasn't writing.

When I ask them to write their own haiku (after more discussion and brainstorming) it was just more chatter. I knew I didn't have control of the class but I didn't know what to do to get it back again. (That's if I ever had it in the first place.) This is one of those times that I really wish I was a formally trained teacher with more experience and training to handle situations like this. When the few that wrote shared their work it was a giant step backwards from what they had done before. GIANT step.

I don't think it was the haiku. I think they just decided that today was the day they weren't going to write, weren't going to work, weren't going to cooperate. The girl who had written the poem that made her (and me) cry on Friday had lost her privileges for the week so she opted out of everything saying it didn't matter what she did because she was already screwed. She kept mouthing out to everyone around her.

Midway we stopped to talk about what they did or didn't like about poetry. Most of them said they liked poetry fine as long as they could write it on their own time and not in a forced poetry class. I understand them not wanting to write and being half-assed about it all but still, they are in lock up and they have to follow the rules, get credits toward graduation, etc.

No matter what I asked them the answer was no or I don't care.

The two hours felt like 8 and I was completely drained when I was done.

I think this was one of the testing sessions that tends to happen each time I teach in lock-up situations. I need to come up with some really good and fun poetry lessons to share on Friday. I'm thinking of YouTube videos of poets performing their work. I also need to come in full of confidence to show them they haven't beaten me.

I think what is the hardest about days like this is that I know in my heart how poetry and writing can help them think about their lives differently, how it can help them begin to heal. I know how writing things down can make things better, even if it is just for a sliver of that particular moment. I know how writing has saved me until I was strong enough to save myself.

But I can't tell them that. I can only try to light a path.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.


( 19 comments — Leave comment )
July 14th, 2011 04:15 am (UTC)
Oh, this sounds so hard. I'm a former teacher and have been in lots of situations as a substitute with kids who are determined to not budge an inch. It's SO hard. I'm in awe of you going in there and giving it your very best effort each and every time, Susan. I'm there with you in spirit.
July 14th, 2011 06:02 am (UTC)
It IS hard, Tracy. So hard. Sigh. I feel like a fumbling fool so much of them. Thanks for sticking it out in my corner.
July 14th, 2011 12:31 pm (UTC)
(((Hugs))) I'm so sorry it was a rough day, Susan, and like Tracy I'm in awe of you for having the courage to keep going in there.

A thought: After truly connecting the way they did last time, maybe they needed to pull back and test you? Working with painful memories and emotions can be such a scary business, and an intense and honest connection (to words, to a teacher) can feel very threatening.

Keeping you in my heart, and hoping things go better next time.
July 16th, 2011 01:33 am (UTC)
Thanks, Amy. It is so hard with the girls and I just don't know why.

I did think that some of it was that they needed to pull back, but that was last Friday and they had the weekend. Monday was even better than Wednesday.

Today was hard too. But I think so much of it is me, not having the skills.
July 14th, 2011 01:02 pm (UTC)
It sounds to me like you walked into a situation that had very little to do with you. It might have been testing you, but I think there's been stuff going down entirely apart from you, and they just took it out on you. I'm sorry you had a rough day. I hope Friday is better!
July 16th, 2011 01:34 am (UTC)
I think some of it is that, testing and outside stuff. There's always outside stuff. But usually I feel like I am getting somewhere. Not here. Not with this group.
July 14th, 2011 06:24 pm (UTC)
Sorry you had such a rough day. Agree with what others have said; sometimes other things which have nothing to do with you occur, and you just happen to be there as a scapegoat. Kudos to you for keeping up your courage and confidence.
July 16th, 2011 01:35 am (UTC)
Thanks, Jama. I have no courage or confidence at the moment. Nothing left. They've drained me dry.
July 16th, 2011 03:46 pm (UTC)
Have you tried using music/lyrics? Maybe something they're already familiar with might get their attention and interest.

A group rap?

Also, Taylor Mali videos are good. Students usually love him because he's so accessible.

Hang in there. You have more courage than you know. I totally get what you said about them being the same type of girls who intimidated you in high school. Been there. . .
July 16th, 2011 04:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jama. I've been gathering songs the last couple of days (I have to vet them all for appropriateness in this class.) and then yesterday I asked them for some of their favorite songs so I could get the lyrics. We're going to try studying them. What I hope is that I can find poems to go along with their songs and have them compare and contrast....if I can make them talk!

They seem to like working in pairs so I am also going to try and let them write a rap in pairs.

Thanks for the tip on Taylor Mali. I'll go check him out.
July 16th, 2011 04:35 pm (UTC)
Yay -- you were already thinking of doing song lyrics! Since they gave you suggestions, hopefully they'll feel the value of their input and go from there. Baby steps . . .
(Deleted comment)
July 16th, 2011 01:37 am (UTC)
Yes, some of it testing and some of it is really, they just plain don't care. Today wasn't much better. A lot of it is on me to try to introduce something that interests them enough to want to engage. I feel like I've lost any teaching/talking mojo I had.
July 14th, 2011 10:09 pm (UTC)
First of all let me say it is not you. The thing is that all of those girls don't want to be there. It is a real shame that really your time and talents are wasted on them. It is a universal thing I am sure. I would not be a teacher today for anything anywhere. There is no respect even in the schools.

Too bad they can't give you funding and advertise for people that actually want to learn something and would benefit from your wealth of knowledge . I know I would be there everyday. I know you have helped me greatly in the advice you have given me and I feel that I have come a long way in myself.

So you can gain comfort in the knowledge that you have helped at least one person in the world and I am open to another Haiku challenge whenever you would like to set me one. Or another poem can come your way whenever you say the word. You could then be assured your time would never be wasted.

- Anne McKenna
July 16th, 2011 01:36 am (UTC)
Thanks, Anne. I really appreciate your kind words and support.

I'll take you up on the offer to challenge you again. :)

These girls are tough and they are the kind of girls who would have intimidated me when I was in high school. They probably sense that in me still.
July 14th, 2011 11:32 pm (UTC)
Ouch. And you knew it was coming. But now that it's happened, it's out of the way. I'm sorry it went so poorly. Is there anything I can do to help?
July 16th, 2011 01:40 am (UTC)
Thanks for the support, Sue. It came but it didn't leave. Sigh. Today wasn't much better. I think I stink at talking with them.
July 15th, 2011 02:23 am (UTC)
Even us "experienced" teachers can and do have days where our students just seem to be wild, or angry, or moody, or silent. Some days you can get them back on task, and some days you just can't. So don't feel completely bad about it.

Haiku is both really easy and really difficult. Some people get the whole syllables thing, and others don't. If you don't know what a syllable is, dealing with structured poetry is really restrictive. And these ladies are already fed up with being restricted and confined. That's one possible reason why one or two of them might have shut down. And where one goes...

Hang in there.
July 16th, 2011 01:43 am (UTC)
Thanks, Kate. Today didn't go much better. I'm not feeling very confident anymore.
July 16th, 2011 06:30 pm (UTC)
i appreciate your piece and your work with the young women.
if i can be of any service, i'd love to talk to you about my work in juvenile hall with incarcerated youth -
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i appreciate your piece and your work with the young women.
if i can be of any service, i'd love to talk to you about my work in juvenile hall with incarcerated youth - <thebeatwithin.org>. since 1996 we have been putting out a weekly publication of writing and art from inside juvenile hall and beyond. if i can offer support or an ear, please let me know. the work is challenging, but oh so rewarding! thanks for sharing, glad i found ur blog.

david, san francisco
( 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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