Yesterday was the first day of 12 sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls. This is my first time with an all girl group, usually I work with the boys. There were subtle differences, less posturing and more giggling. There were more things in common, one tough kid in the back of the room who carried the chip on her shoulder like a flag. One who was determined to not get involved but then couldn’t help herself. Several that sent out "do not get too close to me" vibes one minute and the begged for attention the next. And one, that one that is always in every class, that just loves poetry, jumps right into everything and has a couple of poems already written that I just have to read (her words) before I go home.
This is also a new facility for me. Not too far of a drive but boy was it hot! When I left the temp outside was 99 degrees. There’s no AC in room, just a fan and the door and windows open which mean we were swatting flies away the entire time. I was impressed that they were able to write with it being so hot.
This is my first time trying out a two hour session. Two hours is a long time when the girls don’t talk a lot but things usually open up after a few sessions. What two hours means is more poetry prompts which yields more poems for them. But I have to break it up so they aren’t writing for two hours straight. This is the part about teaching that is always the hardest for me, trying to figure out how much and exactly what to say to them before giving out a prompt. One friend told me she found that her sessions went better with less talking and more writing. I can see that but I also feel an obligation to teach more. That could also be a pressure I put on myself. I’ll be checking in with myself after each session and see how that evolves.
I started off with telling them a little about me and my writing but it was easy to see that didn’t interest them so we went right to work on a group exercise. I have cards with various emotions on them and let one student pick a card. She picked WORRY so we brainstormed the five senses and how worry would look, taste, sound, smell and feel. This is the group poem they came up with when they were done.
It smells like a wet dog, a dirty diaper, gym socks left in the locker.
Worry feels like sandpaper, snakeskin and it makes your heart ache like you’ve just been stabbed.
Worry sounds like shattering glass, a dripping faucet and all those crazy thoughts debating in my head.
Worry is unrecognizable, like a shadow in an abandoned house.
After that they went on to write more about worry on their own.
Then I read them a few poems without much reaction or interest in participating in the discussion. Hope to do better with that tomorrow.
When I had absolutely no idea what to do next, I pulled out my magazine poetry. I gave each girl a stack of words and phrases cut from magazines and they arranged them into poems. Then they glued them onto paper so they could keep them. I need to find more simple, easy to do in a short amount of time art projects to keep on hand for fillers when needed.
I finished the session with reading them the beginning of Hugging the Rock. I figure I’ll read a bit each session and we should be able to finish the book by the last day.
Not a bad start. The heat complicates everything. (Never done a summer session before.) Now I’m scrambling to put together ideas for tomorrow.
Go here if you’re interested in reading about more of my experiences teaching poetry to incarcerated teens.
Today was the second of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls. We were missing two girls today so we were a small group of just seven.
When I got there they were just finishing PE and complaining about working out. Two of the girls chose to not get credit rather than do the actual work and I was afraid I would be dealing with the same thing in the class. There was no happy, "Hey Miss Susan!" or "What are we going to do today?" When I work with the boys, even from the first day, they are talking to me, asking questions. The boys are usually much less interested in poetry than they are in talking to me. The girls, while all of them may not be interested in poetry, they’d rather do that right now than connect to me. I understand. I’m new. One more person with power over them (they think) or the power to hurt them. It all takes time.
After doing these types of workshops for a while I’ve learned it usually takes 3-4 visits before I feel I’ve made a real connection. And I’m not naive enough to think I connect with each kid. There are always some I don’t reach. I know I can’t save the world. Not even this little corner of it. I can only plant seeds in what I hope is fertile ground.
We did another group poem to start the day. I let someone pick one of my word cards. (Someone always loves to "pick a card, any card.) And the word they picked was joy. Here’s the group poem they did.
Joy feels like butterflies in your stomach, that feeling you get on the roller coaster just before your stomach jumps. It makes you feel like smiling and your heart is racing. You feel like crying and giving hugs.
Joy tastes like Starbursts, Skittles, Jolly Ranchers, fresh-baked cookies for Santa. It tastes Thanksgiving dinner with all your loved ones.
Joy sounds like jingle-bells, oldies in a car downtown and applause from the audience after you just won your Grammy award. When you are climbing a mountain and you finally get to the top and you scream, that’s joy.Yellow is the color of joy. Joy looks like Santa and the Easter bunny. It looks monkeys jumping on the bed, no, it looks like someone dancing. Yeah, someone dancing for joy.
All but one of the girls offered up ideas for the poem which was pretty good. I shared a few poems that I liked and tried to get some discussion going but other than a couple of comments, the discussion fell flat. Part of that is they just don’t feel comfortable with me yet and part of that (probably most of it) is that I’m not asking the right questions. I’ll have to brainstorm more questions for the next set of poems I share. I think my insecurities really ramp up when I ask a question and there is silence. The four other adults in the room heard me but don’t speak up. (In other classes the teacher, probation officer or aides have all spoken up. Not here.)
We moved on to what I was thinking of as another warm-up – "I remember poems." I had them brainstorm some things they remembered (recent past and more distant past) with no stipulations on happy or sad memories. I read them a few examples and then let them write. After ten minutes, everyone was done except for one girl. She was one of the ones not interested in poetry. A bit of a smart aleck. Last visit she was willing to miss getting her fine art credits if it meant she had to write poetry and share what she had written.
I went over to check on her. She said she was writing about a friend she made in elementary school. She paused and then said, "He died last year."
I asked her if writing it out was helping and she said yes.
We went around the room and everyone else shared their "I remember poems." They were good. Better than I think they thought they could be. A few of them surprised the teacher. (I love it when that happens.)
I looked over at the girl in the back of the room and asked her if she was done yet. She said no but promised she would finish it if I would just let her write. I nodded. At least she was writing. And she wasn’t mouthing off to stir things up. She bent back over her paper.
I shared Maya Angelou’s poem Life Doesn’t Frighten Me. We talked about fears a little bit and I read some examples of variations of Life Doesn’t Frighten Me that some other students had written. Then I turned them loose to write their own versions. When I checked in on the girl in the back of the room she was hunched even closer to her paper, her nose almost touching her desk. I leaned close and asked her if she was done and she shook her head no.
The rest of the class shared their new poems to much snapping and clapping. (Snapping is what they use instead of applause here and in many of the units but try as I might, I can’t seem to get in the habit of snapping instead of clapping.)
I finished up by reading a few more pages of Hugging the Rock. I got a few responses to my questions but again, not much. I was getting ready to thank them for their participation in the day when a hand popped up in the back of the room.
"Done! I’m done."
The teacher was surprised but complimented the girl on finishing the assignment when she had a habit of blowing things off.
I asked her if she wanted to read it. She shook her head. I asked if she wanted me to read it for her and she said, in a voice barely above a whisper, "Please."
That girl, that sullen, I don’t want to do anything and I’d rather have an F girl, she wrote THREE PAGES. Both sides.
As I read, she curled up into a ball on her chair, pulling her shirt up to cover her face, all but her eyes which stared at the desk.
I read about how she remembered her friend that she met when she was in the fourth grade.
I read about how she remembered him sticking up for her when things were tough, and how she remembered all the fun they had together.
I read about how she remembered when he was changing into a difficult teen and how she consoled him when he broke up with his girlfriend.
I read about how she remembered her own life turning upside down, about how her father kicked her in the stomach and how CPS took her away.
I read about how she remembered lashing out, running away, spiraling downward.
I read about how she remembered this friend, this special best friend, shaking her, telling her to get her crap together because she was better than this.
I read about how she remembered being sent from home to home to home until she landed where she is today.
And then I read. . . I read about how she remembered getting a phone call from her cousin last year and how she remembered finding out that this friend, this special best friend that she always knew she could count on, was dead.
When I finished reading there was silence in the room. The author of this powerful piece was still hunched over her desk, tears streaming down her cheeks. I put my hand on her shoulder and she was shaking. I wanted to pull this young woman into my arms and hold her and let her cry as much as she wanted but of course, I couldn’t do that.
I thanked her for the beautiful writing, thanked her for sharing her precious memory with us.
The room exploded in applause.
This is why I write poetry. This is why I teach poetry.
When we let it, poetry heals.
Today was the third of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.
We had a full class but a substitute teacher. He seemed to really get into the spirit of poetry which I think made the session more fun for the girls. There were two girls absent on Friday. I had left them each a note with copies of the poems I had shared and the two poetry assignments for the day. I really didn’t expect them to do the work but both turned in not one but two long poems. I was quite pleased.
Before we got started the girl who’s poem caused such a reaction on Friday handed me a copy of her poem. She hadn’t put it in her folder on Friday saying that she wanted to recopy it. I didn’t expect to see it again. I thought that after she had written it and allowed it to be shared that she wanted to keep it to herself so I was surprised and pleased when she gave me the copy. But I was floored when a couple of the girls asked me read it again. I did and once more, just like on Friday, they clapped and cheered for the author. It was a great start to the day and, I think, a huge boost to the author.
The word they picked for today was "beauty." Here’s their group poem.
Beauty sounds like little birds chirping in the morning and an angel playing a harp. It sounds like a waterfall, like the ocean waves hitting the rocks at the crack of dawn.
It tastes like a sweet strawberry dipped in chocolate, honey on your morning toast, an orange, chocolate turtles, a caramel apple. Beauty can also be bitter as a lemon.
Beauty feels like a baby’s bottom, gentle as rose petals, soft as silk.
It smells clean,like a fabric softener sheet, like a red rose, like Cherry Blossom perfume at Victoria’s Secret, like fresh cut lawn after the rain.
Beauty is graceful like a princess dancing at the ball. It looks like the setting sun, stars twinkling near the moon, a swan floating on a sparkling lake, city light.
Beauty looks like me.
After the group poem they each did a short writing on the topic of beauty. Unlike the boys, there’s no grumbling about not wanting to write (even though they know that’s why I’m there.) There’s one girl who wears a perpetual scowl and rarely writes more than two lines, no matter what the topic. She never feels good and is always in a bad mood. I can sense a world of hurting going on behind her eyes. I just keep opening poetry doors and hope that one of them will click for her.
There are two girls who have slightly unusual names and I continue to struggle with the pronunciation. It is frustrating to both of us when I mess one of them up.
Next we talked about how people judge them, brainstorming various ways of being judged on the board. Then they wrote about how they felt the world saw them. It might have been too soon for this prompt. I don’t know. Two of the seven didn’t write anything. The others all wrote about how they didn’t care what other people thought about them. By the third poem being read I got the feeling they were spouting back something they thought I wanted to hear, something they had talked about it sessions with their counselor. There were original thoughts in the poems but a lot of stuff that I think came from the therapy process this system uses. I’ll have to rethink how I introduce this to perhaps get a better response. One girl chose to write about her uncle instead of herself and did a great job. I think the two girls who chose not to write had a lot to say but weren’t quite brave enough yet to put it down on paper.
After that we talked about who they really were, who they would see when they looked in the mirror, who they wanted the world to see. The response was about the same. This was one of those exercises that didn’t go over as well as I had hoped.
I’m finding that lessons that fell flat with the boys work well with the girls and vice versa.
We talked about list poems and did an example of one on the board then talked about how we could expand the list and enrich the poem.
They also did a group Acrostic on the word POEM
Overcoming struggles only I understand
Emotions come out
Memories last forever
I finished with reading some more from Hugging the Rock. They are all hoping the mother comes back and I think we’ll have the potential for some interesting discussion by the time we get to the end of the book. Even though I had told them that I had written the book and talked about some of my experiences while writing the book, for some reason today it clicked with them, that it was my name on the cover. They appeared to be a wee bit impressed. (The substitute teachers was a lot impressed.)
Before I left, four girls asked if they could pick a prompt card to write an extra poem before Wednesday.
Write more poetry on your own time? Of course I said yes.
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.
Today was the fifth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.
It’s killing me. Not just the work, which is emotionally draining, but it is killing my spirit. My confidence is melting.
We had a new student today and she loves to talk and loves to be the center of attention. Major extrovert. Good for her but hard to teach around, especially with little backup from the teacher. Because she was new, the rest of the girls in the class were more interested in hearing her stories than doing their work. I brought in chocolate as a treat for the end of the day and their comment to that, "Whatever. I don’t care."
We did the word courage as a group poem. It took twice as long than usual. I read to them from Ruth Gendler’s book, The Book of Qualities. It should have been a nice lead from the emotions we did with the group poem but when I asked them to write one of their own they all said, "I don’t get it. Can we do something else?"
We watched Sarah Kay perform her wonderful poem HANDS and managed about a two minute discussion on hands before they wrote their own. Only one person wanted to share.
I gave up and moved to art, asking them to trace their hands and decorate them, telling them it would be some of the art we would use to decorate the poetry collection we were building. I brought in lovely zentangle hands and encouraged them to try some tangles. Nope. Not a one.
The entire day the new student was up and walking around, going over to read the other student’s work, constantly in motion, constantly talking (but she did do the work.) No matter what I said, she couldn’t keep still for long. The teacher finally said something.
Something happened with one girl. She was called out of the room and when she came back she just slumped in her chair and cried. I couldn’t ask why but I offered her paper and encouraged her to write about it. I told her she could tear it up when she was done. She just nodded, clutched the pencil tightly in her fingers, and continued to cry.
I don’t know what else to do to try and reach them. They won’t talk, won’t interact so the time just stretches on and on.
This is hitting every single one of my insecurities. 7 more sessions to go. I have no idea what I will use to fill the time.
Today was the sixth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.
I confess, it was hard to gear up the energy to go back there today. Two bad sessions in a row knocked the gumption right out of me. It’s not that my other sessions have always gone perfectly. There’s always a time you hit the wall but you can still see over it to where you know you’re heading. But that last week left me feeling like I was floundering, unable to give them that undefinable something that is a gift from a teacher to a student, a power that I know comes with being able to voice your feelings.
I prepped hard all day Sunday. I had tons of writing prompts and ideas and lyrics to some of their favorite songs and a bag full of full-sized candy bars.
And oh how they surprised me. It’s not that they suddenly became devoted fans of poetry. It’s that they took chances and engaged with the process of writing.
On Friday several of them had asked for one of my prompt cards so they could write some extra poems on their own time. They shared those before we got started today. Then it was time to do a group warm-up on the board. I loved how they all begged for a chance to pick the word for the day. The word they chose was NORMAL and here’s what they came up with.
Normal tastes like oatmeal and water and sometimes like Kool Aid.
It feels dull, boring, like tears or a paper cut ’cause life hurts sometimes.
Normal smells fruity like Mango-Tango and flowers and the air around you. It’s like when you walk into your grandmother’s house and it smells like food.
Normal sounds like your family talking, your favorite song on the radio, my mom
Normal looks like a boy and a girl in love, a girl and a girl in love, a boy and a boy in love, a drag queen.
Normal looks like the girls in here.
From there they went on to write their own poems on the topic of "normal." One wrote about how normal for her means getting up early to take care of children that aren’t hers and making sure her mom has something to eat when she comes down from her high. Another wrote about how normal was being molested by her father. I was so proud of the writing they did even though I had to shove my hands in my pockets to keep from handing out hugs.
We talked about various poetic devices in general and then more specifically as it related to the song lyrics they asked me to bring in. And then they wrote their own poems modeled on the songs. They all participated and before I left, most of them had asked for new prompt cards so they could do even more writing on their own time.
What was different this time from the last two times? I don’t know. I was just thrilled for them to have such a good session.
One more thing was different from last week. This time, when I handed out chocolate, they said "thank you."
Today was the seventh of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.
We had a substitute teacher, the same one we had a week ago and that the girls have quite often. They should have been fine but they were rowdy, talkative, up and down all the time. When I came in two girls had already had incident reports filed on them. One more had been yanked out to talk to a counselor and mental health pulled a different girl out every ten minutes for "check-ins" which makes all the girls uncomfortable.
I persevered but I knew right away it wasn’t going to be one of their better days.
Several of the girls had pulled prompt cards on Monday so they could write on their own time. I didn’t know if anyone would share but three of them did. Long poems. I was pleased and they immediately asked if they could have new prompts for today. (At the end of class 4 girls took 2 prompts each.)
The word of the day was SATISFACTION.
Here’s their group poem.
Satisfaction smells like victory.
It tastes like your favorite food, something you just cooked, sweat dripping off your cheeks after you win a softball game.
Satisfaction feels like a ton of weight lifted off your shoulders, a medal hanging around your neck.
It looks like somebody climbing the highest mountain in the world
Satisfaction sounds like windchimes, applause, someone chanting your name over and over again.
We did individual poems on satisfaction but too many of them veered off into inappropriate topics. We tried "I seemed to be, but really I am" poems and we had rounds of "I don’t get", "this is dumb" and "I’m done," even though the page was blank.
We tried some "I am" poems.
We tried to talk about Langston Hughes and "a dream deferred".
We brainstormed nouns, adjectives, emotions, and verbs on the board, picked a few out of each column and wrote poems on that.
I handed out prompt cards of unfinished sentences and had them finish the sentence and write a list poem.
Some girls wrote. Some girls popped up and down and asked to sharpen their pencil before every poem.
When I stopped to ask one girl if she needed help she asked me if I thought they were doing good today. I asked her what she thought. She said she didn’t think they were having a very good day. She was right.
When I told them there were no treats to hand out today no one argued with me. They knew.
It wasn’t the best day but it wasn’t the worst. As the substitute they had today said, all we can do is come in with a pure and open heart. The rest is up to them.
Today was the eighth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.
It was a good day. I expected it would be. It happens in all the residencies I teach in detention facilities – a really bad day gets a few kids in trouble and then the next time I come in they do pretty well. I have four sessions left and the last three, I just found out, will be with a substitute in the class. That makes things really tough. Substitutes usually bring out the worst in them.
One girl got out yesterday so we had a new girl today. Pretty low key though she participated right off the bat. That doesn’t usually happen. It’s so hard to look at these kids and not know their stories, what brought them to such a place.
The word for the day was TRUST. Here’s their group poem:
Feels like an unbreakable bond, like someone catching you when you fall
Trust looks like two lovers holding hands and it sounds like best friends gossiping on the phone.
It smells like incense in church
Trust tastes like leftovers your mom made and tears.
They wrote individual poems about trust and a few of them shared their writing.
We did another group poem, a sort of mad lib.
This is the poem
that goes in the place where you have to stay on your toes
because it runs through our veins
because we said so
and when thugs cry at night
happy, alone, solid,
this is the poem
that runs from the ground up to our soul
Another warm-up we did was envelope poems. I have a stack of envelopes, some have cards in them, some have paper folded up. Some just have a postcard. The envelopes are sealed and they are all different. Different colors, shapes, sizes. Some have stamps. Some don’t. Some look like they’ve been folded in someone’s pocket for a long time and some have words written on the outside. The idea was for them to have written a poem that is inside the envelope. Some of them did pretty well with this. Those that didn’t, well, I think I need to do a better set-up to invite them to write.
I handed out copies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s How Do I Love Thee? I tried to get a discussion going about what they thought meant but that fell flat. I ended up just reading them the analysis. Then we brainstormed various ways you could let someone know you loved them without actually saying the words, "I love you." They were slow to get started but eventually filled the board. From there I had them write their love poems that never used the words love.
Again, only a few girls shared.
I handed out a copy of the poem You Learn (which I have attributed to Jorge Luis Borges) and this poem they felt more able and willing to discuss. They liked it a lot, especially the last line, "with every goodbye you learn."
Then they wrote their own versions of what they had learned and they wrote some marvelous poems.Really good stuff.
I read them the last pages of Hugging the Rock which then lead to a discussion about how come writers don’t make very much money.
As I gathered up the folders one I asked one girl if she was doing okay because she didn’t share anything today and she usually does. She said, "I’m okay. But I don’t know what wrong me lately. All of the sudden my poems getting personal and stuck under my skin."
I told her good. That means you’re a writer now.