at-risk teens

2009 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #4

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

The goal for the session was to end up with at least one poem or near poem that I could bring home, type up, and take back from them to revise on Friday. I wanted them to see their words printed out in the hopes that it might encourage them to want to revise, to try to improve their writing. What can I say, I’m a bit of an optimist when it comes to that sort of thing. Plus I love revision.

The group, however, does not share my opinion. In fact, several of them told me outright that they wouldn’t do it. When I asked the teacher if they had ever revised anything she said no. Sigh. Friday is going to be a rough day. I suppose I could not push the issue of revision but I am hoping that when they see the words printed out that they will realize some of the sentences could be more clear, more detailed, more specific.

They were fairly attentive this time and we started off with writing a bio poem about a member of the family.  The only rules I gave them were no booze, no drugs, no swearing, no gangs. We did a model poem together on the board and at every line someone mentioned beer. It’s to be expected. It’s so hard to get them to try and think outside their boxes.

Surprisingly they all went straight to work on their own poems. One started off just writing about drugs and booze. I reminded him of the rules and he told me that he couldn’t help it. It was all he thought about, the only life he knew and the one he missed. He knew he was going to be in jail for years and he didn’t see that it mattered what he wrote. He said, “We’re all just prisoners here. Who cares what we write.”

I told him I cared.

I asked him to just try a little harder and see what else he could find inside. I told he could write about someone other than himself if he wanted.  But he didn’t. He sat for all long doing nothing and then.

Then he wrote. About himself. About the good and the bad. He wrote one of the strongest pieces of all of them so far.

The boy with meager English skills wrote in Spanish about his aunt who wants him to come live with her when he gets out.

The class clown wrote about having no friends.

Another chose a seemingly simple phrase “I am the only boy in my house” and repeated it through the poem about his family and the things he had done that brought him to where he was today . Powerful stuff.

Some of them wrote poetry today.

And they don’t even realize it.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , |6 Comments

2009 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #3

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.

Friday, January 16, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , |13 Comments

2009 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #2

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.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , |19 Comments

2009 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Workshop #1

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

It wasn’t as bad as my first classroom speaking experience 15 years ago when I had to swallow back tears after something a kid said to me and the teacher let slide. (Truly, I wanted to run from the room in tears.)

It wasn’t as good as some of my other class visits, like a mother/daughter bookclub where the girls WANTED to be there, WANTED to meet me, WANTED to do what I came to do. It was about what I expected which was probably fine for them, was fine according to the teacher, but considering the very high standards I set for myself, I graded it a C.

I brought in colored portfolios for them to keep their work in. They thought that was cool, especially when I said they could decorate them, within the rules of the hall. I’m bringing the portfolios back and forth so I can comment on them but at the end of the session, they can keep them. A couple of them were very excited about that.

Right now there are 9 of them but the group is fluid so it will be constantly changing. There are some troublemakers. (I know, they all are, but some are trying and some just want to stir things up.) I expected a couple of these so I am not surprised.

One speaks little English. He couldn’t, wouldn’t do anything. Wouldn’t try. I don’t know how much English he really knows but he used his lack of it as an excuse, no matter the options we came up with. Another only wants to write about sex and drugs. Everything is a joke. He has no respect for anyone in the class. I expected someone like him too. He is the type to try to keep in bounds, (He only wanted to write about being a cocaine addict.) He is also the type who, if touched, will write something outstandingly real. Two sitting next to each other tried everything I asked and one even read out loud. One worked non-stop but didn’t want to share. One kept his head down the whole time and did nothing. One wrote, mostly stuff that made no sense, but he wrote. Another was a boy who tried very hard the whole time. He even smiled while he worked. He is probably going to be my star.Then there was Mr. Tough Guy. He didn’t write much but he was very good at participating verbally.

Note – I am writing all this before I read their work that I brought home.

I started with a little background on me. Funniest part of the day was when I told them I was 50. They were shocked. 50 was supposedly to be a little old lady in their minds. I read some poems from my book, Hugging the Rock. I asked them some questions but only one of them garnered a response. We moved to some writing exercises, brainstormed some words on the board, and wrote some simple acrostic poems about their name and some words that described them. A painful process for most of them. A painful process for me. We also did an exercise where I took in lines from a poem that had been cut apart and let them put back together then I read the original. At the end of the session I let them vote on what they wanted for art tools – markers or colored pencils. I thought they’d choose markers but they chose pencils. Now to find them some good bargains on pencils, erasers and paper.

After the fact analysis. 90 minutes is way, way too long. I knew it was going to be tough. The teacher told me after the session today that they are used to getting a break every half an hour. I’ll do that next session which should help. I had originally thought to keep art apart from the writing because I wanted to keep their focus. Now I think I am going to art at the end of each session, an hour of writing to a half an hour of art. It will be the reward for participating. The cut up poem was a good idea in theory but I think I needed a different poem, shorter even. This one was 12 lines but I think half of that would be enough, more than enough, for them.

Biggest challenge – figuring out how to make an emotional connection with them.

Hardest things for me, facilitating conversation. How to fix that? I have no idea. Next hardest thing – making a cohesive session rather than jumping all over the place. How do teachers in the classroom do that?

Next hardest thing – remembering all the stuff I want to talk about. Not being able to pull things out of my head when I need them.

Internal problem I’m struggling with – the idea of teaching poetry. Teaching writing feels comfortable to me but this is supposed to be all about poetry and for some reason that is causing, as my grandmother used to say, a hitch in my giddyup.

Next visit is Wednesday. Hope I figure out some new tricks by then.

Monday, January 12, 2009|Categories: Incarcerated Teen Poets 2009|Tags: , , , , |16 Comments

Not Enough Paper in the World

This past week I’ve been on shut-down from the day job which meant an unplanned vacation on my part. The last couple of times I’ve taken PTO this year have been to settle into our new home after we moved. Though the house is far from “done” (isn’t every home a constant work-in-progress?) I had plans for this one. Plans that including my computer. Alas it was not plans to dive deeply into my next novel (though some plotting did take place) but instead I decided it was the perfect time to clean up my computer and organize my files. They were in even more of a mess than usual due to a recent computer crash (not hard drive, thank goodness) and poor backup habits on my part. My husband recently installed a humongous Raid server setup for autobacks and triple fail protection so it was my turn to do clean-up, I should have been dismayed at the mess I found (11 copies of the video of my grandson taking his first steps – and he’s 3 years-old now!) but in reality I knew what I would be getting into. I’m a packrat both virtually and in real life.

The fun part though was finding old pieces, snippets that probably won’t go anywhere but certainly needed to be saved. I also found it interesting to look at the various stages in my life based on the files I’ve moved from computer to computer over the last 10 years. I decided to post one of my favorites as a way of getting back to blogging. The was written during a really crazy time in my life. I was working the day job, teaching for ICL and then I got a grant from the Arts Council of Silicon Valley to teach writing to a group of at-risk kids in rough part of town. Ac ouple of days a week I would go to work, take a long lunch and head over to the school and teach for an hour then come back to work and finish my day. I’m still not sure how I managed it all. And in truth, some days I’m not so sure I managed except in my own imagination.

Here’s a piece I wrote in the middle of it all. (note – all the names have been changed.)


As a children’s author I am always looking for opportunities to spend time in the classroom working with children and help them get excited about writing. When I got the chance to spend an entire school year as the Artist in Residence for a local school I was both eager and apprehensive. I had done a short term residency for the school the previous year so I knew what kind of kids I could expect – kids that for one reason or another had been kicked out of traditional school. Some had emotional troubles. Others were there as a last chance before being sent to a detention facility. They were the kids that often fell between the cracks of bureaucracy for any variety of reasons. They had been in and of gangs, jail, and foster homes. They had learning problems, languages problems, and a giant dose of attitude.

I wanted to show them a way out. I wanted to show them that if they could read, they could go anywhere, and if they could write, they would always have a way to communicate their feelings to the world.

In the beginning the kids were hesitant and distrustful. Most of them hated reading and writing because they had experienced so little success with these skills.  I was a middleclass white woman walking into a land where wearing the wrong color sweatshirt could get me shot. They did their best to try to scare me away but every Tuesday and Thursday I kept coming back, always hoping to convince them to pour their thoughts and feelings out on paper. I told them they could write whatever they wanted as long as they told the truth on paper. I felt sure that if they could learn to write honestly about themselves they could perhaps find a way out of the hopelessness they often felt about their lives.

After a few months, my enthusiasm alone wasn’t enough to carry me through my visits. I just couldn’t see that I was making a difference with any of the kids. Every week it seemed that one more was expelled; two new ones showed up, and I had to start the process of building their trust in me all over again. Those that had been there since the beginning of the year didn’t seem to care if I came to class or not. The strain of giving them my emotional all was taking its toll on the rest of my life. I didn’t feel like much of a teacher or a writer and I was sure there had to be a better way to earn a living than trying to force words out of kids who had nothing to say.

One of the most difficult students was Eduardo. He had been in a youth detention facility, escaped, and on the run on his own for almost two years. At sixteen he was back in the classroom and wearing an electronic surveillance ankle bracelet. He didn’t want to be in school but he didn’t want to be in jail. He wrote about gangs and about hurting people. He was the only student who ever made me feel afraid and I never really felt like I connected with him, until the day we began our self-portraits.

“Today we’ll write about ourselves,” I told them.

We warmed up with some writing exercises. I read a sentence and they answered it. They were used to this so after the typical grumbling they got down to work. Then I asked, “If you could go back and change something in your life, what would change and why?”

Pencils stopped moving.

Alice chewed on her hair and drew pictures instead.

Sam pulled his legs up on his chair and hugged his knees. “Dammit,” he said. Which was his response to anything that forced him outside his safety net. “Dammit. I ain’t doing it, dammit.”

Daniel played with the earring in his tongue and then bent over his paper and started writing furiously.

Than sharpened his pencil down to a stub, sat back down, and put his head on his desk.

“I don’t understand,” said Mikey. Mikey never understood because he never really listened.

Diego met my eyes.

“You don’t have to share this,” I told him. “It’s just for you. Write it in Spanish if that makes it easier.”

I looked around the room and watched while some wrote, some doodled, and some pretended like they hadn’t heard a word I had said. Then I saw Eduardo. Elbows on the table, he held his head in his hands. His body shook, but not with rage. I knelt beside him and rested my hand on his back. He looked up and wiped away his tears with the back of his hand.

“I don’t have enough paper,” he said.

I started to move to my bag where I kept a ready supply of blank paper.

“No,” he said. “I mean, there’s not enough paper in the world for me to write about it all. I’d change everything.”

I didn’t ask any questions, just encouraged him to write.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I screwed up. I’m going to be locked up again. I go back to court next week but I already know what will happen.”

He shooed me away and I moved to the back of the room, giving them all the space to write or not write as they saw fit.  For the rest of the class the students were silent, an unusual occurrence, except for the occasional “dammit” from Sam. As they left, the brought their portfolios back to me, their writing all tucked safely inside, out of sight of the teacher and the other students.

Eduardo was the last to go. He took a last look at what he had written then stood up.

I waited.

His eyes met mine, and I felt it, that special connection a teacher gets when they know they have finally gotten through to a difficult student.

“Will you write to me in prison? Like you do here?”

He handed me the portfolio, making sure his was at the top of the stack.

“Writing is hard, but you make me think. And sometimes,” he said, “you even make me feel sorry.”


Monday, September 3, 2007|Categories: Essays|Tags: , |14 Comments