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

Friday Five – my brain is full

1. My brain is full. It is too crowded for me. I miss the time (when I was much younger) and able to balance so many things in my head. Now it becomes too much, too noisy inside my head, and hard to concentrate.

2, My brain is full with ideas for teaching, for how to reach the teen boys I’ll be working with on Monday. I have stacks of books, pages of ideas, and all of it disorganized. Today I will try to block out the first week’s lessons on index cards.

3. My brain is full of ideas for Flyboy, my fingers itching to get back to work on him. But this balancing thing, like I said, I don’t do it so well. I don’t know how to shut off the poetry workshop stuff and work on Flyboy. Maybe after the first week it will get easier.

4. My brain is full of ideas for an old verse novel that I had started after I finished Hugging the Rock, a novel based on my last experience teaching at an alternative school. But it is the same as with Flyboy, the balancing thing. I seem to have become an all or nothing sort of girl. Sigh.

5. My brain is full of writing and teaching and words, wonderful words.

Life is good.

Friday, January 9, 2009|Categories: Random|Tags: , |9 Comments

Looking for poetry recommendations

I will be doing a long (10 sessions) poetry workshop in a few weeks. I’m looking for poetry recommendations, either a book or a single poem even. Here’s the catch – the audience is a group of 10 incarcerated boys (men?) aged 16-18.  I want to start each session with reading some different poems then I’ll get them writing.

While I have a lot of poetry books on my shelves I wonder if anyone has any favorites they think would work well with this age group and in this situation?

So far in my stack I have:

You Hear Me? By Betsy Franco

The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur

Paint Me Like I Am: Teen Poems from WritersCorps by Bill Aguado

What Have You Lost? by Naomi Shihab Nye

Saturday, January 3, 2009|Categories: Random|Tags: , |15 Comments

Friday Five – the employment edition

1 – Being let go from my day job really is a good thing. I have been unhappy there for a long time (years) and have felt underused and undervalued. Being out of that kind of an environment can only do good things for my health, mental and physical. To say nothing of no longer getting up at 5am!

2 – The worst thing about leaving the day job is that I will miss a handful of friends that I enjoyed seeing every day. We plan to do a monthly lunch. I hope we do. I am on a delayed departure in order to help them with the transition. My last day is 10/31. Since I only work 4 days a week that means I only have 28 working days left. Woohoo!

3 – There are all those changes that are to come that have necessitated a lot of budget crunching. How far will the severance package go? When will unemployment kick in and how much will I get? How much more expensive is it going to be to switch to my husband’s health insurance (a lot – but at least it is an option.) In the end there is a certain confidence in seeing the numbers match up in a good way on the page. Money in the bank is no guarantee of anything but it does buy you a few choices. I’ve had an idea that I would be let go ever since the "merger" became a real deal. Much of what I do is already automated for the other company. So I crunched the numbers some more and put forth the idea that perhaps I didn’t need to try and bring as much money into the household which would allow me to try and make what money I did need to make from freelancing/speaking/teaching, etc. And because I am lucky enough to be married to a wonderfully supportive husband, the answer was okay.

4 – Best things about working from home? No 5am alarm. No commute. No expensive gas. Comfy clothes only!

5 – Worst thing about working from home? Learning to be more disciplined. The adjustment that is inevitable between me and my husband since he works from home much of the time too!

Friday, September 12, 2008|Categories: Random|Tags: , |30 Comments

Do you or someone you know write teaching guides?

For a new project I’m working on I’m looking for a list of people who write teaching guides for children’s books. If you or someone you know wants to be listed, please let me know.

Send me the contact info and anything else you want listed about it.


Friday, April 25, 2008|Categories: Random|Tags: , |14 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

Teacher's guide for Hugging the Rock

I can’t remember if I posted this yet or not but I did, some of you could probably do with a reminder, right? 🙂

Thanks to traciezimmer I have a fabulous teaching guide for Hugging the Rock. Go ahead and download the PDF. (You know you want to.) If you are a teacher or librarian and you use Hugging the Rock with your class, I would love to know what you did and how it went. 

Sunday, September 17, 2006|Categories: Susan's Books|Tags: , , , , |3 Comments

Research is another word for procrastination

I usually start researching a new book while I am in the midst of a current project. The idea behind that being I want to shorten the down time between finishing a book and diving into something new. It doesn’t work because no matter how much pre-research I have done I seem to always need a few months of down time (woe-is-me I’ll never write again time) between books. It’s my process and I try to honor it even if I don’t like or understand it.

Even though I ground my books by tying them in some time or way to an aspect of myself and my life there is always some sort of research to be done. Research for me usually starts with reading a bunch of fiction that has been pubbed in an area that might be similar to mine. (Books that would show up on a list of  “If you liked this book then you might like this one.”) So for HUGGING THE ROCk I read every verse novel I could get my hands on. Then I read a lot of novels about divorce and mental illness and family relationships. After I feel full up on fiction it’s time to dig in deep for the details and move to the non-fiction. For Hugging the Rock that meant a lot of psychology stuff, case histories, divorce stories – you get the idea. When I couldn’t stand to read another word it was time to get down to the actual writing. Well, the trying to write. As I explained in a recent interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith the words didn’t exactly race from my fingertips to the page.

Anyway. HUGGING THE ROCK is done. I’ve gone through the galley for the final corrections and after a last chat with my editor tomorrow it heads off to the printers next week. It’s time to write. I made a commitment to start a new verse novel that I will refer to by the acronym MTLB until it is sold. I know sort of what it is about. (It’s inspired by the year long writing program I did at an alternative school a few years ago.) I know sort of who it is about. (M and his dad and N and his dad and Mrs. W.) I did a lot of research the last six months on juvenile justice and poverty and teaching and a bunch of other stuff that may or may not make it into the book. I wrote a few poems. I wrote a couple more. Then I got stuck and found myself using the excuse that I needed to do more research. Read just one more case history. Google a few more phrases. Watch one more movie. (Hey, movies are GREAT for research.) But after a few days of this I realized the truth. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t researching. I was just procrastinating. Sometimes I wonder if procrastination is just a stew bubbling on a backburner, waiting for us to throw everything into the pot, stirring and adding interesting ingredients until the smell overpowers us and we simply have to dig in.

So yes, research is important. But knowing when to stop researching is important too. The research will still be there after I finish a draft, if I feel I really need it but you can’t factcheck a book you haven’t written yet.

And in the “thank you for all the kind words about me” department, I’ve had a few more shout-outs. It always feels a bit awkward tooting my own horn but here goes:

My picture book Oliver’s Must-do List received a nice review from Jen Robinson’s Book page.

Jen also reviewed Hugging the Rock. My favorite lines in review? “Rachel’s voice is pitch perfect.” and the fact that she calls the Mother’s Day poem “brilliant” and that she said, “I give it my highest recommendation.” Wow! Thank you, Jenn.

More lovely words about Hugging the Rock over here at Mindy’s Book Journal. and here at  Bec’s Book Blog.

Thank you so much for your support of my book.

thank you, teachers

Because a teacher has a starring role in my new book project I wanted to give a shout out to some very special teachers in my past. I might have found my way to writing without them, but I am sure they had a hand in helping me find the path I was meant to walk.

So turn the clock back to when my name was Susan Webb and . . .

At Glenbrook Middle School (Concord California) I had two English teachers who unlocked the door for me; Vicki Hackett (now at Northgate high school) and Joyce Welch (I wish I knew where she was). They read my words and told me I had talent. They encouraged me to keep writing. I became the editor of the school paper. I wrote plays for the class to perform. I stayed after school just to sit in that old school desk in an environment that celebrated words, my words, and wrote and wrote and wrote. It was there, I am sure, that my writer self was born.

At Ygnacio Valley High School (the last year before it split off into Northgate) I had Robert Sillonis for creative writing. Our classroom was out in a portable at the edge of the school and it felt like a world apart from all the other classes. He encouraged creativity in ways that I had never experienced. Kids brought things into class, things they were good at, and did demonstrations. I brought in my roller skates and tried to show them what I did at the rink every day after school. We kept a portfolio of our writing long before they were fashionable in the classroom and we gave ourselves grades on our work at the end of the quarter. Mr. Sillonis said that he rarely had to lower a grade a student gave themself but often had to raise it. Mr. Sillonis was the first one to tell me to dig deep and write the truth but it would be years before I was a brave enough writer to actually do so. Whenever someone comments on me writing the truth, I think about him. After a year at Ygnacio Valley I went back to Mt. Diablo High School (also in Concord, California for anyone keeping track) and had Chuck Foster who continued the push that Mr. Sillonis had started. From him I learned the importance of playing with words and trying to not take myself too seriously. (I would love to find out where he is too. I think I heard he moved to Washington when he retired but that’s all I know.)

So thank you to the teachers who have encouraged me over the years. I appreciate the extra effort you made to help me believe in my right to write.

What teachers have mattered to you or helped shape your writing self?

Sunday, April 30, 2006|Categories: Writing Life|Tags: , |12 Comments