AT THE PLACE once known as Franz Sigel School in the Fox Park neighborhood, you find the typical array of inner city problems that disrupt learning and threaten lives.
Ninety-five percent of the children come from homes so impoverished that the students qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. Most come from single-parent families. Some fifth graders are already wearing gang paraphernalia. And a good percentage struggle with English, their second language.
To deal with all these problems, the St. Louis public school system and a welter of social agencies, universities, foundations and businesses have turned the place into the Sigel Community Education Center. Meaning it’s open after hours and on weekends. Meaning that at various times during the week, you might find there physicians, professors, nutritionists, computer experts, social workers, psychologists, business leaders and, uh, poets.
Principal Gerald Arbini is grateful for what all the professionals give to his school, which has until recently ranked at or near the bottom in some meaningful educational categories – test scores, attendance, suspensions and retentions.
But the poets send a jolt crackling through the place each Wednesday.
They’re dispatched by the venerable non-profit arts and humanities organization, Springboard for Learning. Springboard is best known for sending specialists to classrooms around the metropolitan area to teach about the cultures of other lands – usually one at a time. This phalanx of poets is a first.
Every child writes poetry at Sigel – the learning disabled, the speech impaired, the behavior disordered, even those children who can hardly speak a lick of English. They write verse about peanut shells, about animal crackers, as part of charm bracelets and rainbows. They sing their poems, sign them, chant them, recite them in rap, and dance them.
The works occasionally reflect their worst fears, their anger, their insolence. More often they shimmer with humor, cheek and self-love.
“My face reminds me of my mom,” writes third grader Maurice Cables. “My face reminds me of me. My face reminds me of when I was ten. My face is so handsome. I am the king of handsome.”
Trends suggest that most of Maurice’s classmates won’t graduate from high school and that many won’t even get to finish the fifth grade before their parents yank them out of this school and neighborhood and take them to another.
So, will a poem – whether well wrought or clumsy – help save one of these little lives?
Don’t know. But as poetry teacher Alyssa Royse tells her students when they first put pen, pencil or crayon to paper: “It doesn’t have to make sense.”
And it doesn’t have to be grammatical, either. Oh, there are rules to poetry. And the poetry teachers work them in when and where they can. Poems are written in lines and verses, not sentences and paragraphs. Similes are appreciated if not required. Active verbs get you somewhere.
But mostly, the poems encourage these children to mess around with words and their imaginations. Royse is good at this. Dressed in jeans and sandals, sounding more like a hip older sister than a teacher, she bounces around the room.
“Can you picture yourself as a song?” Royse asks a class of fifth graders.
“As an animal?
“As the weather? What kind of weather would you be?”
“Windy and rainy,” says one child.
“A tornado,” says another.
And still a third: “A rainbow.”
“A rainbow? That’s great!”
“Where do you think I’m going with this? We’re going to write a poem about how you picture yourself. Should we write one as a class?”
One child is staring out the window, but the others are following along and offering lines:
An umbrella on a rainy day twirling in the wind
“I heard someone say protecting. Can I put that up, because I like that?” Royse says.
“Can a word be a sentence? Remember, there are no rules of grammar in poetry.”
A twinkling star all the way above the sky A sun shining in a blue sky
“Hey, not bad.”
“As a power ranger.”
Next, Royse asks the students to write their own while she takes photographs. The poems and pictures will be posted on the wall in the hallway along with hundreds of other samples of the children’s work. Poetry rainbows. Poems written on feet. Giant poems.
“That’s really good,” Royse exclaims after looking over the shoulder of a child named Douglas. His poem’s titled “Mad Dog.”
“It’s really expressive. You want to write one about when you’re not mad? You sure smile a lot for someone who’s mad.”
“That’s great,” she says to another. “Do more. Do more. Got to do more.”
The poets have been taking over classrooms for an hour each Wednesday since the beginning of the second term. Mary Wertsch planted the seed during the first term when she became Springboard’s first poetry writing teacher assigned to Sigel. Word soon got around that what Wertsch was doing was fun. Children began stopping her in the halls, asking if she would come to their classes.
Wertsch went back to Springboard and asked for enough teachers to cover everyone in the school. Arbini was enthusiastic. With financial assistance from the Mission Free School Foundation, the organization sent:
– Alyssa Royse, 26, who majored in anthropology and sociology at Webster University and drama at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. After all that, she thinks she may want to spend a long time teaching inner city kids to write – “like the rest of my life.”
– Doug Sanders, 24, who is finishing his work at Washington University to receive a master of fine arts degree in poetry. “I was feeling uneasy about studying poetry,” he said. “Having 75 kids has made it very real.”
– Kevin Prufer, 26, another MFA student, who has some teaching experience in wealthy Shaker Heights, Ohio, outside Cleveland. “The differences are amazing,” he said. “You turn your back for one minute and no one will be writing.” Still, he loves where he is. “I didn’t think it was going to work. But it’s really been terrific.”
– Linda Callanan, 32, a social worker who helps run the before-school and after-school programs. She got her second- and third-graders off the dime by urging them to fib. “Kids like to lie,” she said. “Once I got them started I’d get poems about how they’re sister’s really a dog, or their baby brother is really their father and changes at night.”
Wertsch, 44, taught poetery in Holden, Mass., then moved to St. Louis with her two sons and husband when he joined the faculty at Washington University. She hadn’t a clue about how to teach poetry until she stumbled across the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, an organization based in New York and dedicated to reaching inner city children through the power of writing.
Poetry, with its variety of form and structure and intensity of langauge, Wertsch believes, is the easiest way to engage hard-to-reach students. “It’s the class felon who does the best at this,” she said. “You really want someone who is freed up who doesn’t mind breaking the rules.”
A portion of a poem from the children in Royse’s behavior disordered class:
If I get an education I can use my imagination. I could go around the town Up and down, around and around. . . . If I were a bird I’d fly away Away to a better day. I’d fly away so far Finally, I’d be a star.
One thing about poetry. It can be incendiary. Laughter, shouting, clowning are not unusual byproducts.
The poetry teachers walk in for an hour, do their thing and leave. They depend on the regular classroom teacher to maintain discipline and try to do them the favor of exiting with a quiet activity.
Stroll down the hallways at Sigel and you can hear teachers shouting at their students. You find children outside their classrooms or in the cafeteria standing with their faces toward the wall. Arbini endorses positive discipline techniques, but he knows they don’t always work.
The teachers, by and large, say they think the poetry program benefits the children. It’s a treat – so much so that one teacher tried to take Springboard away from an incorrigible student. Arbini was asked to intervene and did.
“Discipline. It’s everything,” said one Sigel teacher, who confesses to having given up hope of reaching most of her students. “It’s very stressful,” she said. “Horribly stressful. You can’t even imagine. They’ll say anything to you. Threaten you.”
This teacher has taught in the St. Louis public school system for many years and though she expresses support for the poetry program, she doubts that it or anything she does will be meaningful to these children. “I used to have kids you know you helped,” she said. “It’s really changed.”
Maybe this teacher’s views are colored too much by experience. She says she knows three of her former students who died violently not so many years after they left her class.
Arbini, a city public school teacher and administrator for 16 years, knows he has a group of burned-out, stressed-out teachers. But he says a number still find meaning in their work and want to find new ways to reach the children. Arbini is blond, tall, erect and rarely seen in shirtsleeves. His manner suggests someone who would be uncomfortable with disorder. In fact, he’s willing to put up with a lot to get children to learn.
He was named principal at Sigel 18 months ago, taking over a school in which more than 60 percent of the student body turned over during the course of a year; where on a given day more than 13 percent of the students failed to show up. The district then handed him 50 foreign-born students from Albania, Bosnia, Cuba, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Somalia, Sudan and Vietnam. Some speak English passably, many don’t.
Arbini called on resources from the neighborhood and the community beyond. Test scores are up, attendance has improved, fewer kids flunk.
On April 3, at a poetry assembly in which the children joyfully sang, danced and recited their works, Arbini closed by saying that he believed students “have to be tricked into learning.”
It seemed to be an odd way of addressing the children, but he was really aiming well over their heads.
“You have teachers who still want to read, recite and assign,” he said later in his office. “Today, that doesn’t work anymore. You have to get kids to learn when they don’t know they are learning. There has to be some animation. The poetry project offered exactly that. It’s a demonstration to the teachers that these kids really can learn.”
A student named Charles wrote this:
Caught in a trap. Holes in the ground too As sad as I can be Remembering what happened to me Lying in the trap Else where Sad
“Charles,” Royse wrote. “This is an excellent poem! You are communicating your feelings clearly and beautifully, you should be very proud! I think you show real talent!”
To the poetry teachers, Charles and all the students are a bit of a mystery. They know many of their students have troubled family histories. They understand some come from abusive situations. But they’re into poetry, not therapy.
“You could dredge up stuff,” says Doug Sanders. “We could do poems like, `What I’m Afraid Of.’ But we don’t.”
Violence comes up anyway. Wertsch asked her class to offer words for “Sounds of the City.” She recalled, “I had a child raise his hand and say `gunfire.’ I had a choice to make there. I decided not to go into that. I said, `That’s a nighttime sound; these are daytime sounds.’ ”
Royse says she asked Charles, “Did you know you were this good?”
No, Charles had replied. Not until he started writing.
“That poem,” said Royse, “was something you don’t forget.”
Crystal Whalen, 11, wrote this charmer:
Hello Arch Like your steel Like your feel Oh I like you whole or half When I see you my eyes light up Even I can’t see those windows up there light up Even I can’t reach the top of course I’m short No the arch is not red No the Arch is not pink is not silver
It’s an acrostic poem. Notice how it spells HALLOWEEN down the side.
“I had it all in my head,” Crystal said. “I couldn’t wait to write it down. Ms. Wertsch said it was really nice.”
Here’s another, called “Arch”
Are you sleepy Roar out loud wake up wake Child I said wake up school time Hurry hurry don’t be late
The central figure in that poem and in Crystal’s life is her mother, Karen Whalen. She lives in a second-floor duplex on South Jefferson Avenue, a short bus ride from the school. Somewhere inside are the collected works of Crystal Whalen. Karen Whale n can’t lay her hands on them at the moment, but she says there are a bunch. Crystal’s been writing verse since age 7.
Karen Whalen never graduated from high school. She is at the moment unemployed and focused on Crystal and her younger sister, Porchia. “I’d love for them both to go to college,” she said. “I’d love for Crystal to make a little poem book. If she can write poetry, she can do anything.”
No, poetry doesn’t have to make sense. But for Crystal Whalen, maybe it will.
This was written by Richard Weiss at the St. Louis Post Dispatch about myself and some amazing poetry teachers in the public schools. We were part of an incredible non-profit organization called Springboard that puts teachers into public school classrooms at no cost to the schools.