From Spring 2009 Print Issues

By Gabz Ciofani

Spring is often considered a time of great growth. While this growth can now be seen peeking its head out of flowerpots on windowsills, it also radiates on the faces of the 14 students who spend Wednesday evenings sitting in a circle in Satterfield discussing ways to passionately teach poetry to the local community. "I walked into this class hoping that I could make a difference in the lives of little kids ," said junior English major Anna Ciferno, "but they, also ended up making a difference in my life and my writing. These kids come up with glorious lines of poetry when the energy is right."

Teaching Poetry in Schools is a class offered each spring semester to all Kent State students who are interested and passionate about poetry.

"I'm telling you now that this class should be worth 4 credits," warned Kent State professor David Hassler during the first class. "The amount of work that you need to put in is far more substantial than most 3 credit hour classes."

For the past 8 years, Wick Poetry Center Program and Outreach Director David Hassler has teamed up with Kent State students to go into the community and instruct hour-long poetry sessions with children of all ages in local schools. This semester, the efforts have also extended to Skeels community center in Ravenna and Laurel Lake Retirement Center in Hudson. Hassler himself has been pouring poetry from his spout since his first creative writing class at age 25 with Wick Poetry Center's Maggie Anderson , who was once a fellow poet in the schools in West Virginia and Southern Ohio. Hassler, winner of the third Wick Chapbook contest, spent 10 years of his life staying in Motel 6's, boarding houses and principal 's guestrooms while working with the Ohio Arts Council to teach poetry in every imaginable school setting across Ohio.

The Teaching Poetry in Schools class is set up very simply. The first couple of weeks are chalked full of in-class discussions of model poems, effective teaching methods and poetry possibilities. Next, students submit their availability, grade preference and desired teaching partner and are placed in at least 2 classrooms in the community where they teach their own lesson plans for the next several weeks. When it's all almost over, the semester ends in a culmination of children's poetry shared at a celebration entitled, "Giving Voice" in the Kent State Ballroom.

"In this class, we try to balance a little bit of theory with a lot of practice," explains Hassler, describing the training process involved for Kent State students before they can go into the classrooms to instruct on their own. "The most important thing I'm trying to instill in my KSU students is that they need to tap into what excites their own sense of poetry and language and combine it with a studied knowledge of a writing idea. Coming to class prepared as well as finding a way to convey one's own enthusiasm combines both the student's mind and heart with teaching. If poetry is taught as an exercise for a studied subject held at a distance from oneself, then what happens in the classroom follows."

Believe it or not, Hassler's seemingly simple process is extremely effective. Students respond very well to the authentic voices of the KSU students instructing them.

"This class has been incredibly eye opening for me, especially teaching at Skeels Community Center," explains senior English major Kevin Kelsey. "You don't expect the younger kids to grasp the concept very well and you just go in there and do your thing. Once you get them started, though, it's like opening the floodgates. Every single time I'm surprised by what they can come up with just from a little bit of prompting."

Although the class is open to students of all majors, the majority of students in the class tend to be English and education majors. "This class gives students the opportunity to get some hands-on experience so it's easier to determine if they want to go into education or get a Master of Arts in teaching after they've received their undergraduate degree," said Hassler.

"This class has made me more open to the possibility of teaching in my future," said senior English major Andy Metzger. "Initially, I didn't th ink I would be that into it, but I've come to find that I really enjoy being in the classroom leading children in creating poetry."

Kent State's Teaching Poetry in Schools class is not the only effort out there to unite students of all ages together under the premise of poetry. Organizations like the Ohio Arts Council exist across the country and the poetry movement continues to expand as students create new lesson plans and continue participating in the discussion of language.

"The class is a winning situation for all involved," said Hassler. "For Kent State students, it's a revelation to just get off the campus and actually do something of service for the community. For the local students, Kent State students walk in as heroes already because they feel excited to see a college-aged student bringing something they love to do into their classroom. For the teachers, they love the infusion of new ideas and new energy into their classrooms and enjoy the chance to see their students respond in new ways to visiting writers."

This year, on April 23rd , the 8th annual Giving Voice will take place in the Kent State Ballroom and all are encouraged to attend. "The whole Giving Voice performance has evolved into an exciting focal point of the outreach efforts ," said Hassler. "We essentially find a spot for every child who wants to participate to have some role on stage. Giving Voice offers us a collective, ritualized moment that we can all share of these kids reading their poems in front of 6-700 people."

Teaching Poetry in Schools offers many great gifts to the KSU students who find time for it in their schedules, one of the most important being the idea that poetry is in part for us all. "We're introducing poetry to these children to say that we can all participate in this," said Hassler. "Everyone has a story inside of them. Let's all share in the conversation of it."