Inspiration Story Problem:
At least 150 LCC students from English, History, Philosophy, Digital Media, and Theater courses produced hundreds of pages of source material in response to four different questionnaires written collaboratively by myself and faculty from those courses. The questionnaires covered the general themes of: LCC, Community, College, and Lansing and they were all introduced with the question “Using what you’ve learned at LCC, how will you engage with the larger community?”. Students from my Spring 2018 ENGL 201 Introduction to Poetry course (as well as some students from Fall 2017 ENGL 201 class) then collaged four poems from the raw material and read them at StarScapes April 18th, 2018. In addition, the poems were interpreted by Catzian Maris, a student in the Sign Language Interpreter Program, and two of the poems were performed at StarScapes April 19th by students from Paige Tufford’s THEA 143 Stage Voice for the Actor.
So…how did we get to those outcomes for the inaugural LCC Community-Generated Poetry Project? On my part, it was lots of excitement about the possibilities, belief in the power of community-generated poetry to allow students to explore complex ideas, and relentless optimism that others would agree with me once they experienced it. From my amazing colleagues, it involved being open to something new, collaborative conversations, creativity, and just plain old “saying yes” to my hopeful vision of what this thing could be.
Who Was Involved:
In addition to my primary role in imagining, adapting, designing, implementing, and facilitating the project, several LCC faculty members – especially those with whom I attended the 2017 Imagining America conference: Melissa Kaplan, Jeff Janowick, and Matt VanCleave – helped develop the ideas around this first Poetry Project. This aspect of the initial planning and development was an important beginning for what I’ve come to understand as one of the most powerful aspects of all subsequent versions of the Poetry Project: its deeply collaborative nature.
Poet, former LCC professor, and Lansing Poet Laureate (2017-2019) Dennis Hinrichsen was invaluable in this first iteration of the project. Dennis and I met 11/30/17 to begin to imagine possibilities for a community-generated poetry project at LCC. At the poem collaging stage, March 2018, he led a workshop with the ENGL 201 student poets to help them wrangle and creatively approach the massive amount of language in the gathered raw material in order to find their poems.
What It Came To Be:
Because I so loved creating the poems from community-generated responses the previous semester, (Let’s try this community-generated thing!) I didn’t want to keep my students and other potential participants from the joy of collaging and creating poetry. Therefore, this project, where I moved from being the person collaging others’ words, to creating and facilitating the process and having students take up that joyous activity of writing, provided a road map for future iterations of the Poetry Project. It also pulled heavily from my first experience at the Imagining America conference using questionnaires as the source of raw material for the poets/poems.
After collaboratively deciding on the overall focus question “Using what you’ve learned at LCC, how will you engage with the larger community?” I created four different questionnaires incorporating questions from involved faculty, some of my own, and some adapted from Andrew Sullivan’s questionnaires (he made sure to let participants know at the 2017 IA session that all he shared was open for use). Each questionnaire had a different title based on the first prompt — LCC, Community, College, and Lansing — and included the following introductory paragraph:
“Dear Students: Please take some time to respond to as many of the following poetic and not so poetic questions and prompts as interest you, though the more the better. Your responses will be used, by your fellow students, to construct one or more community generated poems inspired by the theme of “Using what you’ve learned at LCC, how will you engage the larger community?” The completed poem(s) will be shared in various ways at StarScapes April 18-19, 2018.”
“LCC” questionnaire prompts:
- Complete the simile: LCC is like…
- Finish the sentence with one word: I am ______________!
- If I met one of my LCC professors in five years, it would be at_____________ and we would talk about _____________.
- Briefly describe the most LCC thing you’ve ever done – don’t be afraid, of course, to upend tired old stereotypes.
- How do you engage with your community/communities?
- Describe something that happened to you by chance at LCC.
- In one sentence, personify LCC, that is give it animate qualities. (“LCC sprawled along the Grand River, but sat up to see the capital under the blue moon.”)
“Community” questionnaire prompts:
- Complete the simile: Community is like…
- If you could change one thing in your community for the better, what would it be?
- In 30 years, LCC will dedicate a plaque in your honor; what will it say?
- If you created a new LCC graduate superhero, what would be the three most important qualities or superpowers of this being?
- What five qualities are important to being a good citizen?
- Imagine future monuments or art installed on LCC’s campus: To whom or to what ideas will they be dedicated?
- Create an acrostic of the word “college” with the first word being “community” For example: Community Of Learners Laconically Endeavoring Great Edification. In other words, each successive word of your mini-definition of our college community begins with the next letter of the word “college”. Yours could be either realistic or aspirational.
“College” questionnaire prompts:
- Complete the simile: College is like…
- What is your dream for your future?
- Complete the following sentence: “In response to the U.S. President’s assertion that Lansing was a “shithole” city, students at LCC replied…”
- If you made a film of the LCC experience, what would be the opening shot? What would be the closing shot? Briefly describe them.
- Write a song title or a line of lyrics about your dream for the future.
- What are your responsibilities or obligations to others?
- What is an important feeling, frustration, revelation or idea you’ve been living with recently?
- “The Art of Community” is the title of your poem. Now write a line of this poem that includes “LCC”.
“Lansing” questionnaire prompts:
- Complete the simile: Lansing is like…
- List three life skills you have discovered/learned/improved on while at LCC.
- If Lansing Community College were a series on Netflix/HBO/Hulu/etc., what would it be titled?
- When I come back to accept the alumni of the year award, my speech will be about ____________.
- What superhero powers (existing or of your own creation) best describe what you want to do for the community when you leave LCC?
- Using five words, what would you tell us about being a student at LCC?
- Write down something you’ve overheard someone saying about LCC.
Faculty shared various combinations of the questionnaires with their students asking for anonymous responses. The size of the pile of returned questionnaires from over 150 different students was somewhat intimidating. How would my ENGL 201 students pull poems from so much raw material?
On the day I set aside for students to work with the returned questionnaires, Dennis’ workshop, held for a few minutes at the beginning of class, focused on ways to order the themes they would see emerging from the verbiage. In addition, trying to anticipate how the poems might be used/shared I had students read a Creative Commons Licensing Guide and sign, if willing (they all were), an “agreement to contribute to OpenLCC Poetry Project Content”. The use of the creative commons guide and the “agreement to contribute” document is something I’ve repeated for all other Poetry Projects. And then we just jumped in to having the students find their poems because…we didn’t know how to do this until we did it!
I had my Spring 2018 ENGL 201 students form three groups on their own. In addition, one other group of students from my ENGL 201 F17 class, who had volunteered to be a part of this project, met that same evening. I then, very unscientifically, split the big pile of questionnaires where all of the returned questionnaires were mixed together, into three piles, i.e. one still quite large pile for each group. For the evening group I (inadvertently cruelly) gave the whole huge pile to the four students with a loud, satisfying thump. Those game students helped me see that, although that decision came from confidence in their abilities based on the community-generated poetry experiment they had enjoyed last semester…that “thump” and the amount of words to sift through was somewhat overwhelming.
At first I gave the students just the questionnaires and highlighters – the “equipment” I had used at the IA session. However, it became clear that more tools were necessary as the students were buried by all the questionnaires and words. I handed them 3×5 note cards, which worked well for pulling out good lines/language and seeing things come together. Eventually, one student suggested sticky notes would be helpful and that clicked with everyone. Students then came up with the approach to piece together their lines/words written on the sticky notes into a “puzzle” of a complete poem before writing it out.
The four groups produced four different poems:
- “¿Shackled in Freedom?” by Brad Chattaway, Jesse Hamilton, and Uriah Lahti
- “Brokeback College” by Jaquanna Carter, Kayla Norris, Tricia Wickens, and Emilee Wilcox
- “Last Chance of College” by Grace Carroll, Gracie Smith-Jobski, and Ebonee Young
- “As Yet Untitled” by Lorisa Bolinger, Echo Canaday, Ryanne Gumfory, and Courtney McLaren.
“As Yet Untitled” was the holding place title I inserted after forgetting to title it following their long evening of collaging from the entire stack of questionnaires. The poets all thought it fit and wanted to leave it as the title 🙂 The poems ended up having echoes of ideas and language connecting them while simultaneously encapsulating the voices and talents of the individual poets as well.
¿Shackled in Freedom? by Brad Chattaway, Jesse Hamilton, and Uriah Lahti Dead broke and feeling sour Woke up and didn’t even shower Ignite the beater and off I wander Dodging millions of potholes over yonder Off to LCC I go A career I can enjoy that supports me And maybe even some extra change for the family But how can I get all the way to school If I can’t park my car…maybe carpool? Lost at LCC I am. I get to class and am blown away At all the homework we have for the day But not once have I ever raised my hand I sit there lost and confused about supply and demand Lost at LCC I am. One thing we want is BETTER SECURITY And we believe in ECONOMIC EQUALITY I never take tests and I still get a hundred I don’t know why, but that grade will get me off this cheap bed. Searching for parking, for what seems like days I am tired, hungry Anxious about my grades Throttling the car to my newly earned place emotions swell My procrastination piling up homework already from hell, leaving me gasping, trying to do well Now I bolt for my class I’ve just missed the bell But all can be well If we refuse to fall victims to procrastination in a forced yet functional community we can overcome hate of all every person religion, or nation. I find myself asleep in a nap between classes just trying to keep my GPA consistent But it’s hard to be persistent when I’m chained in this prison for which I must pay. As I complete my assignments drinking cheap liquor I reflect what I pay for is not just solitary confinement we make good friends run into old ones tie up loose ends. We are learning at discount, Just like my liquor we are open minded even as some of our skulls are thicker. On others – our positive difference we can amount. Now as I set down my unsatisfying cup I know we are not those who’ve all but given up, submitting to “the last chance college.” Together a family, we walk down the path of happiness knowledge our condition is math one problem, many solutions. Although we are shackled we’re shackled in freedom, our failures help us, as long as we see them. There’s an obligation to encourage and inspire Gaining knowledge to spark an idea like a fire Discovering a love for different cultures We are free, not frozen like a sculpture Spending time with the people I love While shooing away racism like a dove Here, learning is the goal to motivate the youth is our role to be successful you must work hard have fun in the world like it’s your backyard Now I’m living on a beach sipping a mojito Living large on the island of Wakito Cuz’ I’m dead broke and feeling sour. Woke up and didn’t even shower Survived LCC I did.
Brokeback College by Jaquanna Carter, Kayla Norris, Tricia Wickens, and Emilee Wilcox Brokeback college It’s like a Ponzi scheme, eating my money and my time The most expensive simultaneous ego boost and ego shatter I’ll ever participate in Full of lonely lesser-thans “Last Chance College” It’s college on easy mode that’s why you get good grades You’re just solving problems someone already knows the answer to. Waiting 10 minutes for someone to back out of their parking spot they never did Is it over yet? Powering through malady like a bittersweet symphony Participation, connection, empathy Stressful but worth it. I am phenomenal, Powerful. I’m not afraid to move forward Moving forward there’s hope for everyone. It’s not where we came from but where we are going. We don’t need superhero powers; What we do is good enough. We will one day be greater and stronger.
Last Chance of College by Grace Carroll, Gracie Smith-Jobski, Ebonee Young The earth actually could be flat Fast forward time Looking both ways before crossing the street, and then getting hit by a plane Leaving on a jet plane Long journey with no exact destination A series of unfortunate events You can never park anywhere Steal parking spots Where people stalk you for your parking spots Taking the L Being stuck between child and adulthood College turns a teenager into an adult My patience wears thin more quickly than i thought Came 40 minutes early to school and was still late because I couldn’t get a parking spot I am very A pebble, small and boring A colone of ants LCC weight on my shoulders, like a weight Its smart to go to to save money Money Rich AF-2Chainz Be prepared to be tired Lansing is like a home i don’t want to live in The place you dred going to High school on drugs I prepares for real life College is like the food chain, someone is always going to be better and smarter than you Transfer students: the ones who got away My daughter cancer I like to procrastinate everyweek LCC concert, a musically painful moment Lansing is like big and new I was not born in lansing so it is different being from a small town If i met one of my LCC professors in 5 years it would be at fun and we would talk about what we doing compelet
As Yet Untitled by Lorisa Bolinger, Echo Canaday, Ryanne Gumfory, and Courtney McLaren I just go to LCC a last chance college the first step toward the future where I want to be somebody but I’m locked in conformity a cage, an empty room a blank wall so much potential Our community, a pack of wolves, brings security, a thriving ecosystem the true heart of the state a beehive all sorts of buzzing and humming, everyone doing their own thing constant panic too many people do the wrong thing. I’m not living for myself. Welcome to the club. The roads are terrible The earth might actually be flat I’m on a long journey with no exact destination on a busy street that never sleeps filled with pebbles small and boring the smallest stepping stones anyone can go to college I owe it to myself to take control I am somebody to love and be loved community is like a human blood stream, an open-ended family a giant pot of boiling opinions that taught me not everyone has the same heart as me and so together through bagels, buildings and a whole lot of stairs we grow and learn and start.
The students performed their poems at StarScapes 4/19/18. I put no pressure on students to read/perform. One poem had just one reader, others, the poets split up reading stanzas. I ended up reading one as well – which I always left as an option.
I asked students in my ENGL 201 class to fill out “student poet’s reflection” forms responding to two questions: What worked well about the community-generated poetry writing experience? and Do you have any suggestions for what we could do differently?
What worked well about the community-generated poetry writing experience?:
- I really enjoyed working together with my classmates and found it to be a really fun experience. One of the things that helped my group the most was when we wrote all of the interesting language on sticky notes so that we could put them together like a puzzle.
- It all came from student’s honest opinions about community which was good.
- I thought it was awesome. I enjoyed having to make a poem about nothing at all. It was cool to try and make a poem like that and not have any set guidelines or rules to it.
- The freedom to write the poems however we saw fit. It was a nice break from class while still on the topic of poetry.
- I think that everything went positively (?) with the experience. I in particular think the participation and coordination with the sign language interpretation program went well.
- I think it brought together the collective thoughts most students have about LCC. Good or bad, it was a good way to let our voices be heard.
- I think overall it was a cool experience to be able to “blindly” interact with other students on a project like this.
- It is a creative and fun idea.
- I think it was fun and a cool idea but it was a lot more stressful for me than it should have because there was a lot of information to deal with and my group members weren’t very focused.
Do you have any suggestions for what we could do differently?:
- I think handing out sticky notes at the beginning would help – at first we were stuck for a while, but once we got the sticky notes we were able to pull things and themes together fairly quickly. Also, I personally would have liked a chance to go back and revise the poem a bit in respect to punctuation and other small picky things.
- Maybe have more students participate in filling out ?s (questionnaires)
- I thought this was a fun experience and I thought handing a group of kids some raw material was a smart way of doing it.
- Involve more people and get feedback from more students.
- I would maybe just give the questionnaire to more people for a more varied response.
- I think we needed more time. I wasn’t crazy about how we put our poem together last second.
- It would have been cool to have in-class time to view other StarScapres iterations of the poems.
- Let people work individually, let people submit more than one poem, make the packet questions and poems be about topics other than just LCC, more student led, less suggestions or structure from outside people.
- I would maybe not do it in groups, instead everyone work together to get multiple poems. Or have sorting out the information on one day and writing the poems on another day.
Other feedback was anecdotal but all generally positive. Most of the faculty members who had been a part of the project came to hear the poems at StarScapes and were impressed by the process and the outcomes.
I did hear that some Board of Trustee members and other LCC administrators viewed the poems outside of StarScapes and were possibly concerned/troubled by the themes that were pervasive throughout the poems. However, what that helped me realize is how strongly I feel that no version of this project should be directed in terms of tone and output. This type of work does not exist as PR but as hopefully another avenue of exploration, creativity, communication and understanding. Isn’t it important to get a sense of the true voices of our students? Positive, negative and even ambivalent? I remember being so moved by the aspects of defiance, hope, anger, determination, and vulnerability in the poems. The unfiltered nature of the output is much of its strength.
What Did I Learn:
So much! This project and working through the bumps and turns compelled me to begin the document I now call “Poetry Project Principles”. Principle #1 = trust the students (link to Poetry Project Principles page).
Origin of Poetry Project Principle #1:
- I was determined to make the whole process as student-focused as possible: student voices and language in the questionnaires and students collaging the poems from that mountain of words.
- What that meant also was to step way back and be sure to not dictate topic, approach, tone, etc. Having that as a guiding principle helped with one of the four poems in particular, “Last Chance of College”.
- That group of poets made the choice to leave in all the grammatical and general language/sense issues that showed up in the raw material – one can see that right in the title 🙂 What that meant was that the tone they intended for the poem was difficult to determine.
- We had a somewhat awkward conversation in class a bit after they had written the poems when I asked: Is it meant to be mocking something? If so what/whom? At that time the poets didn’t have clear answers.
- Among my three other colleagues integral to early discussions of the project and this first project in particular, two of them thought we should probably edit the poem. My gut just said to leave it alone even though, like them, the poem made me deeply uncomfortable because I just couldn’t tell if it was intended to be mocking/derogatory and if so to whom because I would want to “protect” the student questionnaire respondents as well.
- Even when listening to the poets practicing to perform the poems, I still wasn’t sure how it was ultimately going to go or sound at StarScapes because there was some lingering nervousness and silliness during practice.
- Catzian Maris, the student trying to do ASL interpretation for the poems was struggling to determine the tone during practice as well.
- However, although all the poems were great when read, somehow “Last Chance of College” with all its warts, discomfort, and awkwardness, was the most moving, poignant ,and heartfelt heard out loud. I’m not sure there was some big plan on the part of the students but something translated powerfully from the grammatically mistake-ridden raw material to the serious, earnest way one of the poets read that poem at StarScapes.
- Trust the students.
The low-stakes and partially anonymous nature of the process is part of its strength as well. Responses in the raw material were…raw…and shocked the poets at times. The fact that the words weren’t theirs empowered the poets to not shy away from including prevalent themes even if they were awkward, painful, troubling, etc. (best example = “Last Chance College” showing up in all the poems). The layers of removal led not to diluting the ideas, emotions, and tone, but instead to clarifying them especially when the poets could see them repeated throughout the raw material responses.
Personally, I learned that it was going to be a struggle for me to figure out what of all of this growing project I’m developing is legitimately “mine” and how to honor and claim that clearly while simultaneously acknowledging the powerfully collaborative nature of the project as well. I’m still working through this. (See Poetry Project Principles page)
Some of the nitty gritty of the process for future projects came from bumping through this first one:
- The importance of provocative questions/prompts that help responders (raw material generators) get to specific, concrete, layered language
- Using sticky notes – to write out possible lines/stanzas and then be able to easily assemble them in various ways
- Limiting the size of the pile of raw material given to groups – make it something manageable
- When possible (depending on the type of project or activity) give more time to be able to come back to the rough poems after a day or two to craft them a little more; although the quick turnaround was part of the intensity of my own experience at IA, we were experienced writers – the quick turnaround perhaps doesn’t add value for the students
- Allow students more ways to choose the “right” group for them (evolved into tent cards and “go to the table/idea that speaks to you the most” for collaging days and 1-day activities like the Student Summit)
- Be sure to get the author/poet/student agreement read and signed before any distribution of the finished poems (do first day of poem writing/collaging)
I learned that the process is a much a part of the whole learning experience as the output (poems, etc.) and that the less I do once I’ve given the students all the raw material and tools (markers, sticky notes, some thoughts on focusing on concrete language), the better. A guiding principle in my teaching translates to this creative endeavor as well: students know more and are capable of more than they think.