Inspiration Story Problem:
Over 300 students in 17 different sections of Anthropology, Biology, English, History, Philosophy, Theater, and Filmmaking classes produced hundreds (and hundreds!) of pages of source material in response to prompts focusing on the concepts of: Home, Stranger, Dream, and Charity. The raw material was then used by my ENGL 201 Introduction to Poetry students, who read and sifted through all the language from their fellow students to collage two poems. These poems were written to be included in Judy Allen’s docu-play I Have a Name to be performed Fall 2019. This Poetry Project marked a new approach in that I designed it collaboratively with Judy Allen having a specific focus and output in mind. However, as the Project is sort of a live thing, we gave it room to show us how it could grow and change from our seeds of ideas from our first meetings Summer 2018.
Faculty sharing the prompts with their classes: Barb Clauer, Tim Deines, Dan Holt, Tim Kelley, Kali Majumdar, Alicia Musser, Lance Norman, Bonnie Sumbler, and Matt VanCleave.
What It Came to Be:
This Poetry Project was unique in that Judy Allen approached me to design a project together that would be a small part of Judy’s larger sabbatical project: an Interdisciplinary stage production about homelessness called I Have a Name performed November 2019. This approach presented rewarding challenges that helped me see principles that anchor each project.
Notes from a late summer 2018 meeting with Judy Allen and Melissa Kaplan show the process of working through Judy’s vision, my ideas and some general concerns:
Notes from 7/31/18 meeting re: Judy’s I Have a Name Project:
Working with a playwright from MSU (Rob Roznowski – director of acting/theater) and Judy working with Chelle Peterson from LCC – she’s writing the score.
She’s incorporating lots of the arts in her sabbatical project (poetry, dance, theater…)
Themes: connection, “seeing” your fellow human, overcoming ignorance/assumption, transformation (also discrepancy between expectation vs. reality)
Where poetry project comes in: students (which students?) respond to prompt – “when I look at you (homeless person) I see…”
- More prompts to respond to in order to get layered language?
- Who fills them out?
- ENGL 201 write the poem(s)?
- How/where performed and by whom?
- How do we avoid presenting LCC students’ responses as narrow, naïve and without opportunity for growth? (if expecting “negative” responses to the original prompt as part of the overall flow of the play?)
- Can we have a “before” and “after” poem?
- We don’t want to just mine the students like a natural resource without giving them an opportunity for learning and growth. (I think we had a good discussion in connection with this concern!)
Re: Melissa’s “is this a good fit” question (i.e. with the poetry project)
- Potential issue = the poetry project/art created shouldn’t be dictated re: tone, theme, approach etc.
- Expanded question: is there a way that no matter what comes out of the poems/no matter what is created, there’s a place for it in the project? (“Yes always” Judy said)
- this pairing could really fit well still b/c expectation (what we might have thought the students would say/write – in prompts and in the poems) could end up being very different from reality (what the students really think and what they write/create in a poem)
Have ENGL 201 students write the poems but not be the main responders to the prompts
Gather responses from wider range. Possibilities:
- a reoccurring table in Gannon Commons for a couple of weeks? (to introduce/explain/contextualize a little?)
- an anonymous drop off in Gannon Commons?
- distributed in a variety of classes?
- Discussion re: prompts:
- have pairs of prompts that then go to different ENGL 201 student groups writing the poems – the prompts could be connected loosely
- having different sets of prompts would possibly elicit different raw material for different poems in terms of tone/subject
- What does “homeless” mean to you?
- When I look at a homeless person I see…
- When a homeless person looks at me, think see?
- Remember that some of our LCC are homeless/housing insecure
- look at examples from past poetry project prompt questionnaires (I’ll get a list of rough ones to Melissa and Judy this week)
Ultimately, we decided on two poems written by my ENGL 201 students using language gathered widely from LCC students. The poems would have the very loose guidelines of a somewhat hopeless tone for a poem intended to be included early in the play and a more hopeful tone for a 2nd poem intended to be included toward the end of the play. During the meeting I shared my experiences with the Spring 2018 Inaugural Poetry Project and how deeply I had come to feel that the first principle of the Poetry Project is to trust the students. With that in mind we all agreed to set the task before them and see what would happen.
Developing the prompts:
With Judy’s input, I developed grouped writing prompts for faculty to share with their students around the general concepts of: charity, home, stranger and dream. Each of the prompt sheets had the following paragraph at the top:
Dear LCC Students: Please take some time to respond to the following three questions/prompts. There are no right or wrong ways to respond. Feel free to use the back of this sheet if you need more space. Your anonymous responses will be used, by fellow LCC students, to craft one or more community-generated poems to potentially be used in a documentary-play exploring and sharing stories of homelessness. Some or all of the poems will be shared at StarScapes Fall 2018 as well.
- What I have done when I’ve encountered a homeless person?
- What haven’t I done when I’ve encountered a homeless person?
- “I Have a Name” is the title of a poem about homelessness. Now write one line of this poem that includes the word “charity”
- What does “homeless” mean to you in 5 words or less?
- When I look at a homeless person I see/think/feel…
- “I Have a Name” is the title of a poem about homelessness. Now write one line of this poem that includes the word “home”.
- If I was bold, what would I want to do about homelessness?
- In a perfect world, what could be done about homelessness?
- “I Have a Name” is the title of a poem about homelessness. Now write one line of this poem that includes the word “stranger”.
- Where does a homeless person sleep and what do you imagine they dream about?
- Complete the simile: Homelessness is like…
- “I Have a Name” is the title of a poem about homelessness. Now write one line of this poem that includes the word “dream”.
In addition, I also wrote one prompt – “When I look at a homeless person I think/believe/feel” – on several of the hallway whiteboards in A & S hoping to broaden the ways I collect language for the poems. Although we did not get many responses to this approach, trying this out was useful in expanding my thinking on ways to generate language for the poets.
Gathering the raw material:
I invited faculty to be involved, distributed different groups of the prompts to those faculty, and set a date for return. In mid-October 2018, with all the raw material/prompts returned, my ENGL 201 students were set to collage the poems.
The impossible-to-say-no-to 🙂 invitation e-mail I sent to several colleagues:
Hello colleagues I’m willing to bug,
This Fall I’m working on the Community-Generated Poetry Project with Judy Allen in connection with her very cool sabbatical project concerning homelessness. We have very short groups of prompts that we’re hoping to get in front of lots of different students in order to generate raw material for a few poems my ENGL 201 Intro to Poetry class will be collaging/crafting mid-October.
Here’s my question: Would you be willing to use about 10 minutes in one (or more!) of any section/subject you’re teaching to have students respond to 3 short prompts focusing around homelessness? I would provide the 1/2 sheets of paper with the prompts (including a short explanatory blurb at the top) and would just ask that you have students do them so I can pick them up from you by Thursday 10/11, or earlier.
If you can/are willing, I’d ask you to hand out and collect the prompts all in one class (i.e. don’t send them home with the students). If you can’t I totally understand!!!
So…please let me know if this is something you can do/are interested in and I’ll get you the materials asap as well as a big old high five and my general appreciation 🙂
Thank you in advance and Happy Wednesday,
Getting ready to write the poems:
Judy had visited my ENGL 201 class early in the semester to introduce the Poetry Project with me and explain her sabbatical project in order to give the poets an idea of our hopes for the poems. Once we had the piles of raw material returned from faculty, we were ready to hand it over to the students. As I said in a process update e-mail (below) “Trust the students, right? Here we go :)”
Poetry project update e-mail sent to Judy Allen and Melissa Kaplan Monday 10/8/18:
I should be getting the rest of the prompts back by tomorrow and then I’ll get them all copied. I’m planning on getting 3 copies of the whole set of raw material made for 4 sets total:
- 1 for my ENGL 201 students to use
- 2 for me: the originals and 1 set to keep in reserve (last year I used a reserve set for the PD day presentation with faculty)
- 1 whole set for you
Thursday 10/11 is when my 201 students will be seeing the prompts for the first time. I’ve been thinking about ways to approach the various sets of prompts (charity, dream, home, stranger) for the actual poem writing/collaging. Just today I was thinking I would put the prompts around as “stations” and have students go to a prompt set that intrigues them and then form groups from there. I’m thinking the “stranger” prompts and maybe also “home” would lend themselves to one or more “hopeless” poems from which to choose and then “charity” and “dream” would maybe work for more hopeful poems. I’ll remind them that the trajectory of the play goes from hopeless to hopeful and that we’re hopeful 🙂 they can collage poems to work within those loose parameters.
I know we also talked about looking through the prompts first to pick out really strong ones, but I’m not sure when we’d have time and I think we can trust the students to pull out strong images/language especially if they don’t have the whole pile in front of them but only one set of prompts. Plus, from what I’ve seen, there’s lots of good stuff in the raw material!
I’ve also reserved most of Tuesday 10/16 for my 201 students to be able to re-visit and revise their rough poems from 10/11. That’s a new thing I’m trying with the poetry project this year based on some student feedback from Spring 2018.
Trust the students, right? Here we go 🙂
The students ended up working at stations they chose (dream, home, stranger or charity) and the process they all came to was that those stations ended up each creating a different stanza for the two poems.
At the end of day one, the class had made enormous progress. One student had the brilliant idea of each person having two different colored highlighters: one to mark language for the first more hopeless poem and one to mark language for the more hopeful, concluding poem. With that they were then able to mark language for both poems while reading through the raw material. On day one they crafted their lines for the first poem and worked together to find a good order for those lines eventually writing them on easel sized sticky pads:
The second day on the poems was focused on Poem 2 and the class later said how different the vibe in the room was as they crafted the more hopeful poem.
They were pros with the process by day 2 and Poem 2 came together far more quickly.
Once the different stations had their stanzas written, we put them on the wall, read them out loud, reordered them and made some edits/corrections right then.
The students and I filled the room with snaps and clapping after reading the stanzas altogether. “That was intense!” was the general consensus. 🙂
Communication is Key:
Some highlights from our many e-mails during this collaborative process as Judy and I moved through the project. From a mid-October e-mail conversation just before and then discussions after the first day of poem writing:
10/10 from Barb: Prepping for tomorrow and I’m oddly nervous but also just excited to see what the students do. The four sets of prompts are all different but have, as the 3rd question, the one about a line of a poem using the word ____ and that word is different for each of the 4 sets: charity, dream, home, and stranger. (So there isn’t one specifically on “family”, Judy, but I do think some of the raw material/prompt responses certainly touch on that idea).
I’ll get the copies back in 4 sets (organized by those 4 words) and am planning on keeping those together for the students but that doesn’t mean the perfect poem wouldn’t come from a combo of responses to the different prompts. We’ll just have to see what happens tomorrow.
Now that I’m thinking through it, (because, as I constantly tell my students, Writing is Thinking!) I can picture reminding them of the place in the play/tone of the desired poems and then working toward each of those ideas as a whole class — i.e. individually finding lines/moments for poem 1 (the one darker in tone) and then collaging that together and then individually finding lines/moments for poem 2 (the one more hopeful in tone) and collaging that one. That would mean the whole class would be authors of both the poems which is cool if it works…cross your fingers AND trust the students!
10/10 from Judy: This is amazing and exciting. I would love to be a fly on the wall and watch the students do their thing. I find students so fascinating, and I can’t wait to see their products. I’ve been thinking about this all week – probably all month. Probably since we first talked about it.
I love the idea about a whole class collaboration. It would be so cool for all the students to have input in the final poems. You have done an awesome job pulling this together. Thank you so much.
… Have fun! You’re amazing, and I appreciate you sooo much. Thank you!!! (can you tell I’m excited?!)
10/11 from Barb: Super rough Poem 1 is attached with a few notes and some pics … I’ve told the students that they will be able to workshop it a little on Tuesday (checking the punctuation and line breaks as well as content) and we’re also trying to get Poem 2 done as well. They already have some work done toward Poem 2 and knowing the process will save time as well. They were straight-up awesome — enthusiastic, game, open, earnest, and creative!
Note: Stanza 1 is from a student’s perspective; stanzas 2-4 are from a homeless person’s perspective. It was interesting how that happened and worked out!
10/16 from Judy: I love what your students did with the poems. Amazing work! Like you, I thought it was so cool how the first stanza is from the POV of the students and the last three stanzas are from the POV of the homeless.
I took those last three stanzas and aligned them to the right margin. I thought it looked cool and envisioned the students reading the lines to each other across the stage – the poem added to this visual .
No need to change it, if you/they don’t want me to mess with it! I didn’t change a word.
10/17 from Barb: I really like how the formatting changes you made impact how the first poem looks on the page. I’ve included the student edits to it in what I’m attaching — some line break changes, capitalization changes, and they really wanted “one” to be “1” in that one line :). I’ve also typed up poem 2 so they’re both in the same document. I really love how it came together — the version here includes some edits they were able to make all together while we looked at the big sticky notes on the wall. One of the edits included moving a line from the beginning of the last stanza to be the first line of the whole poem — the students loved how that bookended the entire poem with the lines: “I have a name”
Some great reflections from the students:
- Poem 1 day was awesome but the poem/subject made them sad so it was an interesting juxtaposition
- writing and reading poem 2 had a different way more “up” vibe
- we were all a little emotional after reading poem 2 🙂
…This process has been awesome for the students and for me! Thank you for incorporating the Poetry Project in your super cool sabbatical project 🙂
10/17 from Judy: I’m so impressed with these poems. The students are young, yet their thinking is mature. What an amazing job; this work really touches me. I’m guessing they will now view the homeless in a different way. One of the lines that I found striking is “give conversations instead of coins.” It shows so much humanity.
Also, it was cool because several of the themes in the poems came through in the interviews I did with the homeless people. Two of them specifically talked about dreams (remember the woman who dreamed about being a mermaid?). The dream theme wasn’t on my radar until you included that prompt; it worked so well!
10/17 from Barb: They did a great job and it was so fun to witness how they worked together and incorporated each others’ ideas as they worked through writing the lines and finding the order…
I love the layers of all this: your big core idea, our ideas for the prompts, the LCC student body responding to the prompts, my framing for my 201 class approaching the pile of raw material and the ENGL 201 students collaging those words and ideas into two different poems. So cool!
Some communications re: poem 2 in particular, because at one point in the process, Judy thought she wasn’t going to use it and felt badly about that. However, it all turned out to be a really good example of a surprising turn in the process that ended up being really positive. It was yet another reminder to always just trust the students in that they understood the play was Judy’s to shape, and they supported that, while at the same time claiming their right to keep the poem as is for their own StarScapes reading:
10/25 from Barb: Just to follow-up on our meeting from 10/23 … I totally understand and support the possibility that Poem 2 is not included in the docu-play (that’s the cool term we like, right?). AND, as I think this part was the part that surprised you, I think the reasons it doesn’t work are good! My understanding of why it doesn’t work is that it’s redundant with much of what the actual people who experienced homelessness are sharing in the play. That’s so cool that through this wild community-generated poetry process the students got to imagine themselves so well into that experience. The voices of the actual humans who had the actual experiences should be at the center — that’s so powerful.
Also, the ENGL 201 students got the full experience I hoped for when I suggested the possibility of bookend poems. They have reflected that writing poem 1 was great but difficult and that writing poem 2 was more uplifting…this has been great!
11/2 from Judy: I really appreciate your support during and after we talked. I just felt like I was being ungrateful when I couldn’t use the second poem. Your perspective was one I didn’t think about, but you’re right: the students did an awesome job of putting themselves in the shoes of the homeless. Good for them! I was so proud of the work they did – I can only imagine how you felt – and not to use it really bothered me.
I’m thrilled that the experience was so valuable for them. That’s how I felt when my students did the service-learning project at the VOA shelter…
11/15 from Barb (re: talking to the students about the possibility that the 2nd poem might not be in the play): It went well and they had thoughts! First, they hope you didn’t struggle/suffer at all on their behalf and appreciated that you were worried about not using the 2nd poem and also about revising it. They think what you did for the second poem is great! AND they also still want to read their 2nd poem in its original form for Starscapes — I love that this was where they arrived as a class because I think that’s a great combination of outcomes.
Our conversation today provided a perfect opportunity for me to talk to them about the biggest thing I learn every time I do a Poetry Project: Trust the students. This came out of their gratitude that you trusted them to create something good enough for your play (“we totally could have effed it up!!!” one student said) and that you loved what they did and that the 2nd poem’s “problem” was that it was “too good”! 🙂 …
They’ll be reading their poems in the 10-12 range Tues 12/4 at Starscapes. This has been amazing! Thank you again for providing this very cool umbrella for this semester’s Poetry Project.
11/15 from Judy: Your students! I appreciate them so much, and I’m glad for the conversation and thoughts. I’m especially glad that they are using their second poem at Starscapes. That would have been my choice for them. And, you’re right: it is a great combination of outcomes.
I put Starscapes on my calendar! … I would be honored to be in the listening audience. It’s exciting!!
Yes, we can trust the students. They prove time and time again, that they are trustworthy!
Thanks for everything, Barb. This has been fun, valuable, meaningful. You must feel like a proud mom 🙂
When trying to list the “output” for this project, it’s not as easy as “two poems on homelessness”. Instead, this project seemed to work like a pebble dropped in a pond with the impact rippling outward in amazing and surprising ways. A list of creative work connected to this project:
- Two poems on homelessness written by students in my Fall 2018 ENGL 201 Introduction to Poetry class and read/performed at StarScapes December 2018.
- Two poetry videos were produced by students in the Spring 2019 DMAC 244 Media/Cinema Producer class taught by Prof. Bonnie Sumbler. The students formed two teams to create the videos inspired by poems about homelessness written during the Fall 2018 Community Generated Poetry Project. DMAC 244 builds collaborative skills; these poetry videos also gave the DMAC students an opportunity to be involved in a multi-program interdisciplinary project. Participating DMAC students were Kasey Bailey, Connor Carlson, Gino Fata, Christopher Horta, Marja Jones, Ronald Kapp, Daron Mackinder, Nicholas Moline, Keith Saylor, Jade Smith, and James Van Zile. My Spring 2019 ENGL 201 class got to view the videos at StarScapes the same day they were performing their poems from the Spring 2019 One Book Poetry Project (link to post).
- The two poems, written by my Fall 2018 ENGL 201 class, with some minor modifications, were included in I Have a Name, performed as recordings accompanied by original dance numbers November 2019. I did not know all the details of how they would be incorporated and was so moved by the play overall, as well as at how the poems were incorporated into the play.
Another aspect of the concept of “output” with this project is that this Poetry Project existed as both a small portion of Judy’s play, I Have a Name, AND as a project on its own which meant lots of open, collaborative, creativity-filled conversations between Judy and myself to navigate her vision for the play and my vision for my students and the Fall 2018 Poetry Project. I always feel a little sheepish/selfish about how much I get out of each of these projects in terms of professional development and expanding my own world. Hopefully those positive aspects of planning and designing the projects ripples out and over the other faculty involved as well as our students in the ways they participate – both as responders to the questionnaires/providers of the raw material and as the student poets collaging the final poems.
My mother tells me not to look at them;
they have a name, but only the local charity cares.
I avoid eye contact and try not to stare,
I can’t do enough, I’m not charity, I’m me.
It’s easier to ignore them than to ask them about their story.
If they approach me I say,
I don’t have my wallet on me.
I have limited resources.
I don’t have time.
Lost in the depths
I see no escape from
my unfortunate fate
I have been reduced to
nothing but insulting words
And I’m always where the darkness glows
where good dreams hide,
Nightmares are shown
Home is a disappearing act, one moment it’s
there and then another it fades
The street is the sanctuary for the
Loneliness is like dreamlessness
“living the dream”!
A malnourished, American dream
Dream of a New Beginning
I dream of the day I
will be considered. I
vacate my former dream
the next day and the next
day and the next
Chased by nightmares
of what tomorrow brings.
Existing but, not living
1 day I’ll become a business
making my Dream…
I am not a stranger to the cold
As passersby don’t meet my eye,
They never see my pain
I have a name
I am one of you
I have an identity, a heart
Don’t banish my soul.
“Why should I help a stranger?”
I don’t want your money
You don’t know what I have
They glare, none seem to care
Under the dirt is a person that’s hurt
You don’t know my name
I was left behind.
Another stranger who can’t meet my eye
The constant flow of people around me
never acknowledge I exist
I am different
I am the one they avoid
How could you love a stranger?
I have a name.
You see me as a stranger but I can be a friend.
Less judgment more effort.
I’m calling to action
those who choose to be willingly blind.
In a perfect world,
we would lift others up,
instead of leaving them down.
Never think of a homeless person
as just another stranger, they have a name.
Give conversations instead of coins.
A stranger to familiar faces
judging by looks instead of seeking the story.
Every stranger has a name, a voice.
Though a stranger I remain,
Hope I will maintain.
There is more to charity than just giving.
Charity is another term for love.
Help another human being;
it can turn their life around.
In human dignity we find happiness. Now
I’m in your family
I’m in your heart
I’m human again.
It was my past, but it could be me again.
It could be you.
When you have no home of your own
you must learn to find a home within yourself
you must find strength to keep living
and better yourself.
You eat and sleep and breathe just as me,
I just have no home or place to be.
I have a heart, and lungs, and working brain,
even though I have no home, I have a name.
I am more than meets your eyes.
My strength may have dwindled but the fire has only grown.
My body is my temple so I call it my home.
Home is a picture painted differently in every mind.
Home is where the heart is, the people
you are surrounded and loved by.
I am a person with a life.
I have an idea of stability,
I have a name.
I have a dream,
a dream to be like you,
a dream of new beginnings.
I have a name:
For the time being,
you probably don’t dream of being like me,
how life was before,
how life used to be.
When I have a name,
I become a bird
and dream about everything.
Just like you,
I have a name.
Poetry Project-related answers from ENGL 201 student poets in response to a general end of semester reflection question re: a memorable day or activity:
- “I loved writing the poems for the play. It was really fun how we put them together as a group. It also allowed me to get to know people in the class better.”
- “I really loved the community poetry we did for StarScapes; that was really fun.”
- “My favorite days were the community-generated poem days. I had a lot of fun and learned a lot.”
- “My favorite activity was the poetry workshop – to be able to get a sense of homelessness.”
- “The community-generated poetry project was great.”
- “Memorable day: working in groups to write the home/homeless poems”
What will I change?
Due to the complexity of the task at hand – a mountain of raw material and two very different poems – I did learn that the students ended up needing more time than I had originally allowed. They needed a 2nd day to revisit their ideas for the first poem and finalize their approach for the 2nd poem. Happily, the added time didn’t dilute the intensity of the process, but layered it and made it more meaningful in that the students had time to reflect, as noted, that writing the more hopeless, first poem was rewarding but emotionally taxing and that writing the 2nd, more hopeful poem, had a completely different, more uplifting feel. Extra time allowed for those reflections to emerge. So, unsurprisingly, for future iterations, I learned that we all need more time…which, of course we do.
What else did I learn?
Poetry Project Principle #1: Trust the Students led this project and the students reinforced this at every turn. Will the raw material be stuff we can use? Sure: Trust the students. Should we direct the tone/approach/language/ideas of the poems? Nope: Trust the students. Will we be able to use what they produce? Yep because: Trust the students. What if it’s not exactly what Judy had in mind at first? That’s ok: Trust the students. What if Judy needs to change some aspects of the original poems to fit in her play? That’s ok: Trust the students to understand.
The students trusted me and Judy as well to honor what they created. That lovely realization came from lots of open communication between Judy and me as well as with my ENGL 201 students about our ideas for the Poetry Project process, changes/improvements to it, and input from the students about their feelings of ownership and well as how honored they felt that Judy wanted to use their work in her play. Everyone felt integral to the process as well as the outcomes and that was incredibly empowering. Poetry Project Principles #2 & #3 emerged from this project: Trust the process & Trust each other.