All neighborhoods – Devin Irish and Alexander Wiltse both admit that they thought poetry was pretty much a rhyme and, well, not really something they would find too interesting.
But the pair of grade seven students from North Park Montessori say they enjoy learning about the craft – and themselves – thanks to downloaded teaching materials provided for free by The Diatribe. The Grand Rapids-based nonprofit uses spoken word, creative writing and performance poetry to promote discussion about equity and inclusion.
“It’s definitely at least more interesting than math,” joked Alex.
Devin added, “I feel like it gave me more of an outlet to write more stuff.”
The 10-session college course titled “Empowered Virtual Poetry: Mental Health and Well-Being” was released late last year. Through poetry videos, interactive student journals and writing prompts, the lessons help young people share their experiences and tell their stories.
Devin took the opportunity to share his experience and feelings about dyslexia. And Alex, who is writing a fantasy / story book, said he used third-person perspective to put words to imagination, reality, and life.
North Park Montessori English teacher Jennifer Hall said she 37 virtual seventh grade students were “blown away” by the lessons. Many include pieces performed like this one by Rudy Francisco, or this one by Fable the Poet (also known as Diatribe Executive Director Marcel Price).
The emotions shared are honest, personal, and, as Hall explains, can be “exciting but disturbing” for middle school students: “I tell them it’s a recording. That sort of thing brought down some of (their anxiety). Each session is so precious.
Empowered by writing
The content of each session is rooted in mental health and features candid videos from teaching artists from The Diatribe answering discussion questions about their lives and how they cope with mental illness and stress. The culturally responsible program is inclusive, accessible, and meets socio-emotional learning and ELA standards.
Sessions include “What’s normal?” , Mental well-being and healing. There is a section for educators to help navigate student sessions, and all provide examples, discussions, and writing prompts that encourage introspection.
As explained in the overview for educators, after completing the program, students will have written drafts of five poems and completed the final drafts of at least two highly refined poems, with the ability to give an engaging performance of the one or both.
Additional goals include increased student empathy, confidence, socio-emotional learning, community interest / involvement, and communication and listening skills.
The Diatribe had always intended to create material online, said director of education Rachel Gleason, so those efforts shifted into high gear when in-person learning was cut short in March due to of the new coronavirus.
“I got into taking the content we already had and creating new content,” Gleason said. Contributions and resources came from mental health professionals and a team of teachers in the region, while funding came from Meijer and a grant from Michigan Humanities to cover videography and graphic design.
“(The feelings) are going to show up,” Gleason said of the use of the program’s material. “It is really important that follow-up and care take place. We know that what we are talking about can strike a chord. Some of them can be emotional.
“What a lot of teachers have told us is that students identify with and don’t see us as authority figures, (but) as artists (or) older peers, of some sort. way, ”added Gleason. “We wanted to be present in the lessons, so we also answer the discussion questions. … While we bring the poetic techniques into this, it’s about giving them the confidence and the language to express themselves.
The free material was announced on social media in November, and by early December it had been downloaded nearly 40 times by middle and high school educators in western Michigan, North Carolina and Colorado. Mental health clinicians have also downloaded it for use with their clients.
“It’s cool to see where it went,” Gleason said. “I really try to find out who uses it and get feedback. “
Building a safe community
The Diatribe is currently working on developing a course for ninth and tenth graders, although Hall said she believes the college’s curriculum could be used by these students as well.
Hall is in his ninth year of teaching at the intermediate level. She considers the lessons of The Diatribe to be powerful work, especially for this age group.
“They are young adults who find their place in the world, and they struggle with their identity, their sexuality, the political reality in which we live,” she said. “Anytime someone gives them the opportunity to collect their feelings and think more about themselves is helpful. They have a lot of feelings.
Plus, she said, students are able to bond with their peers throughout the course, even when they’re not connecting face-to-face.
“When we have the opportunity to be together, it’s easier in some ways to build this safe community: you know who your classmates are, you’ve seen them laugh and cry in the hallways. Now they have to be brave without the face to face connections. But in a way, it’s kind of nice that they can share who they are that way, to know that there are others who feel the same way about things.