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Poetry in the Garden

Writing the Community inspires creative language in Tucson schools.

January 30, 2017

Community Spotlight

Poet Ross Gay is tall, as he admits in one of his poems about picking figs. Nonetheless, he sits in a blue chair sized for upper elementary school students, leaning forward and reading from his book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude to a classroom of 4th graders at Borton Magnet School. He reads poems about trees, gardening and this one time a bird pooped on his face. The children are instantly won over. Here is a writer who talks of gardens and food and special friends, but also about the hilarious experience of tasting a bird’s mulberry-stained dropping. By the end of Gay’s reading, the room brims with laughter, questions, and casual conversation.

Ross Gay reads poetry to a class of engaged 4th graders.

Ross Gay reads poetry to a class of engaged 4th graders.

Gay lives in Indiana, where he helped found the Bloomington Community Orchard. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude draws heavily from his experience in the orchard, so Gay aptly engaged students in a conversation about their favorite local trees. We celebrated the existence of oranges, pomegranates, and mesquite trees.

For this classroom, Gay’s special guest visit came after nine previous workshops through the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s Writing the Community program in which children, mentored by interns and local writers, read from a variety of poets and craft their own works.

“Poetry seems to be something that doesn’t get enough attention in school,” says their classroom teacher, Matthew Morondos. “The art of fun and writing get lost.” Morondos believes poetry offers another form of expression to students and that teaching writing in the schools should reach beyond standardized essays.

By the end of the semester, Morondos’s classroom had written letters to pollinators, personifications about wildlife, haikus, and their own catalogs of gratitude about the school garden. These last poems were inspired by a poem of Gay’s. They each begin “Hear ye! Hear ye!” and detail a list of memories or things from the school garden for which they are thankful.

One such poem, by Claudeona, sings the praises of trees and the impact Borton Elementary School has had on several generations of her family:

Hear ye! Hear ye! I am here to yell that I love trees tons—by which I don’t mean lots, I mean tons, tons of oxygen and plants to keep us alive. Thank you for that beautiful wall you made of mosaic tiles, thank you for the flowers that are still alive in winter.

Thank you for the soil to make the plants grow. Thank you for this open space in the garden and benches. Thank you for all the stuff you made for the new kids and the kids that have been here since kindergarten through fifth grade like my dad and aunties and uncles and I think my grandpa.

After Gay’s reading, the classroom eagerly showed him around Borton’s Environmental Learning Lab, 2.5 acres of desert habitat that includes a desert tortoise enclosure. They invited him to crouch low and sit with them in a bird blind. They showed him the prickly pear fruit and creosote bush which makes the desert smell perfumed after a monsoon rain.

The class shows Gay around Borton’s Environmental Learning Lab.

The class shows Gay around Borton’s Environmental Learning Lab.

“It felt really special to be led around,” Gay says.

They ended their time together in the school garden, showing Ross the honeysuckle plants that taste like sugar and the hot chili peppers.

When asked what she liked best about Gay’s poetry visit, student Jinessa said she liked how he “read them with a lot of excitement.” For some students, Gay’s visit demonstrated how poetry lives. Poets are not dead people. Poets are vibrant, super cool, and they inspire us to write. Sometimes they’re also really tall and happy to sit with us in bird blinds.

Gay demonstrates that poets are very much alive and vibrant.

Gay demonstrates that poets are very much alive and vibrant.

Gay finds that poetry, like gardening, teaches us to pay close attention, a valuable skill to nurture in children.

“If poetry is about close listening and intimacy, then that seems like a really valid aspect of our life,” he says.

Poetry and gardening also give us beautiful life metaphors.

“A seed is not just a seed,” Gay says. “A seed is in fact a bed of lettuce. There’s something hopeful about that: things turn into other things.”

Morondos expresses a similar insight.

“This little seed of poetry planted now could lead the kids to get into literature,” he says. “It could help them find what they are passionate about.”

Writing the Community seeks to develop a love for playing with language and a knowledge of its power. “I like to describe it as a creativity lab,” says Renee Angle, coordinator of the program. Lessons often begin by reading and engaging in conversation about a poem. Lessons then launch into creative writing exercises that imitate the structure, style, or some aspect of the poem. Still other lessons call upon traditional poetic forms, like the haiku or pantoum, for inspiration. In all cases, students learn about sensory detail, imagery, and opportunities for using language in unique, fresh ways.

Consider the following pantoum, a poetic form from Malaysia that repeats lines in a pattern, written by 4th grader Sadie Larson:

Art is everything
Art is our souls
Art is on a journey to Antarctica
Art flies like a butterfly

Art is in our souls
The world is beautiful
Art flies like a butterfly
Wishing to paint the world

The world is beautiful
On a journey to Antarctica
Wishing to paint the world
Art is everything

If you, too, are inspired by words and would like to bring poetry into the classroom, spread the word with Tucson schools and teachers. Six other Tucson schools hosted a poetry residency in their classroom last semester: Davis Bilingual Elementary, Safford IB Magnet School, Imago Dei at the Tucson Museum of Art, Pueblo Gardens Elementary, Doolen Middle School and The Gregory School. You can read about some of those poetry lessons on the Poetry Center’s Education Blog. The program continues to seek out teachers interested in hosting writers as mentors. For more information on how to get involved, email Renee Angle (angler@email.arizona.edu).


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