Engage Magazine: Creative Connection

Graduate-student teachers, whose focus is creative writing, circulate around the classroom answering questions and helping students find the right words for their poems.

Cinquains are just one type of poetic form these third-grade students have studied as part of the Triceratops Poetry Project.

Led by Writers in the Community, an internship that allows creative writing graduate students to teach writing in local settings, and Willow Springs, a publishing internship that produces EWU’s national literary journal, Triceratops aims to teach youth about poetry by having them read various poets and poetic forms, as well as by writing their own poems.

But they’re not reading Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, they’re working with material by some of poetry’s heavy hitters – Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams and Carl Sandburg, just to name a few.

“We’re not giving them children’s verse,” said Sam Ligon, associate professor of creative writing and editor of Willow Springs. “We’re giving them cool poems. Some of it’s over their heads, and that’s okay. They get off on the sound. They get off on the rhyme. They get off on the beats – whatever.”

Once a week for four weeks, two Eastern graduate-student teachers visit a Spokane classroom for one hour. During the visits, third graders read and write various poetic forms.

During the final week, third graders are presented with a chapbook that contains one original poem by each student.

“They’re always really excited to see their names in a book,” graduate student Casey Patrick said. “We tell them, ‘You’re published authors and you’re only eight years old!’”

The idea for Triceratops came to Ligon after he taught poetry to his own children’s classrooms when they reached third grade. The reaction he received from the students was invigorating.

“They were tapped into something. They had not lost their poetic sensibility. Though I had, in some ways, lost some of mine. Most people have that kind of systematically beaten out of them so that when you reach a certain age, you don’t have access to that anymore,” Ligon said.

“There’s no sense that poetry’s uncool. Poetry’s in the air for these kids.”

Patrick served as poetry editor of Willow Springs and has participated as a teacher in the program. She also believes third grade is the perfect age to have students explore their poetic sides.

“Just from teaching older kids and adults, you can tell that there’s a point where they actually have developed this fear which our culture has about poetry,” she said. “They don’t understand it, it’s too hard and they don’t want to do it. Third graders are still at that age where they’re willing to try. That’s when we want to be in there and be like, ‘Keep writing. You’re a good writer, keep doing this. Keep stretching your language like this.’”

Ligon and some of his graduate-student teachers piloted the program during the 2011-12 school year, working with six different classrooms in the Spokane area. Last year, the program expanded to 10 classrooms and they are working with 14 this year.

Four weeks may not seem like a long time, but students are still learning more about poetry than they would otherwise.

“It is hard sometimes with the time constraint,” Patrick said. “I wish we could cover more stuff, but I think we’re giving them at least a little taste of it; a little taste of creative writing and what that can do for them.”

The Triceratops Poetry Project is mutually beneficial to both the graduate students and the third graders. The grade-school students develop critical thinking, writing, reading and revision skills that meet Spokane Public Schools Power Standards, while also discovering their own writing voice. Graduate students get the pedagogical training they need – and much more.

“Everybody benefits from this in a huge way. My students get a lot, the third graders get a lot, the teachers who we work with love it, the parents like it. What’s not to like?” Ligon said. “What my students get is access to an electric connection to poetry that these eight year olds have that I want my students to go back to. I want them to be as invigorated by poetry as these eight year olds are.”

Support from Community Engagement at Eastern and administrators from Spokane Public Schools has helped get Triceratops up and running, and Ligon hopes to expand the project with help from Eastern’s Education Department.

“We’ve got student teachers here. If we can get help from them, and also help teach them how to teach poetry, that’s cool. It’s deeper community involvement,” he said.

Ligon has big plans for the future of the program. He would like to eventually collaborate with Get Lit!, Eastern’s annual literary festival, to hold a poetry reading for the kids, and ultimately he would like it to be a citywide project that reaches out and teaches poetry to as many third graders as possible.

“We’re trying to help them tap into what they already know how to do, which is use their poetic sensibility to make sense of the world. This is what we always do with art,” Ligon said. “We’re trying to look at the world, and we’re trying to figure out what it means. We’re trying to give them a vehicle through which they can do that.