U.Va. Students Share the Power of Poetry with Middle-Schoolers

"A neighbourhood./ At dusk./ Things are getting ready/ to happen/
out of sight…

"Stars rise./ Moths flutter./ Apples sweeten in the dark."

April 24, 2009 — The University of Virginia's Live Poets Society shared poems like this excerpt, from "This Moment" by Eavan Boland, with students at Henley Middle School in Crozet.

The society is a group of undergraduates in the English department's poetry writing program who volunteered in a poets-in-the-schools program, a collaboration in its second year between U.Va., the Crozet Public Library and Henley.

"It was a capstone experience for the students," said U.Va. professor Lisa Russ Spaar, who founded and directs the poetry writing program.

Five U.Va. students led 32 classes in two weeks this spring. They read and talked about poems with students at all levels of English curricula. They examined what kind of words poems are made of, and then they set the children free on their own pages — to write about other unseen moments and the world around them.

For the U.Va. poets, the experience took them to another important step in learning: having to articulate what they know and what they're doing. It also improved their writing, Spaar said.

Crozet librarian Wendy Saz, who organized the program, remarked on the students' "incredible knowledge and dedication to their art." Their enthusiasm was contagious, she added.

"As the minutes ticked by, I could see the middle school students catching the passion," Saz said.

"Besides the obvious goal of bringing poetry 'alive' in the schools through student contact with live poets," Saz said, "I see this program as being an opportunity for the public library system — the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library — the University and the county school system to join together in a cooperative venture to benefit the children of our community."

"It was a good experience for all the students," Spaar said. For some of the youth, it was the first time they encountered poetry.

"They could excel and not worry about being wrong. They found out that playing with language can be a joy, and you can make something," she said.

The Henley teachers said the classes added a lot to their pupils' education and exposed them to the library and the University, a new thing for some.

"I think that the more students see people who are engaged in writing for many purposes, that they benefit," wrote one Henley teacher in her evaluation. "They see that the world of writing is big, useful and can be great fun. With our SOL-driven curriculum, we so often streamline many of the most valuable learning opportunities because they are not 'on the test.'"

Said another teacher, "Seeing the U.Va. students as young people who could relate to the same music, etc. that the kids did, made my students pay closer attention to what they had to say about poetry. It seemed much more cool..."

Both Saz and Spaar gave credit to Henley's principal, Patrick McLaughlin, and teachers, especially Pat Harder, for taking the time to offer this program to their students.

Spaar also mentioned that the experience is leading some of the U.Va. students into teaching. One, Josh Dugat, will go to New Orleans this fall with Teach for America.

Come next spring here, a whole new crop of students will have the opportunity to become budding poets and teachers.

— By Anne Bromley