Student Day turned out to be “the coolest thing!”


A Newburyport student said that before Student Day at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival she had been excited that it meant a day away from school. But after the day, she felt the festival was “the coolest thing I’ve ever done during school hours. It was the best field trip ever!”

The excitement carried over to the trip home. Lisken Dus, whose students had to leave Great Barrington at 5am to get to Salem State University on time, found that the trip back was much livelier than the drowsy three-hour morning ride. Coming home the students were writing poems, reading poems, and sharing stories of what happened during the day.

Suzy Spressert from the Codman School in Boston reported the same exhilaration. “The Codman students were very well engaged and after the second workshops were eager to share their poems with one another on the bus ride home.”

One student from Lawrence’s Wetherbee School summed up the surprise of many students, “I thought it would be long and boring, (but) it was so much fun!”

Building the enthusiasm

The three assemblies – one at the start of the day, one before the midday showing of a film, and one as the program concluded – grew more animated as the day progressed. Not only were students warming up to spoken word poets like Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye, the brilliance of MC Regie Gibson, the wit and charm of legends like X. J. Kennedy, and the shotgun distribution of Salem State University T-shirts into the audience, they were getting used to workshop poets as interesting but everyday people.

Kevin Carey, a workshop leader who had students write poems about objects, found the morning students shy, but by the afternoon they were psyched up. “They had to pull an object blindly from a bag and use it to generate a poem. That was fun, and they were more willing to share (their poems) the second time around.”

X. J. Kennedy, who has visited many a high school class to talk with students, found the day impressive. The simultaneous workshops “felt a little like being one cog in a smooth-running high-powered machine.” He was amazed by the students and happy to tell a story at his own expense. He presented a Kim Addonzio poem that told a story about a man covered with tattoos. “I claimed it as proof you can tell a story not only in rhyme, but in free verse. Then an alert student pointed out that I was full of hooey—the poem was a rhyming sonnet, which I hadn’t even noticed!”

Louder than a Bomb!

The center of the day and the center of what most students said they would remember longest was the film “Louder than a Bomb,” a documentary about a group of high school students in Chicago who found their voices in poetry and founded a slam competition that now draws over 5,000 students. It has been described as “a film about passion, competition, teamwork, and trust. It’s about the joy of being young, and the pain of growing up.”

A Newburyport student said about the film, “We were ALL inspired (and brought to tears – boys and girls!) by the movie.” When asked what she expected to remember longest about the day, she said, “Most likely the poetry in the movie. It was cool to see high school kids put their image aside and perform. I will remember that poems can be forever.”

Teachers get in the act

The teachers had their own fun. Debbie Szabo from Newburyport High School said, “I loved that the teachers’ workshop was NOT just a bunch of teachers sharing their own favorite lesson plans. I’ve been to tons of those! This was a very well planned, systematic workshop, in which the leaders modeled methods we could easily adapt to our classrooms. The emphasis on spoken word made this workshop different from others. I even got to host a mini-open mike…which turned out to be much more difficult than it looks! Who would have known that?”

The workshops for teachers was led by Anna West and a group of aides she selected. West is the cofounder of the Louder than a Bomb program in Chicago and an enthusiastic supporter of student poetry. “We invited teachers to write poems and share them with one another in an open mic.” West was moved by the teachers, “not only by the quality of the drafts they shared, but the supportive environment for taking creative risks that we created together in that room.”

 The day ended with energy and excitement as two poets took the stage and read from their award winning books. Brian Turner read from Here, Bullet, a book of poems about his experience as a soldier in Iraq. The book has been awarded the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, the New York Times “Editor’s Choice” selection, the 2006 Pen Center USA “Best in the West” award, and the 2007 Poets Prize. Jericho Brown also read from his book Please. Brown was the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans before receiving his PhD in Creative Writing. His book won the American Book Award.

A final word

A great group of workshop leaders, numbering around 40 people, made the workshops animated, and a wonderful group of volunteers, led by LaSauna Pakeman and Paola Miranda, provided students and teachers alike with help getting around the Salem State campus.

Salem State offered not only its wonderful facilities for the day but many of the volunteers were Salem State students.

Lisa Stott, a teacher at the Wetherbee School, believes the day was “a fabulous opportunity for real-life engagement with poetry. Students saw first-hand that many poets started young (my students’ ages), were sharing their life stories and experiences, and had powerful messages to share.”

 Thanks to Paola Miranda and Lisa Stott for the photos in this story.