Poets, Citizen Schools Needs You!

Hey, poets! How many opportunities do you have to provide service to the community by using your poetic talents? How many times have you been offered an opportunity to make a difference in a young person’s life?

Kelly Bernard

Kelly Bernard

Here’s your chance. Citizen Schools in Boston and Chelsea is looking for volunteers who will work 90 minutes for 10 afternoons a semester with a group of 10 to 15 students. Citizen Schools volunteers come from many professions as well as poetry. Each person brings their professional life into the classroom, teaching everything from poetry and journalism to law and science.

Kelly Bernard, the Director of Civic Engagement, explains that the program doesn’t just accept you as a volunteer and then stick you in front a group of kids all by yourself. In fact, she says, “You receive five hours of training before you enter the classroom, and then you’ll be partnered with a staff member who has experience at the school and will be on hand to help, including dealing with discipline problems, should they arise.”

The 10 week program culminates with an event called WOW — a chance for students to exhibit  what they’ve learned, which for poetry students means a slam performance. “It’s an event that parents can attend and is what you might call, in the spoken word classes,  allowing the young poets to “‘show off,'” says Kelly.

August 16 is the final deadline for applying to volunteer, though Kelly suggests that earlier makes it more likely there’ll be spots available. The sooner you show interest, the more likely Citizen Schools will be able to place you with a school at a day and time that works for you. Kelly says, “Spots are filling up on a rolling basis, so apply soon!”

Though the program doesn’t have a standard curriculum, what others have done in the classroom is often available as well as words of wisdom and guidance from earlier volunteers.

The value of spoken word to middle school students

For spoken word programs, Kelly explains, “Middle school student have a lot to say. They have strong feelings and emotions that poetry helps them share. After  they get started, they get excited about sharing what’s going on in their lives.” That excitement carries over into the regular school day. Schools that participate in Citizen School programs, when measured against their peers without the programs, showed a 10% higher proficiency in English language arts and in math.

Volunteers are also on the receiving end of value. Here’s what one volunteer, Sofia Snow, said:

One of my students has recently suffered the tragedy of losing his father to violence. Every single one of his poems talked about sadness, pain, violence, and/or death. However, in every class, he always participated in writing and reading aloud. One day, right before class started, he pulled me aside to say that he wasn’t feeling well because of an instance he had with DSS [Department of Social Services] earlier that day. I let him know that if he wanted to sit out, there was no pressure on him to do anything he wasn’t in the mood for. However, that class he wrote an amazing poem and was fully engaged for the whole period. I was so impressed by him and his perseverance. It was very clear that he valued self-expression through poetry, and I was so honored to witness his progress.

When I asked Sofia if I could use her name in this article she said that re-reading her statement brought tears to her eyes, which she described as the blessing of working with young people in the arts: “Witnessing these moments.”

Another volunteer said:

I get joy out of the students’ joy; they change our lives a much as we change them.”

Parents see the difference after their children attend the program:

It has impacted me and my child because we’re learning to communicate to each other more. My daughter has gotten out of her shyness. She is really more talkative and working to participate more in activities without others pushing her.

And most of all the students love the program:

[Citizen Schools] try to lead in the right direction so if you always do the right thing you will maybe go to the college you want to go to.

Citizen Schools began in Boston in 1995 with Eric Schwarz and Ned Rimer. It now includes 32 schools in seven states with five schools in Boston and one in Chelsea.  The schools that have partnered with Citizen Schools consider the program a true partnership. Schools can only do so much. Citizen Schools is able to offer three more hours of learning in afternoons on Monday through Thursday — time for students to explore and learn from professionals.

Apply to volunteer right now to vounteer.

See an earlier story we did about a Citizen Schools volunteer who won the President’s Volunteer Service Award: Nicole Rodriguez Wins Award for Spoken Word Volunteer Work.


  1. I looked into this, and it’s a great program. Unfortunately for me, the time required and the commute that would be involved make this something I’ll have to bypass for now. But if they open the program out my way, I’;ll be the first to sign up.