Jamestown, Clymer Students Participate In Poetry Workshops

The Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University were welcomed into English classes at Jamestown High School and Clymer Central School in collaboration with the Chautaqua Institution. English teachers at Jamestown,Barbie Price and Katie Rowe Baehr, as well as Amber Brunco, Clymer English teacher, opened up their classrooms for a four-day poetry workshop. Pictured are students from Clymer. P-J Photos By Jordan W. Patterson

Where does a poem live? It’s a question local students were tasked with answering recently during a four-day poetry workshop.

Taking a break from the final chapters of their current courses, several English classes in Jamestown and Clymer school districts welcomed members from the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University. The workshop was made possible through the Chautauqua Institution’s collaboration with the Wick Poetry Center.

Director David Hassler and Sony Ton-Aine, graduate Wick fellow, took on five sections of ninth-grade classes in Jamestown High School while Charles Malone, program and outreach manager, and Katie Daley, teaching artist, spearheaded five sections of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade classes in Clymer Central School. The Jamestown sections are taught by English Teachers Barbie Price and Betsy Rowe-Baehr while the Clymer classes are taught by Amber Brunco, English teacher.

The Wick Poetry Center has frequently participated in outreach programs in Ohio and hopes to do the same in Chautauqua County. Through the award-winning Traveling Stanzas project, the Wick Poetry Center takes poems written from various regions and places them on posters or public transportation for people to enjoy.

“This is an exciting collaboration between the Wick Poetry Center and the Chautauqua Institution and the literary arts program,” Hassler said. “I know this is an exciting way Chautauqua (Institution) can engage with young voices throughout the community and to empower them to share some of their stories and feelings to participate in the very thing that Chautauqua (Institution) has built which is this way to engage people in meaningful conversations.”

The Wick Poetry Center pairs arrived at the two separate districts on Monday, when and where students were reluctant to write and reticent to speak. Hassler, over in Jamestown, and Malone, in Clymer, both talked about earning the students’ trust.

Students were challenged to write free-verse poetry over four days with the majority of students writing four to five poems throughout the week. In order to get students warmed up to the idea of expressing their feelings through poetry, both groups would use famous poems as prompts to spark ideas and inspiration for the students.

“We charge the air,” was a phrase used by Hassler in Jamestown and Malone in Clymer.

The instructors “charged the air” by using model poems as prompts and slowly introduced themes and ideas to the students who were hesitant to participate. The prompts trigger imagery, senses and emotions for the students. Once charged, Hassler said the students would pull from the inspired air.

Poems such as “Where I’m From,” by George Ella Lyon; “Imaginary Paintings,” by Lisel Mueller; “Abuelito Who” and “I, the Woman” by Sandra Cisneros; and also the preface to the book “American Noise,” by Campbell McGrath were used. Other student poems created through the Wick Poetry Center outreach were shared as well.

While the Wick Poetry Center instructors were challenged with gaining the trust of the students, both groups praised the ground work the English teachers at Jamestown and Clymer have laid prior to their arrival. Hassler said the supportive environment of the classroom was already established before beginning the workshop which made the work much smoother.

“Because English is life, (the classroom) has to be a safe place,” Price said. “Students have to feel safe in that environment to make fools of themselves, to make a mistake (and) to be ridiculous.”

Malone said his job at Clymer was much easier because the students already had an understanding of basic literary and poetry elements allowing the students to “jump right in.”

Price talked about the four days as being sort of a reward as it strayed away from the typical mandated curriculum. Malone shared a similar take. He said the poetry workshop allowed students to learn outside of a structured text book or curriculum.

“Each day it’s been a bit of a puzzle and how can we keep building on that scaffolding of what they achieved the first day to do something more exciting and to keep them interested so it doesn’t become a pattern,” Malone said.

The structure in Clymer and Jamestown varied in course work and a more spontaneous approach was taken as a way to feed off of the students.

On day four, students were confidently presenting poems they had either just written or wrote from the day prior in front of their fellow classmates. The readings drew applause, laughter and overall smiles. Students encouraged each other to read the poems they had written and then students picked lines from each poem they liked.

“The growth in four days from these students has been tremendous,” Price said of her students. “It’s been transformative, it’s given them confidence-creative confidence.”

Price’s counterpart English teacher, Rowe-Baehr, echoed her sentiments about the student’s growth. She particularly enjoyed watching the students who may have been struggling in class before step outside of their comfort zone.

“I’m thinking of particular students who are particularly traumatized and struggling, and to see them kind of brave the experience … I have really enjoyed that growth and the encouragement from each other,” she said.

Malone and Hassler were optimistic that the students would continue writing even after the workshop concluded. The students who participated in the workshop were invited to read their poetry at the Chautauqua Institution as part of the Wick Poetry exhibit on June 27 and Aug. 14. The exhibit will offer summerlong interactive stations welcome to everyone on the institution grounds allowing them to write via digital tools and applications.

“It’s been great to have Wick come in and open up these opportunities and experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” Brunco said. “For many of the Clymer students this is going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with professors and writers and poets who are just so wise and able when it comes to writing and teaching. A lot of (the students) are talking about how inspired they feel and they want to be apart of the poetry sessions at Chautauqua (Institution) over the summer.”

In fact, through Education Wednesday, all students in the county can visit the Chautauqua Institution for free by simply presenting their school ID cards.

The Wick Poetry instructors hoped the four-day workshop was the beginning of a collaboration much larger than this week alone.

“By coming into Clymer and Jamestown High School and having high school students participate in that very same quality of conversation through poetry and expressive writing and then to provide those students with an opportunity to come to Chautauqua (Institution) and to share their voices to a larger audience is an wonderful idea,” Hassler said.

So, where does a poem really live?

“A poem lives …,” some students began their poem in front of their classmates.

The answers from students varied in scale and definition, each one getting an energetic response from Hassler. Sony Ton-Aine would argue that “poetry is life,” and that poetry is all around us.

One thing is for certain, at the very least for a moment in time and quite possibly beyond this week, poetry was alive, simultaneously, in two school districts that aren’t commonly connected.