The Inner Cities Poetry Arts Project

Turn your students into poets by inspiring them to free-write about their inner world, introducing them to the rhythms of poetry, and prompting them with images and possible titles.

April 25, 2016
Illustration credit: Gluekit

There's so much talk about the importance of an arts education, and ironically, the fear of losing it to CCSS. But are educators given a chance to teach the subject with test score madness and assessments looming over their heads? Why bother? Where will it get you and your students?

From my knowledge as a veteran educator, the arts will take kids to infinite worlds they never realized existed inside them; powerful feelings they never thought they could experience, deal with, and handle peacefully; and goals they never imagined could be achieved.

The Foundations

How It All Began

The Inner Cities Poetry Arts Project started with Music Writing, where students in grades 2 to 6:

  1. Listened to their favorite songs for ten minutes
  2. Contemplated their inner experiences
  3. Wrote about listening and contemplating inside worlds
  4. Discussed their writings with classmates and through questions from the teacher

The contemplation sessions opened up doors of perception for children. It was a cathartic event for most. They dove in and retrieved whatever stories were triggered: anger, love, boredom, peace, loneliness, relationships with others, fantasies, dreams, nightmares, present-moment events, memories, and reveries. Nothing was off limits. I suggested: "Write about whatever you experienced inside while listening to the music, no matter how freaky, silly, or unreal it might sound. If you don't want me to read it orally to the class, write 'Don't read,' on your contemplation." While few kids opted out, I bypassed the issue by reading all contemplations anonymously.

Skills for Learning and Living

Contemplation Music Writing became a pre-writing activity for poetry writing. Combining EI/SEL and academic skills, what I call the fundamental, prerequisite skills for learning and living, targeted children's creative, artistic, and EI centers. These skills include:

  • Concentration, contemplation, visualization, reflection, and feeling
  • Creative and critical thinking, experiencing, recall, self- and other-awareness
  • Self-motivation, self-discovery, self-knowledge, self-understanding, and self-efficacy
  • Problem solving and conflict resolution

These are all necessary ingredients to study poetry reading/writing and examine everyday life.

Although we all were apprehensive about getting into poetry, the foundation that I built with Contemplation Music Writing eased the transition from prose to poetry because students learned to search deeply, emotionally, visually, and psychologically. Acquiring this taste and feel through their peaceful contemplative journey helped them feel at home in their inner landscapes.

The Practice

Poetry Reading Sheet

Children can't write poetry without listening to it, so I would read poems orally for five to ten minutes a day whenever possible. At first, I read the poetry without asking discussion questions. Then, after a few weeks of just reading to them, I used my six-section Poetry Reading Sheet (PRS) to help the class analyze poems according to:

  1. "Mind pictures" visualized
  2. Feelings experienced
  3. Thoughts, ideas, and life experiences triggered by the images
  4. Main idea or message
  5. Favorite words, lines, and phrases
  6. Potential new titles for a student-created poem

A World of Expression

What made the oral readings inspiring was the use of mostly free-verse poetry by Chinese, Japanese, Native American, Latino, African American, and children’s poets. The readings resonated with the way that kids thought, spoke, and wrote both poetry and prose. They enjoyed the clarity, directness, honesty, and emotions expressed -- a fit for at-risk students.

I also read classic haiku such as The Dumpling Field: Haiku of Issa, translated by Lucian Stryk. Richard Wright's HAIKU: This Other World will also connect with kids' inner and outer worlds. They liked these short bursts of self-expression about nature and human nature.

Triggering Poetry Writing

The project’s last leg was introducing poetry writing. Students' awareness, sensitivity, focus, inner sight, and self-motivation had expanded by the time they came to writing their poems.

To start our writing lessons, I taped four images on the board, including magazine or newspaper photographs, 20" x 30" posters, advertisements, and cartoons. I had the class:

  1. Describe each image
  2. "Title-storm" potential poem titles that we wrote on the board
  3. Write a poem to fit the image and title

Collaboratively, children opened gates to creativity, feelings, thinking, experiencing, and writing. Here are just a few of the images I showed them:

  • Man freefalling in space
  • Eyes staring out from darkness
  • Clouds, moon, and waves rushing to shore at dusk
  • Mama penguin cuddling her baby
  • Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night"

Can you appreciate how images like these, in connection with listening to music, visualizing, contemplation, recall, concentration, poetry reading, title-storming, creative and critical thinking, and feeling will develop poetic awareness, emotional responses, and receptivity that will empower kids to write free verse, haiku, and rhyming poetry?

The Poems

The contemplation project, along with poetry reading and writing lessons, led to two student anthologies: Inner Cities (free verse) and Dancing in the Spring Rain (haiku). Please check out a sampling of their work below, spanning the '70s through the '90s:

Inner Cities

a butterfly pauses
on its flower
then slowly flies away
life no more stands
on its place
- Lisa Perez

My mind is a block of cement
in the state of shaking and rattling
trying to get loose
- Michael Ruiz

Great Peace
crystal love
open night
you sleep
your entire life
soft tender and free
you look more to future days
bold speed flies you to celebrate
our golden mystery
you were born to live in the world
called imagination
the young great spirit world
spurring our live
- Dennis Berrios
("Word-a-thon" poem made from cut-out newspaper/magazine "poetry words")

I am at peace with the world,
Concentrating on the soft sounds of music,
Silence is all I can hear.
- Francisco Rosado

Dancing in the Spring Rain

in the grass --
weeds part
- Jade Brown

In the darkness
stars sing
a lullaby
- Ariana Flores

I can hear
the wind of a
big rotating earth
- Glen Chapman

Launching an Inner-Space Odyssey

When Contemplation Music Writing meets poetry writing, kids create visual, emotional, thought-provoking, honest, direct, compassionate, psychological worlds. They learn to navigate the landscapes of mind, imagination, heart, and spirit, discovering new, unfamiliar, and familiar territories, and translate those realities and unrealities into poetry, communicating the depths of their inner experiences.

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Arts Integration
  • Creativity
  • Teaching Strategies
  • English Language Arts

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