Learning by Going #7: Experiment? Failure? Risk and Learning….

In my last Learning by Going Post I talked about being an experiential learner.  I think I made it sound serendipitous and easy…but the reality is often messy. Sometimes learning is learning what not to do again.

So in this post I want to share one of the messy days.

I developed a lot of the approach to poetry sessions that I’ve been offering through Writing Home at Ebenezer housing for older adults in Minneapolis. When I started there Pat Samples was the Lifelong Learning Co-ordinator there and she was a great mentor. After I had earned her trust, she was really wonderful about letting me try new things.

Trust is so important in this work.Earned trust ….from participants and before  that from site partners, activity directors, lifelong learning coordinators. Whatever the title, it is right and appropriate that before anybody lets you loose to “experiment” with a creative activity, you need to earn people’s trust. We’re dealing with people’s lives here. And part of the power of poetry is that it can go pretty deep pretty fast into people’s lives— into their pain, into their stories.

So Pat did not immediately let me loose…but once that trust was developed she just let me do whatever I proposed. Things didn’t always go according to plan and I made some pretty significant mistakes along the way. But I think she always respected that I was leaning into the edge of the possible of how much depth and fun and good writing you could bring to —-or out of—-a group.

So sometimes it gets messy: like the time I brought in a poem about water and change and had the bright idea of bringing in jars of ice I’d frozen in mason jars in my freezer to class a hot summer day.

The poem, New Water by Sharon Chmielarz was in no way mistake. I used it for the first class in an eight-week series about revision and creative process. The poem sets that up that idea of seeing things in a new way—re-visioning—in a lovely way.

icicles P1010174 copy 2

Ice may, or may not, be the poet’s creative friend….

But it might have been a mistake to bring in the ice, especially traveling on the bus. Also I had no way of knowing that one of the group participants was going to bring in a lovely summer desert full of whipped yogurt and honey  and bright berries. Since the only serving spoon we could find was much larger than the cups we were spooning it into, some shipped goo and smashed berries got on the table, on the poems, and on one or two writers.

And then there was the ice. I’d envisioned setting out the jars of ice, gradually melting, as tangible examples of transformation and change…an invitation to writing about change and to the transformative possibilities of revision.

The reality was less lofty. On the hour-long train and bus ride, even in their little cooler, the little jars of ice started to sweat and drip and one of them cracked in my bag.

So with the combination of sticky dessert and wet pools from the sweating jars, it was a bit of a messy day, but no one got hurt and we had fun and some great poems came out of it, including a fabulous haiku about the three phases of water.

Since that day I’ve re-used that poem, New Water, but not the ice jars….but at the end of the day, I believe both creativity and learning depend, at least in part on risk.

Big thanks to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, the Saint Anthony Park Community Foundation, and the Trillium Family Foundation for funding to make this project possible.

logos in line aug 2016

Learning by Going #5: “People Are Good”

At one of my partner sites for the Writing Home project, after a writing session I usually stop by the cubicle of the senior services  program staff person to say how things went. Usually I am full of stories, how wonderful people’s creativity and imagination and play and writing were, and how much fun we had, and how kind  and supportive people are with each other.

What kind of support an I talking about? Sometimes a good poem opens a door to people to write about their own experience…poems like “Vision Test”, by Patricia Kirkpatrick or Breathing, by “Mark O’Brien” can encourage people to get pretty deep pretty fast into their own medical or body experiences or traumas. Most of the bodies in a room full of people mostly 65 and older have been through some stuff. And I’ve seen a lot of moments where group participants seem to know how to provide just the right environment of empathy and support to people to move through the re-living an experience that writing can sometimes be.

Sometimes this support is between people who already know each other, as neighbors or from exercise class, or craft group. Sometimes the support is between people who started as strangers a week or two before when they walked into poetry group. They have become close through writing in community.

So one day, without going into a lot of detail (because we’ve agreed in our Writing Home sessions, that “What happens in poetry group stays in poetry group”)  I’m  describing a few  of the day’s lovely moments to Jeanne, who’s worked for decades at the same organization running the senior center activities and overseeing the Meals on Wheels program.

I believe in the power of writing sessions as a way of creating community, I tell her, but it’s one thing to say it and another to see it in action.

Jeanne smiles and stops me, “Naomi,” she says, “People are good.”

I have known Jeanne a long time and I know her to be wise and kind. And at first I shake my head to myself. I have a hard time making a blanket statement like this: “People are good.”

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a time when homicide rates exceeded even the ugly pitch of current headlines. By the time I left Chicago in the nineties I’d been burgled, robbed or assaulted 5 times; two of the incidents involved a gun or knife.

To put it another way, I grew up in a time and place where it was important to be nobody’s fool, where wariness and skepticism were important values. “People are good” was not imbibed in my baby bottle.

And then there is a certain amount of ugliness going on in the world around me.

So I do not lightly come to the idea of innate goodness.

But on a daily basis, through these little writing sessions at libraries and senior centers, I see people acting out of a positive e hunger for community for goodness, for ways to help each other.

~People bring each other cookies and treats.

~They offer to write for those whose hands don’t do it alone.

to read for those who cannot read.

~They listen.

~They hold each other’s pain.

~They managed on the day after the election to create a space of healing, without getting into politics. (how many times have I yearned for this same combination of compassion and restraint in social settings since then!)

These folks are not just writing wonderful poems; they might be teaching me how to live in the world.

So what do I say to the proposition: “People are good”

When Jeanne says this, I an silent. I don’t know. I’ve got my upbringing; I’ve got the news…I don’t always feel I am good. I have certainly seen other settings where poets don’t behave well; I wouldn’t say they are bad. but I don’t know if I would say they are good.

I can say:

People seem hungry for good.

I can say people have goodness in them and that poetry group, on a good day, can bring out that goodness. It’s one of the privileges of this work to watch it.

Learning by Going # 4: Lucille Clifton, won’t you celebrate with me

won’t you celebrate with me

Don’t be confused by my starting this with the first line of Clifton’s poem, which also stands as its title.

The poem’s final lines are

 

…come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

 

You can find the full text on poets.org

 

I’m learning how important it is to make poetry and “everyday,” every day thing

The American Academy of Poets has a nice weekly feature called Teach This poem, geared toward K-12 classroom teachers. While the suggested lessons don’t usually fit my “classrooms” or my “students” who tend to be in their seventies and eighties and often have more to teach me than vice versa, I still enjoy the weekly poem selection.

On Monday, November 16, 2016, in honor of MLK Day, Teach This Poem featured Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.”  I smiled to see it, it’s a poem I count as beloved.  I’m far from the only person to know it by heart, in whole or part. (And I keep finding more and more people who do, most recently David Mura and Margaret Hasse)

And another piece of my response was, yes, Clifton’s voice is a wonderful one to lift up in honor of the national holiday. And lifting up her voice should not just be a once-a-year thing.

 

I’m learning what I can do

I don’t say this from a position of having this all figured out. Clifton says she was

 

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

 

I wasn’t born in slavery, literally or figuratively. I’m a middle-class white woman, learning to live with the chronic condition of whiteness, constantly blundering around with my privilege and implicit bias. Like any chronic condition, sometimes I manage okay, other times I screw up. Only this is a chronic condition whose symptoms hurt others more than myself. I do the best I can, knowing I will often fail.

As a teaching artist/poet organizer I am still learning, struggling to figure out ways to bring my personal concerns for promoting equity with the realities of my classroom.

While I often fail, I care about undoing racism. I also care about undoing ageism. These two concerns sometimes bump up against each other in interesting ways in sessions. I am still figuring this out.

 

Poems keep teaching us. 

In the mean time, I know one thing I can do is bring in a variety of voices, and not just on MLK Day.

It’s a commitment that’s pretty easy and enjoyable to live. There are so many gorgeous and useful poems out there. Below is a very short sample of some poems I’ve used in my own teaching. For those of you that like or need to focus on craft in your teaching, in this short list you can find form example (pantoum and haiku), metaphor/comparison/figures of speech, image and writing from the senses, diction, and a whole lot more.

 

Natasha Trethewey, Incident

Rita Dove, Heart to Heart, Chocolate

Langston Hughes Suicide’s Note, Harlem

Lucille Clifton, lesson of the falling leaves, homage to my hips, I am accused of tending to the past

Donte Collins, what the dead know by heart

Ross Gay, A Small Needful Fact

 

Gratitude to Clifton, these poets and every other writer who, through their words, helps me stand for a moment in their experience, and understand it a little better.

Whoever you are, whoever you teach or work with, I hope you will fold them into your own session plans or reading or knowing by heart. And I’d love to hear about the voices you are lifting up. Every day.

Learning by Going, #2: You Don’t Even Need a Window

 

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I organize a lot of Known by Heart/Writing Home poetry sessions around windows. There are tons of interesting poems that  feature windows (see a couple below). I also like to connect writing to other art forms, so sometimes we write responding to images of paintings —Many students respond especially to Vermeer, whose paintings are filled with windows, seen and implied.

I also like to introduce something painters call a view-finder.

A viewfinder  can be as simple as a piece of card stock with a rectangle cut in it. There are fancier adjustable versions. Simple or fancy, painters use a viewfinder to select what scene or slice of the world they choose to paint.

I like to introduce writing and poetry craft elements as things, that once we learn about them, give us more choices. For example, we may or may not want to rhyme or have lines with a certain number of stresses or syllables, but once we know what a line is, we have more choices about how we use them in a poem.

And the viewfinder is an object lesson in what to me is the first element of writing craft:

We get to choose what to write about.

And this is one of those places where art-making and wellness intersect. Making choices is a key aspect of art-making, of finding our unique voice, of honing our craft. And to bring in the mental health or therapy perspective, having a sense of choice and making choices even in difficult times or situations, is a key aspect of emotional well-being.

So back to the writing with a view-finder. When I do this activity, writers often choose to focus on something within the room where they are writing. But it’s very helpful to have a window. It gives writers more choices; for writers with mobility limitations, a window with a view is no small thing in maintaining a connection to the world outside.

I give participants each a viewfinder, show how you can include more or less of a scene by bringing the frame closer or farther away from your eye.

It’s such a treat to hear what an array of images or stories a group of writers write looking out the same window. Suddenly one scene prisms into the individual perspectives of the writers.

But I was a little dismayed recently when I walked into a room I hadn’t taught in before equipped with my stack of viewfinders to realize there were no windows that my writers could look out at. I had been in the space a few years before, new it was a basement, but remembered it had windows. But I had forgotten they were not clear glass. No view to the outside world and not much to inspire in the room: Stacks of chairs,  formica tables, drab carpet.

But I shouldn’t have worried. The group dug in with gusto and found thinks to write about I would never have imagined—persona poems from the perspectives of the furniture, internal monologues, a prose poem about a lost loved one.

So what did I learn that day? Trust your writers. If people have made the effort to show up, they will find a way to write something fresh, unique, compelling, from the heart. The writers remind me we have the power of choosing what to focus on in even the most unpromising setting.

That’s something that has a use way beyond that one poetry class.

A Couple of Window Poems:

Alicia Ostriker, “August Morning, Upper Broadway”

Natasha Trethewey, “Incident”

 

Finding the Artist in the Title “Teaching Artist”

CROCUS 2016

March in Minnesota is still winter. Yes, we’ve already hit 70 degrees. Yes, I took this crocus photo Tuesday. And yes, it got nailed with snow yesterday, Wednesday.

Not what Minnesota looks like at the moment, hallelujah...

But that’s okay with me. Winter is a great time to attend to the artist part of being a teaching artist.

Much of this winter I’ve been absorbed with writing poems and essays drawn from a journal I’ve been keeping in Braille. Grants from the lovely VSA Minnesota and Metropolitan Regional Arts Council Next Step Fund, made it possible for me to be the annoying person who seems to always have an out-of-office message on her email.

This is what I love about the label teaching artist. It demands of us that we pay attention to our own creative practice.

If I am never cozied up alone with my own work, then maybe I am still teaching, but I’m not a teaching artist. If I don’t feed my own work, how can I feed the work of others? If I don’t shape my own voice, how can I help others have their voices?

So thank you for your patience as I’ve been nested deep in the burrow of my own work, only apparently hibernating. As spring warms up, I’ll still be working on my own writing projects, but will also shift toward more teaching in community. More to report on that soon.