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October 23, 2013

Writing program helps young Detroiters build community through poetry

Professional writers are visiting Detroit public schools in an effort to turn students into authors.

“I want to build confidence with a pencil in the hand more than anything else,” said teacher and poet Peter Markus.

Part of the “InsideOut” program is learning to write poetry, which many students struggle with.

“A lot of times, I can just tell that early on a child doesn’t like to write or feels, ‘I don’t know what a poem is,’” said Markus. “I want to sort of disable them from that kind of thinking and saying, sure you can. You just wrote a poem.”

For students in struggling neighborhoods where poverty and crime are part of everyday life, the school turns into a haven, and poetry becomes a point of pride.

James Hearn, principle of a school where InsideOut is implemented, says that the program is instilling a love of writing in his students.

“This poetry really gets them truly motivated and excited. And I’m talking about my football players, my athletes, my basketball players want poetry,” he said. “When I saw the kids produced a book at the end of this particular experience, and they could take it home, and the pride those kids have, that was outstanding. So, that really won me over.”

Natasha Trethewey, the U.S. poet laureate, recently visited one of these classes to talk with the students about their poetry.

“It was a sense of power that they have from being able to imagine, and to create, to name themselves, to speak for themselves,” Trethewey said of the students. “It did really remind me of being in my school and learning poets, the work of poets, African-American poets, that I have carried with me since then.”

“We’re trying to revive our city, not just in the cultural center, but neighborhood by neighborhood. And I think that every school needs a poet, because this poet can help the school, the children give voice to their lives,” said Terry Blackhawk, who founded InsideOut. “And you can also build connections in the community at large.”


Warm up questions
  1. Detroit residents face the challenges of poverty every day. How might this affect students growing up there?
  2. Why might a young child not like to write? Reflecting on your own experience with writing, what factors influence whether a student likes to write or not?
Discussion questions
  1. Why is strong writing important?
  2.  What opportunities might you miss out on if you don’t practice writing regularly?
  3. How did the student’s self-expression through writing poetry empower them?
  4. The principal of the school reported that all his students wanted poetry. Why do you think poetry appeals to such a wide range of students?
  5. One student explained that writing poetry isn’t hard, “you just let your imagination run free.” Do you think the ability to let your imagination run free changes as you get older? Explain your answer.
  6. How can poetry strengthen a community? Explain specific reasons why it might be a powerful tool for community building?
Writing prompt
  1. Answer this question with your own words. Where does poetry live? Poetry lives…
  2. Think about your favorite activity such as playing video games, sports, hanging out with friends, etc. What would you like to write about if writing were as easy and fun as your favorite activity?
  3. What kinds of writing are your favorites? Texting to communicate, fiction, non-fiction, blogging, writing in a diary? Examine why certain ones are your favorites and write down the reasons. Also, explore why some are not your favorites and try to understand the reasons.
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