“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”
Rita Dove

Ever since taking Dr. JoBeth Allen’s Poetry course at the University of Georgia in 2003, I have had a passion for reading, sharing, and teaching poetry….no small feat as I hated poetry before taking this life-changing course. 

Inspired by my Podcasting class with Sandi Adams in January of 2008 (one of my Media 21 courses) and the work of Lisa Forrest’s Rooftop Poetry Club at Buffalo State University, I solicited requests for students and teachers to volunteer to read poetry for National Poetry Month @ The Unquiet Library.  Ms. Jane Pickart, teacher for 11th American Literature/Composition Honors, approached me and asked me if I was interested in podcasting a few classes on April 4 as they had been doing some poetry writing.  Of course, I jumped at this wonderful opportunity and offered to podcast every class! 

My original plan was to record each class period’s poetry reading and create a podcast for each class period.  However, I then decided I would experiment with streaming the poetry readings live via UStream TV (many thanks to Twitter friend and fellow librarian Phil Goerner in Colorado for showing me this fantastic tool!).  Excitement about the poetry reading grew this past week as I blogged about our upcoming podcast at http://theunquietlibrary.wordpress.com/2008/04/01/coming-attractions-poetry-reading-with-ms-pickarts-classes-and-the-unquiet-library/, and Ms. Pickart talked up our event with her students.  I also decided I would try to create “vodcasts” as well using one of our new Flip videocameras and upload the videos to TeacherTube!

Today was the big day of our poetry reading podcast!  Ms. Pickart and I began by reviewing the poetry reading protocol for online safety and to create the optimal recording conditions.  Each student had been asked to find a photo of a loved one and to write a paragraph about that person and the photo.  Students then were to create a “found poem” from the lines in the paragraph.  Having written found poems and teaching my students this method of poetry writing in the past, I felt sure we would hear some very special poems.

The students did not disappoint me!  I can honestly say that today was one of the most memorable experiences of my sixteen year career as an educator.  Within a few minutes into our first class period, I felt something special happening as each student came forward to share his/her poem.    Some poems were clever and witty; many were incredibly poignant.  All poems came from the hearts and souls of these eleventh grade students who wrote memorable lines and composed images that I think will stay with many of us beyond our years at CRHS.  Whether writing about a beloved grandparent, a sibling, a parent, aunt, or uncle, these students had something important to say.  I truly felt honored to be able to hear these poems that reflected the cherished memories and experiences with those so important to these students—I felt as though I was able to peek into a glimpse of their souls today.

We enjoyed many wonderful and moving poems today, but the collection of poems from the 5th period class was the one that moved nearly all us to tears.   Perhaps these poems spoke to me because they hit close to my heart—poems about various kinds of loss, of brave souls, of amazing grandparents—it seemed our eyes and souls felt a bit mistier with each reading of a poem.  Perhaps the most moving moment came when a young lady who just lost her mother in the last week bravely came forward to read her poem about her late mother.  How she summoned the strength to read her beautiful poem in front of the class I will never know, but we all admired her courage and grace as well as the gentle dignity of her poem that began with those famous lines from the classic Robert Munsch book, Love You Forever, and ended with her own unique and deeply personal twist on those lines, “I’ll love you forever…”.  Should you choose to listen to these podcasts, particulary the ones from 5th period (and I hope you will…the one I just referenced occurs during the last 3 minutes of the 5th period podcast!), be sure to get your Kleenexes ready!  I was also honored not only to be an observer of this poetry reading, but I was also even asked by the students in 5th period to share a favorite poem of mine, so I read “Orange”, I poem I composed in 2003 about a racist incident that happened to a fellow student and friend at UGA. 

I have only cried in front of a class once in my life—it was at the end of the 2003-2004 year while reading a poem to one of my 9th grade classes as a farewell gift the last week of school.  Today, though, the tears flowed freely and unabashedly as they did at a poetry reading I participated in while taking Dr. Allen’s class.  That same feeling of communion and catharsis I experienced at the Athens coffee house poetry reading washed over me today as I was lucky to enough to hear these poems.  Poems are truly meant to be read aloud and not just read silently—the power of the distilled emotion in poetry never ceases to awe me.

Ms. Pickart share with me privately as well as publicly to her classes that today was one of the most remarkable and memorable experiences of her 30 year career.  While she stated she had done this poetry writing assignment before, she had not scheduled a poetry reading in the format we did today.  I am still so overcome with emotions tonight that I can’t really articulate the “specialness” of what I experienced today, but I am so truly grateful that I did. 

This afternoon, Ms. Pickart and I were discussing the incredible turn of events today.   She commented that my presence as a podcaster and the whole podcasting element may have elevated the students’ performance and encouraged them to write something so deeply personal and meaningful.  Indeed, the students had a larger audience to write for and an authentic purpose for writing. 

Thankfully, I only encountered two technical issues.  First, I discovered my digital video camera would not interface properly with the UStream TV software, so I am hoping to get a webcam that should do the trick.  Secondly, the batteries decided to die twice on the Flip video camera; as a result, I lost the chance to video a few students.   The most challenging part was to remember to do all my technical tasks for recording the podcasts and videos—sometimes it was hard to remember to hit “record” and “pause” because I was so caught up in the moment of the poetry reading!

Where do we go from here?  Well, here are some musings and plans:

  • Ms. Pickart and I both agree that poetry readings like these should be a more regular part of high school life!  When I started our poetry club (The Live Poet Society) this year, I had intended to do poetry readings in the library once a month in the spirit of the Rooftop Poetry Club.  I have been trying to get donations of free and short church pews that we could store easily and bring out into the main floor of the library (they had these at the coffeehouse poetry reading in Athens, and they were very cool), so if anyone has ideas of free donations, please contact me—I have been trying to find some via Ebay and craigslist Atlanta, but no luck yet. 
  • With student permission, we are going to scan in and digitize the poems students turned into today.  I want to create a gallery/page on our website for each class period.
  • We will create a living wall of poetry in the media center with these poems as well as some larger posters of the poems for everyone to enjoy.
  • I am going to make “poetry books” for each class (a collection of poems by class period)—we will give a set to go in Ms. Pickart’s room, and we will have a set for students to read in the library.  I will enlist the assistance of master librarian Joy Mabry who directs our district Teacher Center to help me with this endeavor.
  • We are encouraging students to share these poems with loved ones—can you think of a better gift?  We are offering our services in the library of free color printing and help with importing a digital copy into Publisher or some similar software to create that special copy for a loved one.
  • We have asked students to share these poems with their loved ones on April 17 as part of our celebration of “Poem in Your Pocket Day“! 
  • We will be having “pockets” of poems set up our library on April 17, “Poem in Your Pocket Day”, in which students can come choose a poem from a range of themes to take for free and give to someone they love or to a classmate as a random act of kindness.
  • I will be working with the video next week during our Spring Break to get our vodcast up and going on Teacher Tube…check back for the update links!
  • I would eventually love to have a “channel” on You Tube (or perhaps an educator friendly version of You Tube…something more appealing to kids than Teacher Tube) like the Buffalo State Rooftop Poetry Club You Tube Channel—take a look….how is this for inspiration?
  • While I am still waiting for our podcasts to come up on iTunes and Odeo, I managed to get most of the initial mp3 files created today.  Please check back for our updated iTunes link, but for now, check out the audio files:
    >1st period readings
    >3rd and 5th period readings
    >7th period readings

It goes without saying that no standardized test could come close to measuring the talent, creativity, and passion these students demonstrated today through their poetry.  Perhaps “no child would be left behind” if more poetry readings were part of our daily classroom life instead of some ridiculous EOCT question!  I will definitely be creating podcasts of poetry readings with my 10th and 11th grade night school students later this month.   Podcasting poetry readings will now be a regular and new element of my poetry immersion unit I do with 9th and 10th graders (thanks to Dr. Allen….she inspired me to develop this organic unit while I was her student). 

Today truly exceeded my expectations—it was one of those magical experiences with words that I wish everyone could feel at least once in a lifetime.   I feel that being able to capture those readings with podcasting is a way that we can all relive on some level that communion of human experience today and our witnessing of the power of words!