“Two roads diverged in a wood and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” — Robert Frost
TRUCKEE, Calif. — An inspiring trio of traveling poets recently took up residence at Truckee Elementary School giving students a chance to experience one such less-traveled road.
Thanks to the initiative of school staff and the Truckee Elementary PTO’s generosity, the Poets-in-Residence program served up a liberating combination of both written and oral expression to the school’s third, fourth and fifth-grade students. The visiting poets spent a full month on campus, engaging students in wide-ranging workshops, classes that did less in the way of formal instruction and more in the way of freeing students to explore their imaginations.
At Truckee Elementary, math and language arts are the cornerstones of a curriculum, geared to best equip kids for the future. School staff and parents also believe an education that begins and ends with the three R’s isn’t a complete one. The Truckee Elementary PTO is always seeking creative programs to fund.
The school’s Going Green initiative, pursuing education in science, the environment and sustainable practices, is one such program.
Thanks to fifth-grade teacher Candy Blesse, the PTO didn’t have to look far for a boundary-expanding learning experience. It was Blesse who turned the PTO on to an amazing trio of poets: Denise Jolly, Chas Jackson, and Blesse’s own son, Matt. They have paired their passion for poetry with a calling to pass that passion on to the next generation. The program consisted of a series of workshops geared to help students open a new avenue of expression, culminating in the fifth-grade’s oratory performance in front of an auditorium full of parents and siblings.
The workshops were built around a foundation of the written word, but what the docent poets explored with students extended much further than language.
“The goal of the Poets-in-Residence program is to provide a poetic outlet for students to build critical thinking skills, creative writing skills, and academic and personal confidence, as well as a greater understanding of the self in relation to community and society,” said Blesse.
TES teachers Betsy Ford, Erin Robb, and Jenni DeWald have seen those broader benefits first-hand in the classroom.
“Often, children are hesitant to put their feelings into words, but these classes have shown the students that there are many ways to express themselves,” said DeWald.
Robb saw her student’s confidence blossom in a short time. “With no ‘wrong answers,’ the kids are free to express themselves however they want.”
In the end, what made these resident poets special was not their way with words, it was their way with children. More guides than instructors, the poets let students explore wherever their interests led them and express whatever emotions they felt. DeWald explains the dynamic well. “The young poets provide the students with an opportunity to connect to their social and emotional needs and experiences. They create community and offer voice, expression, energy, intelligence, cultural richness, and warmth to all of our students.” DeWald witnessed the near-immediate impact on students, reflecting on the “complete joy this program brought to students,” including a handful of shy students who “completely came to life over the course of just one month.”
The students enjoyed the experience, and realized what they learned extended well beyond the typical school lesson. “Now I know how to put myself out there and share my thoughts,” said one fifth grader. Another explained how she now “thinks of writing as something with heart and soul mixed with senses ... that it can be anything your pen can write down, so you can write the impossible in the real world.” And yet another simply stated “the whole experience changed (her) life.”
To parents, it was the program-ending evening performance that hammered home the impact the program had on their children. In a completely optional exercise, one by one students took the stage — each all alone — to read their poetry in front of hundreds of appreciative parents, teachers and other students. More than 50 students performed, reciting their own no-rules poetry: boys and girls, shy kids and outgoing kids, some in rhyme, and some in prose. Their creations adorned the walls of the gym, covered with sticky notes of compliments written by other appreciative students.
Frost also said “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Sometimes, the greatest learning happens when students are given the freedom to express whatever they feel, free of the usual rules to follow ... to capture those thoughts and ideas that might otherwise fall through the cracks in translation to more conventional forms of expression. The students’ remarkable response to Truckee Elementary’s Poets-in-Residence made it clear it’s not just parents and teachers who understand how priceless that experience can be.