How to Begin with Openness and Poetry

Begin every writing session by sharing poetry that is emotionally resonant for your students. This teaching technique applies to any group, but it may be particularly important with distressed teens.

  • These young people have a lot on their minds – because of challenging life experiences and ongoing risks.

  • These young people are frequently misunderstood – because they are often prejudged and frequently not listened to.

  • For these young people, their unique opinions and feelings can make them vulnerable – because they may live in a world of violence, failure, rage, and envy.

By opening writing sessions with poetry that is emotionally resonant, you as a teacher are demonstrating an interest in young lives, in truth, and in honesty. You are also demonstrating through sample poems the effectiveness, variety, and craft of poetry.

But there is a challenge to inviting openness by sharing poetry, and that is to make the environment feel safe.

  • By sharing poetry, you are demonstrating openness, but you must be comfortable with intense and complicated feelings. You must be calm and accepting of feeling.

  • You must be vulnerable in reading poetry, but possess personal boundaries. In other words, you must be willing to experience feeling in reaction to poetry, but you must not bring your personal issues into the workshop setting where your focus should be on the teens.

  • You must be comfortable but serious in relation to feeling. In other words, if teens joke about drugs or about actions that use people, you have to ask for a serious discussion. Too many people take drugs because they are in pain. Too many people use others because they have been used themselves.

Here are a few suggestions for how to create a strong beginning to a writing session with the use of emotionally resonant poetry:

  1. Ask the teens if anyone brought their own poetry with them. Invite someone to read a poem. In juvenile detention there will often be a teen who enthusiastically arranges to go back to his or her room to retrieve an inch-thick manuscript of personal poetry.

  2. Have the teens choose and share poems. In Pongo workshops, we often begin by distributing our own anthologies of poems by distressed teens. We ask the workshop participants to read for a while and choose a poem they like. We then call on them to read the poem aloud to the group. (They may prefer to have someone else read the poem.)

  3. Bring in poems with deep and complicated content. Our principal sources for this kind of poetry are theme-based anthologies. (See list of some anthologies.) A serious anthology captures complicated and difficult feelings. For example, an anthology such as Mother Songs includes poems about mothers of different types, including hateful mothers who hurt their children out of bitterness. For example, an anthology such as More Light, about fathers and daughters, includes poems about incest. An anthology such as Men of Our Time contains poems about the transitions into manhood that include beatings and brutality.