How We Introduce Ourselves to Youth

When we are working with youth one-on-one, our first step is to find young people who will sit down with us to talk and write. Historically the great majority of youth want to work with us, certainly this is the case as young people get to know our program better. As we explain and demonstrate what we do over time, youth learn very quickly that we care about their voices, and that we are helpful and safe.

When we introduce ourselves to a group of teens, looking for participants who will write with us, we explain that we are a poetry program and that we have an opportunity to work with some of them on their writing, and that we may be able to publish a book eventually. We then distribute free copies of our books to the youth, and we give them a chance to peruse the work. We ask them to identify a poem that they like from the book, and we invite them to read the poem aloud or to have us read their favorite poem aloud. We might read other poetry, as well.

We explain to the teens that we can help them to write even if they have never written before. We explain to them that our mission is to have them write from the heart about who you are as a person. We explain to them that we don't worry about spelling and grammar, that we believe honesty is the most important quality of good writing.

In this process we are welcoming toward all teens and very supportive of those who write already. We invite the writers to share their work with us and with the group. But when we are ready to invite individuals from the group to sit down with us, we do NOT ask who wants to write with us today. Instead, we ask the question, Who has never written poetry before? The person we especially want to reach is the quiet individual who is staring at us intently throughout our presentation, but who looks away when we ask her to participate. The person we especially want to reach is the talkative individual who makes a show for the group about his lack of interest in poetry.

Because we are at sites for months at a time, we build relationships with youth who might not want to work with us right away. They might be shy, quiet, doubtful, insecure, surly, or resistant. To these youth we patiently offer consistent encouragement to join us. If they refuse to work with us today, we might leave them with the comment: I'm going to check in with you next week. I'd really like to hear what you have to say.

I've summarized below a lot of the statements we use to explain ourselves to youth at the beginning and at different stages of the writing process. These statements encourage communication and participation, but they do not constitute a script that is said to every youth at every encounter. Rather, they are a set of messages that are we communicate as appropriate. These messages are also conveyed through our work. Some points, about what we are looking for in good writing, about the value of writing to a person's life, and about the reality of publishing, are important to say every time. I have underlined some of the most important messages. Other messages might be expressed as needed.

  • [We believe in the value of what you have to say.] "We believe that people who have had difficult lives have important things to say."

  • [We are interested in you and your life.] "We ask you to write from the heart about who you are as a person."

  • [We are interested in truthfulness and not in judging you for correctness.] "We think that honesty is the most important quality of good writing. You shouldn't worry about spelling and grammar. We can help you fix that, if necessary."

  • [This is our statement of intention with publication.] "We want the people who read our books to understand teens better.

  • [Writing about emotions is OK. This message doesn't need to be stated every time. Young people will pick up on what we are about. The message can be conveyed through the writing we share as well as through our response to emotions that youth display in conversation.] "You seem angry at staff right now. That's a good thing to write about, and we can help you.

  • [We are interested in the writing that youth are already engaged in.] "Do you write? Do you have writing you'd like to share with us?"

  • [We don't want you to feel pressured to write. It doesn't have to happen.] "Would you like to write with us? Don't worry if you haven't written before? We can show you how. Don't feel like you have to write something. We know that writing is difficult."

  • [Look at other people's writing, listen to this poem, what interests you?] "Here is a book of writing by young people that we published. Why don't you browse through it and see if there's anything in here that you like."

  • [There is no pressure to keep our books, either.] "If you don't want this book, just give it back to us. We'll give it to someone else."

  • [We want you to feel free to write in the way that is most comfortable for you. And we want you to have as little help, or as much help, from us as you need.] "There are different ways that we can go about writing at this time. You can take a pad and work on your own. Or you can talk to me [at a computer], and I can write your words down. You can go ahead with your own words and ideas, or I can help you come up with some if you want. What would you like to do?"

  • [What would you most like to write about?] "What's on your mind right now?"

  • [We do not know you or your histories, and we do not know or assume what is going on in your head. But we can talk to you based on our experience working with other youth, with some understanding of what you might be experiencing. This message does not need to be stated every time, but it can be a very important message in certain situations.] "Just to be clear, as I suggest writing topics or show you poems, they are just ideas. I don't know you, or your history, or what you're thinking. You tell me what you'd like to write."

  • [Writing about your life is OK. Young people may hint at problems that they want to write about, but may need our encouragement. This message only needs to be delivered occasionally. It is not our goal to lead young people to write only about certain difficult topics.] "We know that a lot of young people we've met have felt let down by adults, or been exposed to violence, or found street life addicting, or used drugs to deal with pain, etc. You can write about that kind of thing if you want."

  • [Will you give us permission to publish? We will explain and clarify the language on the permission form as much as possible.] "Will you fill out a permission form so that we can consider your poem for publication? Let me know if you'd like me to explain anything. The essential facts money, you own your work, we can't use your real name, etc." It's optional, but we'd like it if you filled out the quick survey on the back of the form.

  • [Why don't we use authors' real names in our publications?] "In most of the places we work there are legal requirements that we must maintain our authors' confidentiality. We also want our authors to feel free to write about anything that's on their minds and to know that they can control who learns about what they wrote and how they feel.

  • [This is your writing, always.] "You own your work, and you can change it or withdraw it from consideration at any time. Here are ways that you can communicate with us if we're not around. through your teacher, a mailbox on site, the Pongo mailbox, etc.

  • [We cannot guarantee that anyone's writing is published, and the process is not a judgment on some people's writing.] "We try very hard not to make promises that we can't keep. We won't be making decisions about what poems go in a book for months or even a year from now. There are a lot of reasons why we choose poems for a book that are unrelated to judging one poem as better than another poem. We always have to raise money to publish a new book. Also, creating a book is like creating a poem. We have to see what its together. Also, sometimes people give us poems that are very similar. Variety is an issue as well. So even if we create a book, and we don't choose your poem, it doesn't mean your poem is not good."

  • [We hope that you continue to write, especially as a tool to help you when times are rough.] "Do you think that you will write some more? You can always leave writing for us with your teacher. We'll be happy to read it. I find that I write when something is bothering me. I find that it helps me. Do you think that you'll do that, too?"