A woman near the front of the room had a question.
Taking the microphone, she gave a brief explanation of her interest in the topic at hand — the power of poetry in schools and beyond. “My organization is responsible for putting poems in the subways,” she explained.
The roomful of New Yorkers burst into spontaneous applause. This was exactly the kind of endeavor they had gathered to champion.
The Robertson’s Power of Poetry event convened educators, poets, and poetry lovers to discuss an urgent issue that gets little attention: the dwindling presence of poetry in schools nationwide.
“Poetry is so important,” said Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy’s CEO and Founder, as she opened the event. “It’s a mechanism of social criticism, a mechanism of expressing one’s identity.”
From there, the crowd got down to the business of poetry. Kayla Montgomery, a sophomore at SA High School of the Liberal Arts and the youngest poet of the night, read her original “America’s Facade,” a piece about the gap between the America that foreigners see, and the one she experiences as a black teenager growing up in the Bronx. “I am a piece of America,” she said, “yet America is the whole of me.”
Following her lead, acclaimed poet Sir Joshua Bennett, who’s performed at Sundance, President Obama’s White House, and many places in between, gave a reading of Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” and then his own “America Will Be.” All three poems told stories about both the speakers individual experiences’ and the nation’s collective one amid a history pockmarked with segregation, inequality, colonialism, and hope.
“We’re exploring what it means to be bound up with a nation that doesn’t love you,” Bennett explained, a believer in the unique, lyrical, thought-provoking avenue for this exploration that only poetry provides.
After the readings, Bennett, Montgomery, and Moskowitz gathered with Dr. Elisa New, creator of PBS’s Poetry in America series, and Success Academy Washington Heights third grade teachers Eunice Kim and Lori Ayanian to talk about how to make sure more students have access to that magic.
“If you aren’t familiar with the language of poetry — lines, stanzas, speakers — it can become threatening,” Bennett said. “We need a national commitment to reading poetry together, without worrying about getting it right. It’s not about right. It’s about beauty.”
New added that you don’t need a lot of time or energy to read poetry in order for it to have a big impact. “Poems are short,” she said, “and they tell us how to read them. You can wring so much meaning out of just a couple of lines or even one word in a poem.”
Ayanian and Kim discussed how they implement ‘Poetry First Fridays’ in their classroom, a initiative across Success Academy’s 47 campuses to help entire school communities fall for poetry. The most recent Poetry First Friday fell on the day before spring break, so the teachers had their eight- and nine-year-olds write about their feelings toward spring.
“Some love spring some, we learned, have allergies and hate it,” Ayanian said. “It doesn’t matter if they like the topic or not, it’s about expressing those feelings.”
To help kids who may be hesitant feel more comfortable writing poetry, Bennett suggested giving them a prompt that makes the assignment feel less personal. “Have them write from the perspective of a hippopotamus,” he suggested. “It almost always becomes auto-biographical, but they’ll feel freer to express beautiful things.”
Dr. New suggested clapping a rhythm and having kids write words into that rhythm. Montgomery nodded in agreement at that idea. “Poetry is like a song to me,” she said. “I love music, I love the way it flows, and I love that you can do anything with it. That’s how I feel about poetry.”
That love of poetry has led her to experience the kind of lightbulb moments that give students more and more confidence in their ability to think and learn. In fact, she said, her biggest ‘aha!’ moment yet had come just that morning.
“We read an Emily Dickinson poem in my literature class about death, and I started to recognize the deeper meaning behind the words,” she said. “The poem mentions a house that swells in the ground, and I realized she meant a grave. Once I started making the connections, I felt like I understood the poem on a deeper level.” She grinned. “It was an amazing feeling.”