Young poets share their work

Fifth-grade pupils are urged to express their deepest feelings in workshop

December 10, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Marissa Skapura thought she was done.

She had just stood up in front of her fellow fifth-graders at Pointers Run Elementary School and read a poem about a cheerleading competition.

As the audience clapped, she began to walk back to where she had been sitting on the cafeteria floor. But Gayle Danley, the visiting poet who was presenting the event, stopped her, saying Marissa had promised to do a cheer.

"I thought that was a choice I could make," Marissa replied, indicating she didn't want to do it. The other students encouraged her, and, after much prompting, she performed a cheer, complete with some arm movements.

Danley, who has been giving poetry workshops at Pointers Run for about six years, isn't one to let a student off the hook. In days leading up to the student performances, she worked with the youngsters, encouraging them to dig deep, to move past cliches and put their innermost thoughts and fears into words.

Danley, an award-winning slam poet based in Baltimore, gives workshops all over the country through Young Audiences of Maryland and other organizations. The term "slam poetry," which was coined in the mid-1980s, describes a combination of performance and poetry that can be deeply emotional for the poet and the audience.

All Pointers Run fifth-graders participate in the workshops, but not all of them volunteer to read out loud in front of parents and peers. About 40 kids, a quarter of the students in the grade, choose to read, said teacher Becky Richardson.

"It's wonderful," she said.

Before the workshops begin, Danley performs some of her own material. Most kids are convinced that they could never do it, Richardson said. But by the end of the program, "they actually surprise themselves," she said.

During the assembly, parents sat in rows of folding chairs along the back of the room. Also in attendance were Ken Ulman, the new county executive, who has a kindergartner at the school; and Diane Mikulus, who is on the school board. Ulman said he hopes to see Danley involved in more Howard County programs.

Mikulus, who was there as a representative of the school board, said she remembered when her son's class at Folly Quarter Middle School did a workshop with Danley a few years ago.

"She gets the kids to really open up," Mikulus said. "What amazed me was the courage it took for the kids to get up and read poems that revealed so much of what they were feeling."

In particular, she remembered students sharing their feelings about parents splitting up.

At Pointers Run, the poems were not quite as raw, perhaps because the students were younger. Common themes were the death of pets, sports triumphs and tribulations, and road trips.

Margaret Tatum told of mastering the monkey bars. "My hands were sweating like waterfalls," she said.

Rachel Lewis learned to do a back handspring. "I felt like a turtle coming out of my shell," she said.

Austin Greenbaum told of getting a puppy. "I suddenly realized I was going to get my life's dream. A girl dog," he said.

Carrie DeBlasis related perhaps the most frightening experience of her life, getting tangled in a tow lift while sledding in West Virginia. But she ended the poem on a positive note with the words "still wishing I was sledding."

Her mother, Katie DeBlasis, a PTA vice president, said Cassie had been talking about the poem for days. "I'm very proud of her," she said. "She had a really long story to start with, but she boiled it down."

Even some teachers shared their stories. Jim Stedman wrote about Thanksgiving with his daughter, and Eric Jayne wrote about a swim competition in which he was "determined to succeed or drown trying."

Danley kept the energy level high, at one point telling the kids: "I'm not feeling the weak applause you all are giving." She gave out candy canes after each performance.

Marti Roberts, the fifth-grade team leader, said she's grateful that the PTA funds the workshops each year. "They get many different kinds of poetry, but they don't get a chance to perform poetry," she said of the students. The readings can be cathartic, she said. "Oftentimes we get students that wouldn't otherwise share," she said.

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