Poetry is boring.
At least that’s what Journie Rodriguez thought at the beginning of the just-completed school year.
By the end of the school year, however, the King Elementary fifth-grader had changed her mind.
Her English class took part in Poetry Paths, a program that teaches students in the School District of Lancaster to write poetry. Journie began to enjoy reading and writing it.
“I had never done it before, so I thought it was pretty boring,” Journie says. “After I had done it, and we learned more about it, it came easier, and I started to really like it.”
Kerry Sherin Wright, the director of Poetry Paths, remembers that her fifth-grade teacher took the time to teach her about poetry. Since then, poetry has played an instrumental role in her life.
“My poems were not brilliant; that kind of didn’t matter,” says Wright, director of the Philadelphia Alumni Writers House at Franklin & Marshall College. “Being introduced to any type of creative writing when you’re younger teaches you that it’s something you can do, too.”
Students in classes who participate in the program complete an enrichment activity to inspire their writing. Journie’s class visited Thaddeus Stevens’ house in downtown Lancaster and learned about his abolitionist work and the Underground Railroad.
Then Barbara Buckman Strasko, a Lancaster-based poet, taught the students about different forms of poetry, and she helped them write and edit their own poems.
Finally, many of the students read their poems in front of an audience. The performance was held May 16. Poetry Paths also releases a bound edition of these poems, so that students have the chance to be published.
“Oh, Thaddeus Stevens is good to me,” Journie wrote in her poem. “He was with the people, people of all kinds.”
Reading her poetry to an audience allowed Journie to share thoughts that she otherwise might not share. She says she found that it was easier to read her poetry than to speak off the cuff.
“You won’t forget anything, because it’s right there,” Journie says. “And I liked my poem, so it was good.”
This opportunity to experience the writing process, from research and drafting, through editing and publishing, is invaluable for students, Wright says.
“We want these kids to have the experience of being writers who publish, and then who have readers,” she says. “It gives them a sense that there are people listening to their words.”
Jogeilys Vega-Cintron, a seventh-grader at Hand Middle School, wrote poems about Puerto Rico, where her family is from. The island’s residents are still recovering from the destruction wrought last year by Hurricane Maria.
“I felt like writing about it so people could know what happened in Puerto Rico and what can happen in other places too,” Jogeilys says.
Paw Wah Wah Eh, a seventh-grader at Hand Middle School, only started learning English when her family emigrated from Thailand eight years ago. She had done Poetry Paths in elementary school, and she was in a class that did it this past year.
“This time, I wrote better than the last time,” she says. “When I was in elementary, I didn’t know much English.”
Writing poetry forced her to expand her vocabulary, she says. The form and tone of poetry made her use words that she would not otherwise have learned.
Strasko, who worked in various language-coaching roles in Lancaster schools for 35 years before the Poetry Paths program, agrees that poetry helps students who are learning English.
“I think it helps them to love language more,” Strasko says.
She asks students learning English to pick out their favorite words on a page when they read poetry, and they regularly choose the most advanced or complex words.
The program has received vocal support from the community, Wright says. Lancaster’s mayor, Danene Sorace, attended this year’s poetry reading and talked with some of the students afterwards.
Wright hopes that the program makes students more interested in poetry, or even less intimidated by it. However, she recognizes that she still has work to do.
“I meet a lot of people who think that poetry is very scary,” Wright says. “A combination of scary and boring.”
Poetry Paths runs its program in three Lancaster city schools per year. Since it started in 2009, it has reached students in almost all of the School District of Lancaster’s elementary and middle schools.
The Lancaster County Community Foundation provided the original grant for Poetry Paths, which is run out of Franklin and Marshall College’s Philadelphia Alumni Writers House. Funding also comes from the Educational Improvement Tax Credit.