Last semester, Writing the Community teacher Lisa O’Neill and fourth grade teacher Stephanie Pederson teamed up to bring poetry to the classroom. Their dynamic lessons inspired students to contemplate the power and playfulness locked inside words. “Poetry is unlimited. You can use it anywhere,” said student Christian Rubio. Excited by the infectious nature of O’Neill and Pederson’s mentorship, student Ba’ag Wilson said, “You can teach poetry to children in the future, and it goes on and on, like passing it around all over the world.”
A native New Orleanian who has embraced the Sonoran Desert, Lisa O’Neill writes essays and journalistic articles. As an educator, O’Neill has taught various writing courses and workshops at the University of Arizona, Pima Community College, adult and juvenile detention centers, and state prison. You can find samples of her writing, including publications in Essay Daily, The Feminist Wire, Diagram, Edible Baja Arizona, and more here.
Stephanie Pederson, a teacher of ten years, enjoys working in her garden, getting lost in nature with her family, and designing re-purposed glassware and wood products with her wife and son for their family business, Bottle Rocket Design. When Pederson’s students write poetry, she encourages them to share their “golden lines”, the glittering strings of words that speak to them most.
The interview below provides a brief glimpse into the compassionate, dedicated minds of these two teachers.
1. What motivates you to teach creative writing in the schools?
Lisa O’Neill: I think what we learn about reading and writing and imagination when we are young informs our relationship to these the rest of our lives. We learn that language is a static formal boring thing only accessible to some or we learn that language is an evolving experiment that we are all a part of. We learn how to do things in methodical, by the book ways, or we are encouraged to take risks, to imagine our way into new possibilities. Mostly, I am motivated to teach in the schools because I want kids to know that their voices matter. That the world needs their stories and words. That they, as individuals, have a unique perspective to offer. That there is room for everyone's voice and everyone's voice is valuable.
Stephanie Pederson: I think creative writing allows us to play and process language in a way that is outside what kids are “tested on,” but what is truly the purpose for language – to communicate who we are, who we want to be, how we want to be, what the world looks like to us, and to express how we feel.
2. What can children learn from poetry?
Lisa O’Neill: Children can learn the joy of language. They learn to play with language. They learn how much fun you can have with the sounds of words. They learn to take risks, to craft meaning, to communicate their ideas and emotions to others. They learn courage in putting words down and sharing them. Hopefully, they learn the power of their own voice.
Stephanie Pederson: Poetry is a form of play. This is so important now more than ever as so much of school is about producing the “right” answer or using the “right” materials. Kids need the opportunity and the experience to break outside of these expectations and find that space in themselves where they can play in an un-prescribed way – getting out of their comfort zone – breaking the rules so to speak. I think that poetry also plays a really big role in attending to kids social-emotional needs. We all have emotions and feel lots of different ways, and in poetry, however we feel is OK.
3. What do you enjoy most about teaching poetry in the schools?
Lisa O’Neill: One of my favorite parts of teaching poetry in schools is the joy that comes across a child's face when they are proud of what they have written. I also love watching them learn new ways to use language. I love when spontaneous laughter arises because that means we are all having fun. I like seeing the way students encourage one another. I like seeing shy students do the very brave act of coming to the front of the class to read their work. In a world in turmoil and in a political landscape where I often feel disheartened, my students give me a sense of faith and trust in the future. Their words are so alive.
Stephanie Pederson: What I love about teaching poetry is hearing kids share their favorite poem they found or their favorite one they wrote, I love hearing their interpretation of the imagery, I love to hear them talk about words they think are “juicy words” and describing pictures they have in their mind. I love hearing the kids giggle and I love hearing them ask for more when I stop reading for the day, I love getting to see inside their minds and their hearts.
Photo Credit: Diego Jimenez