The Strong Flow of Belief: Trusting Teen Poets to Tap the “Wildness” Within


Every time I put together my lessons for my writing residency with the CAPE school for incarcerated youth this past Spring 2024, I devoted hours of research trying to find engaging topics, poems, and resources for both me and the students to explore. As a Writing the Community teaching artist, I've harbored an ulterior motive to explore my favorite “hidden curriculum”: to bring in more of the “natural world” into my teaching, even in settings where students are not as (or at all) connected to “the wild” or “Nature.”

To this end, I tried out a new lesson on ravens vs. crows with incarcerated students, hoping they might connect with the impassioned ranting about a lost love and a disturbing appearance of an otherworldly night bird in Edgar Allen Poe’s hypnotic classic “The Raven.” (As well, the teacher I worked with had already expressed how much they liked Poe's work during a previous residency season.)  As for supplemental resources, I sent a website that demonstrated key differences between ravens and crows using accessible descriptions, diagrams, videos, and photos helping to distinguish the two birds. I also found an article and a video that reviewed surprising research on crow communication, detailing their incredible memory and capacity to pass down through their own forms of communications to their young about the ways they've been harmed in the past, showing crow’s innate capacity for justice that I thought might resonate with incarcerated youth.

I prepared a couple writing prompts that I thought would be engaging for them, including this one:

Write an acrostic poem about an interesting animal you have encountered, such as a raven or a crow. In your lines, you might describe the qualities or features of that animal.  Or, include details from your own observations or experiences you have had with that animal. Try to include words that show a strong tone, like sadness, fear, anger, or joy.  Maybe you will even write a poem showing how the animal you chose is a symbol of something significant, just like Edgar Allen Poe’s poem turns his raven into a symbol of death.  Give your poem a title!

However, my effort to create prompts that would invite direct explorations of the natural world didn't seem to resonate, as I didn’t get back any poems about animal encounters.

After my seeming “miss” with certain aspects of the raven vs. crow lesson, I tried another topic, this time focusing on trees, including the following prompt that lit me up with the possibility of hearing about the youths’ childhood connections to trees:

Write about a relationship you have had with a tree. Describe when you met your tree, how you spent time together, what it was like to be friends / companions. What kind of tree was it? What kind of relationship was it? Let yourself free-write and see what comes about this tree. If you want to make it into a poem, be sure to add some line breaks, but don’t feel constrained by rhyme unless that brings you joy.    

However, I received only one poem about a tree. The name was blurry on the scanned copy I received and I was never able to confirm from the teacher which student authored it:


My tree is
big, heavy, tall.

Bright green and
grows peaches. It
has a lot of
peaches and it's
been there for 200
years and my grandpa
used to sit there.

With all the effort I put into creating this lesson, I got only one poem that was arguably derived from a prompt I had given.

So by the time I put together my fourth lesson plan, I felt just a bit discouraged with my vision for offering prompts and model poems about “Nature.”  

After contemplating several ideas, I found myself clicking around the Button Poetry Youtube channel, which is usually a pretty good resource to find slam poetry.  Sure enough, I found a short piece by Rudy Francisco called “A Few Things I Strongly Believe In” that caught my ear as spontaneous, inviting, and fresh:  

A Few Things I Strongly Believe
By Rudy Francisco

I believe that sour apple-flavored anything is delicious
I believe that orange juice tastes better with pulp
I believe that Cinnabon is made by angels
I like Arizona Iced tea, right?
But I also believe that 24 ounces of anything for a dollar might actually be poison
I believe that masculinity is a wet fish that most men are just trying to hold on to
And smiling before a fight is the quickest way to make your opponent nervous
I believe that music is easier to digest than medicine
I believe that a good song can turn any room into a church
I believe that Whitney Houston's voice is all the proof I need to know God exists

The first several things this writer strongly believed in were everyday examples like whether orange juice should have pulp. This poem about “strong beliefs” turned out to focus on things that weren’t a matter of life and death, which was both disarming and funny. But I noticed that after we get in a few laughs, the poet boldly steers us towards topics that do, truly “matter”: What does it mean to be a man?  What is proof that God exists?  I thought maybe students would resonate with these juxtapositions of the mundane with the weighty and/or numinous.

So I put together a quick lesson around this poem. It was done in less than an hour, a fraction of the time I’d spent on my previous lesson plans. Yet ironically, though maybe not at all surprisingly, this lesson and prompt worked better than the others I’d labored over:

Write a poem in imitation of the video. Start each line with “I strongly believe” and then explain what you believe in.  Bring in things that are surprising, funny, or random, mixing in a serious line or two to keep it unpredictable, like life itself. Try to write at least 10 lines this way.

With their writing, the students showed they resonated with the chance to explore what they strongly believed in, and their classroom teacher said our students liked the poet Rudy Francisco so much that they looked up even more poems of his on the internet together after watching the one I shared.

Here are some selected poems derived from this lesson shared with the CAPE students. The first two poems from Brandon and Jordan both juxtapose in a pleasing way their hopes and personal aspirations with their everyday likes and dislikes, with no apology or distinction made for the collision of “high” and “low” convictions:

Brandon H.

I strongly believe I will get out of Juvie
I strongly believe that Youngboy is the best rapper
I strongly believe in Jesus
I strongly believe El Nene has the best hot dogs
I strongly believe someday I'm going to leave Tucson
I strongly believe a person should love their family
I strongly believe in my brother, a good role model
I strongly believe Imma go to church when I get out
I strongly believe Jordan makes the best shoes
I strongly believe Nike makes good clothes

Jordan M.
I Strongly Believe

I strongly believe that Lil' Wayne is the best rapper alive.
I strongly believe McDonald's has gotten way too expensive.
I strongly believe that driving is fun.
I strongly believe there is a higher power.
I strongly believe playing video games is one of the best times you can have.
I strongly believe the beaches in California are fun.
I strongly believe that surfing is a great way to spend time.
I strongly believe if you respect others they will respect you.
I strongly believe people can always survive suffering.

And then Damian came up with this remarkable poem, which has its own unique, musical flow.  I pictured him singing from the pinnacle of a podium upon an inspirational speaker’s stage:

Damian J.

I strongly believe that
Nobody's good
But that nobody's bad

I strongly believe that
We're all special
That's a fact

I strongly believe that
Faith will guide us
To a better outcome

I strongly believe that
Is the best path

I strongly believe that
A smile
Saves lives

I strongly believe that
Yes, I strongly believe that for a fact

I strongly believe that
magic's as real as people
As real as math

I strongly believe that
You'll be okay
Even if you don't believe in that

I strongly believe that
You can do it

I strongly believe that
You can get through it
No matter the path

Since my “slapdash” lesson worked so well with incarcerated students, I decided to try it out with students in another high school residency: Flowing Wells High School’s after-school Poetry Club.

In addition to sharing the Rudy Francisco poem with the club, I also offered a second prompt to help them juxtapose lines wherein they could assert what they know right next to lines about what they don’t know, which was a variation on the second prompt I had also offered the CAPE students:

Write a poem describing a person (or situation) that you have mixed feelings and thoughts about - something that makes you both sad and happy at the same time, confident and scared, calm and crazy, or angry and peaceful.  Show how you think opposing thoughts about the very same thing, and don’t try to explain away or apologize for the contradictions.  Let those opposites touch.  Consider titling your poem the name of the person (or the situation) you’re writing about.  

At Flowing Wells, one student named Willow initially only wanted to read a previously written poem s/he brought rather than respond to the new prompt, to which I assented, “Yeah, cool, do whatever you want to do.”  But after everyone else shared their responses to this prompt, Willow decided to write a new piece after all, and finally insisted on reading this poem aloud himself, even after refusing to read the other poem aloud.

I asked about the meaning behind the first line, as it confused me at first, but Willow explained that if s/he ever wanted to get surgery, s/he would need a lot of money to afford it:

Willow B.
From Her / His Perspective

I know my life is defined by money.
I know that my happiness is not important to people in the real world.
I know that the rules are black and white.
I know I can't change my curves.
I know my mom will cry if I change myself.
I know she'll scream, "You've always been my little girl."
I know I'll be screamed out in the streets.
I know I'll stare at myself in the mirror and wish I could change.
I know I'll just cry all over again.
I know I'll force myself to pretend.
I know I'll lie and say I feel okay.
In the eyes of the world I'm just a girl.
But I don't want to know.

I'm always tickled when I stumble upon a prompt that seems to generate a universally inspiring response from students. Yet, in circling back to reconcile what actually generated inspired writing with my initial longing to offer prompts to encourage students to share about their experiences and encounters with “Nature,” I had to acknowledge that some of my curricular notions are under review.

Though I still haven’t been able to ascertain the “best” conditions or approaches by which students at the high school level can easily become inspired to write about their relationship with the natural world, it could be that I have been asking the wrong questions.

Instead, how long might it take for students to resonate with the invitation to write about meaningful contact with trees, plants, animals and wilderness?  It could be that most urbanized students come to classrooms more focused on their human worlds, and that my emphasis on animals and trees seems foreign and inaccessible to them, just as any “niche” topic would feel to anyone lacking exposure to it. (After all, if I was given a prompt on basketball or science fiction, I, too, might struggle to find a way in.)  It could be that students need more sustained exposure to “nature” prompts. As a teaching artist with a commitment to incorporating writing prompts about the natural or wild world, I may need to be more patient and trust that my invitations may take more time to incubate.

But now I’m realizing a third possibility has emerged as well: that the inner “landscape” students are referencing – that is, their thoughts, feelings, memories, and opinions about whatever topics and experiences they have – are another form of authentic “wildernesses.” Even if their inner landscape of memories are populated with metal bars and iron doors, football stadium lights and plexi-glass bus stops, McDonald’s and Nike – all things which my idealized sensibility tends to regard as unfortunate tracks left by the steamrollers of modern commercialization, consumerism, industrialization, and institutionalization over true wilderness – these “un-ideal” references could be, from a more inclusive perspective, the contemporary imprints upon still ancient grounds of students’ vibrant inner selves.  Whether or not students can distinguish between the different shapes of tail feathers of crows and ravens is likely less indicative of an innate capacity for wildness than their instinctive willingness to take up a pen or pencil for a “just-write” prompt and let their thoughts flow with quickness and sureness onto a page from their innately self-expressive core.  That quickness, that sureness, is what I need to pay attention to.

I’m beginning to revise my reductivist understanding of my students' capacity for “nature writing.” Truly, it matters much less that they are writing about trees and creatures (though of course, reading about those things still brings me great delight). What matters is that students create writing that moves with an instinct for expressing their current passions and interests.  I don’t need to genuflect towards birds or trees to help them find the places where their “natural” delight quickens them. What matters is that they learn to trust their innate flow arising enough to follow their own flood of words, without undue pressure or contrived sculpting from me (or any other) well-meaning teacher.

So, if you’re like me, wanting to rouse your students right where they stand, explore what happens when they simply start with a few lines of “A few things I strongly believe…”  Or try it yourself, as I did:

This I Strongly Believe
By Taylor Johnson

I strongly believe in writing down my dreams
I strongly believe that trees can hear us, feel us, recognize us
I strongly believe every yard should have at least one poisonous plant growing in it
I strongly believe in feeding friendly stray dogs
I strongly believe in dancing in moonlight even if a midnight walker is passing in the street
I strongly believe in letting the laundry wash water spill to nourish backyard fruit
I strongly believe in keeping a pair of chickens who run free, sunup to sundown
I strongly believe in making a cup of something hot and dark first thing every morning
I strongly believe in cutting shared food perfectly in half or taking the smaller piece myself
I strongly believe organic food is overpriced but worth buying anyway
I strongly believe in asking and trusting
I strongly believe everyone has something to say
I strongly believe the Superbowl is an evil waste of time and resources
I strongly believe that the arc of justice is long
I strongly believe in typing on typewriters in random cafes and leaving the poem behind

Good luck.  Have fun.  Listen.  Trust.

Taylor Johnson was born in Washington, DC, raised in Western Maryland, and transplanted to the Sonoran Desert in 2002. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Poetry from the University of Arizona in 2007, and then went on to teach English to high schoolers for the next 15 years.  In May 2022, she stepped away from full-time teaching to pursue a solopreneur venture as a nightly dreamworker and freelance educator.  She began her career as a visiting poet in 2005 when she was still a young mom, wearing her infant in a rainbow sling while teaching poetry lessons to young elementary students through a Poetry Center residency, and then later as a graduate student working with high school students at Cholla and Desert View.  Currently, she is focused on writing down her dreams and sorting through way too many old journals, mining for hidden gems. Website:

Image by Jeremy Bishop.