Poet Leslie Reese works with second graders at Swift Elementary School through the "Hands on Stanzas" virtual program. Credit: Elizabeth Metzger Sampson

Just one week after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) went remote, the Chicago Poetry Center (CPC), a not-for-profit 501c3 arts organization designed to facilitate creative literacy and self-expression through poetry, was able to follow suit and pivot their CPS school-based poetry residencies “Hands On Stanzas” to virtual programs.

Currently, CPC has virtual residencies in 26 classrooms across nine schools in the city. The residencies, which usually consist of a Chicago poet/teaching artist (a poet in residence) meeting with their assigned classrooms weekly to read, write, and perform poetry, now exist via videos for students with computer and Internet access, or via workbook packets for those in need of non-digital support.

“We try to make sure that we’re delivering workbooks and instructions that can turn into paper packets if students are coming to the school for meal and enrichment packet pick up so that way we can support students without Internet access,” says Elizabeth Metzger Sampson, executive director of CPC. The workbooks consist of two to three pages of step-by-step instruction on the poetry lessons the poets in residence have chosen for the week.

“Each poet has done this a little bit differently,” says Metzger Sampson. “For instance, one of our poets, Joy Young, she actually throws the workbook on her screen, screen shares, and really does sort of an ‘I do, you do, we do’ sort of lesson with the students in the screen share.”

Similarly, Leslie Reese, who works with second graders at Swift Elementary School, says she uses the bond she created with her students in person as an encouragement to experiment with her remote teaching method.

“I set up a colorful corner in my apartment with a display of illustrated poetry anthologies and my flipboard with markers and that’s where I recorded my videos. I reshaped some lessons from my syllabus so that there was room for students to channel their feelings imaginatively,” she says. “For instance, in the ‘persona poems’ lesson, I asked students, ‘Do you think that school misses us?’ and then guided them to write poems in the voice(s) of things at school (art paintbrushes, classrooms, etc.) that miss the sights and sounds of being used and inhabited by students and teachers.”

Pre-COVID-19, the poets in residence would collect students’ work and publish different poems on CPC’s website every week. Now, the publishing is limited to who is writing and sending in work. The work is published on CPC’s “Shelter in Poetry” blog––currently, the blog has 12 posts with a brief description of the lesson students were taught and the poems they wrote as a result.

“In ‘A Little Girl’s Poem’ by Gwendolyn Brooks, the voice of the child shares a vision of what is good and what is not right in the world. She ends by saying ‘Life is for us, and is shining. / We have a right to sing,'” says Reese. “Reading that poem inspired me to create the ‘My World’ poems lesson. I wanted students to feel encouraged to share their own candid, whimsical, and visionary ideas for the world we live in.”

There is also work by students from Taft Freshman Academy, whose poet in residence is Timothy David Rey. In these poems, seventh-to-ninth-grade students were inspired by Li Po’s “Quiet Night Thoughts” and wrote about the quietness (or lack thereof) of their evenings.

“I try to pick poems that were written where they could express themselves, maybe about what’s going on now with the pandemic, or how they’re feeling,” says Rey. “A lot of poems had to do with self-care, so they could sort of look around themselves and see what’s happening and respond to that through poetry.”

Rey believes one of the challenges of teaching poetry virtually is that there is no chance for feedback. Yet he’s found that even with this challenge, students are still engaging with the material, even the most reluctant writers. “We would receive writings from students who may not have written when they were in a formal classroom setting,” he says.

Another way CPC has continued engaging with their students is by transitioning their pop-up assemblies into a remote format. Last week they hosted their first virtual assembly with Urban Gateways attended by more than 90 fifth-grade students. Additionally, they have moved their annual “All Schools Reading” event online, which features a select number of students reading their poems in front of family and friends. “We got 35 videos back with 35 signed parental media releases,” says Metzger Sampson. “We are now building out a couple of videos that are going to be broken up by grade group, and we’ll be debuting that video in probably like mid-June.”

With these lessons, virtual assemblies, and videos, CPC hopes students feel encouraged and inspired throughout these trying times. “I think a lot of what these lessons are teaching right now is, it’s okay to have feelings. It’s okay to explore that feeling. It’s okay to have complicated feelings,” says Metzger Sampson. “And alternately, what I think that they’re exploring is, ‘Hey, let’s dream. Let’s imagine and let’s create’ because [this is] a wonderful way to energize themselves and spend their time while we’re all stuck at home.”   v