A City Made by Poets

Poetry can convey a wide array of meanings for different people when the word is mentioned. Its meaning can range from broken stanzas that truncate in a playful rhythm, to a free flowing expression of our innermost thoughts, or maybe even a Japanese form with short yet reflective syllables. But no matter what pops to mind, poetry can be an engaging art form that allows us to voice our feelings creatively, and it can also be a catalyst to voice opinions that we wouldn’t normally say aloud.

But if poetry is just a personal reflection of our thoughts, how exactly can it be taught? The best advice I ever received in poetry was from a professor who encouraged his students to always focus on their five senses while writing. This led us to an assignment where we had to describe a place using our senses, and I frantically searched for poetic inspiration everywhere from the classroom, to a railroad, and even an unnoticeable parking garage. At the time, I didn’t think an assignment so simple could help me at all in improving my writing, but it helped out tremendously. The assignment accomplished exactly what it was meant to do, and that was to find beauty in something we normally wouldn’t pay attention to, and help me in finding a voice that I never knew was there.

It was very interesting to hear that Jillian Gryzlak, an Urban Gateways teaching artist, uses the exact same technique with her third grade students at Carson Elementary. Their project was to construct their own city. But in order to build it, they had to figure out what about their community makes them happy. And what better way to find out how to build the perfect city than with poetry?

Writing poetry about their community

Jillian explains that, “Students have created pie charts analyzing and taking inventory of their neighborhoods through the senses, writing poetry about their community from the perspective of their noses, eyes, ears, finger tips, and tongue, [and they worked for] several weeks planning a city.” By being able to focus on what they love most about their neighborhoods, students were able to incorporate these details and imagine a community of their own.

Jillian emphasizes that, “This year we are focusing on community, city planning, and how the memories of a neighborhood create the culture of community.” By discovering their community through their own senses, students were able to find out what they love most and exactly what makes a community happy in order to dream up a neighborhood of their own. In addition to this, the students also got a chance to create a large mural for their school’s hallway.

Creating roads for a mural

Her program defines the core reason Urban Gateways was founded, and that was to initiate positive social change in the community through arts education. By providing arts education to children, they can learn that their opinions matter, and that they deserve to be heard within their own communities. In this case, third graders at Carson Elementary are learning this concept with the help of Jillian’s advice of using their five senses within poetry. Advice like this- and like the guidance I received from my professor– creates voice and can help students actively participate in communities that will continue to thrive.

Translating pie charts to wood circles for a mural

What’s the best advice or guidance you ever received in the arts?