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The girl walked nervously across the stage in Benaroya’s Recital Hall to the microphone that had to be adjusted down for her. A fourth-grader, she was small for her age, and slight. She was wearing a colorful hijab, and as she took a breath before her poem, I held my breath in the audience, surrounded by almost 300 parents, siblings, teachers, and Writers in Residence from our Writers in the Schools (WITS) Program. She swayed slightly, then read her poem, “The Sound of Me:”
Me, as quiet as a mouse
whispering, but in my imagination
I am loud
like the ball pounding on the floor,
like the mountain rumbling around me…
like the stomping of a giant.
That is who I am.
I began my career more than 20 years ago teaching poetry and creative writing in soup kitchens, day centers, and Washington D.C. public schools. I have seen over and over again that giving young people opportunities to find and develop their authentic voices and to tell their own stories makes space for young people to be as loud and big as giants. It gives them space to name profound and uncomfortable truths. It gives them a chance to not only make sense of their world, but also to write their own space within it.
Arts education matters because it provides different paths for students to connect to themselves, one another, and the wider world.
Since 1994, Seattle Arts & Lectures’ WITS program has placed accomplished professional creative writers in classroom residencies at local public schools to engage students in hands-on, sequential literary arts instruction that supports essential learning outcomes and 21st century skills. Relevant mentor texts, authentic role models, and an emphasis on publication and performance guide WITS students to discover that words -- their words -- have power.
And we know that participating in WITS really does change students’ lives. In our most recent annual survey, 82 percent of teachers reported that many or most of their students increased their writing skills as a result of WITS, 91 percent agreed that their students developed greater enjoyment of writing, and 9 out of 10 teachers reported that WITS enhanced their own teaching skills and practice. The vast majority (90 percent) of students reported that after participating in WITS, they believe they can continue to get better at writing, which is the grit that will keep them writing, through school and in life. And equally important, 88 percent of students say they are proud of their writing through WITS.
Beyond statistics, I know that programs like WITS are incredibly powerful because I’ve read poems and stories that have moved me and helped me see the world in new ways. I’ve seen young people walk up to microphones year after year, share their work, hear applause, and literally leave stages taller. Through writing and reading, through speaking and listening, we find ourselves, our stories, and our resilience. We grow up; we grow stronger. We grow like the young patient at Seattle Children’s Hospital who wrote the poem, “Advice for My Eight-Year-Old Self,” which ended, “Life may seem as hard as ever, but trust me, it will shake you and get much more difficult in time. / Don’t let it break you, because everything can be built back up after that earthquake, but it will just have to look a little different.”
Wise advice for us all.
How you can help:
- Listen to young people’s poems and stories – show up for poetry readings and art exhibits and concerts in your community. Your presence sends a powerful message that young people’s voices matter, and I bet you will find (as I always do) wisdom, inspiration, and surprises.
- Think of creative places you can help showcase young people’s creativity – do you have a bulletin board in your office? A newsletter or e-newsletter from your workplace, community group or bowling league? Reach out to your local elementary, middle, and high schools to ask if you can feature poems, stories, or drawings by students.
- Support arts education programs in your community – Find out what’s happening locally by reaching out to the WITS Alliance, or Youth Speaks’ Brave Voices Network. You can also learn about local arts education work happening in your community by contacting to your local arts council, school district or community foundation.