National Writing Project

The Dream Flag Project Spreads Hope Through Poetry

By: Gavin Tachibana
Date: March 17, 2010

Summary: Students find a way to share their dreams with the world by studying a unique blend of Langston Hughes's poetry and Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags.

 


Photo by Mathew Espinosa.

Mix the poetry of Langston Hughes with the tradition of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags and what you get is the popular Dream Flag Project, which has swept the imagination of students worldwide.

In the Dream Flag Project , students study the poetry of African American poet Langston Hughes. They then work on their own poems and print their words on a cloth flag, which is then decorated and hung on a line, much the way Tibetan prayer flags are displayed, meant to share positive hopes with the world.

"I think the mission of the Dream Flag Project is simple," said project director Jeff Harlan. "It is to provide a place where the dreams of students are lifted up and honored, and it is to provide a way for students to broaden their views of the world as they share their dreams and become connected through that sharing."

Students' flags have flown at the project's annual celebration in Philadelphia and also at hospitals, libraries, and even once a baseball stadium. The effect is a colorful palate of poetry and hope.

"There are so many kids in the world—so many dreams," said Harlan. "We thought in the first year, maybe five or six schools would join with us. Twenty-six did that first year, and since then, it's just kept growing."

In fact, more than 40,000 individual flags have been created and flown since the start of the program, run by Harlan and Sandy Crow of the Agnes Irwin School, a K–12 school for girls in suburban Philadelphia. The project has spread to more than 100 schools in 34 states and to students in Canada, Australia, Honduras, China, Japan, Costa Rica, Nepal, Rwanda, Kenya, and South Africa.

Writing Project Teachers Get Involved

This "new" form of publishing has naturally captivated writing project teachers as well. Donna Verbeck, a former second grade teacher at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School, said her students were highly motivated to produce a polished poem under the Dream Flag Project.

"They really enjoyed it, the whole idea of giving purpose to your writing," said Verbeck, teacher-consultant at the former East End Writing Project in New York.

Verbeck said that after she read a lot of Hughes's poetry to her class, her second-graders spent more than a week writing, revising, and editing their poems.

One poem from a student named Danielle, posted on Verbeck's website of her second-grade class's dream poems , talks about a world safe for dolphins:

The Beautiful Dolphins

I dream that people stop
killing dolphins I dream that
more people get more people
to help the dolphin I dream
that the dolphins don't
die I dream I help the
dolphin give food to them
I dream that I stop
the sharks eating
dolphins I dream that people stop tuna fishing


I dream of dolphins

After their poems were completed, students printed them onto pieces of cloth and artistically decorated the fabric. Finally, the flags were attached to a line for the school to see.

"A lot of people thought they were absolutely beautiful, and they were beautiful," Verbeck said of her school's 75 dream flags hanging in the hallway. Her students, she said, "felt like they were poets just like [Hughes]. Successful poets too, as far as they were concerned."

Dream Flags Around the Globe

The Dream Flag Project is now in its eighth year, and its poetry continues to sail across oceans and around the globe. Last summer, tenth grade Dream Flag emissaries traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to work with students from the Juhudi Children's Club to create their own dream flags, which will be flown in Philadelphia this year.

Harlan shared one American student's comment on the impact the program had on her.

I think often kids' eyes are closer to poets' eyes than ours."

"She said that when you talk to kids in other countries, you see past the hype that the media puts out—especially about Africa—and see who kids really are, which is not much different from you, especially when it comes to hopes and dreams."

At the 2009 NCTE Annual Convention, more than 1,300 dream flags were flying over the convention floor. And using Skype video-conferencing software, students from Philadelphia and Nairobi took part in a live sharing of dream poems at a public reading.

"That day was great because it seemed like the students in Kenya were right there with us, and our kids and their kids were talking about what they do after school, interests in dance, and stuff like that after they shared their poems," Harlan said.

No matter the age or country of the students crafting dream poems, teachers say there is a special connection between children and the writing of poetry, with all of its visualization, figurative language, and freedom of word choice.

"We say poets see things through poets' eyes," said Verbeck, who is now a literacy coach. "We have to remember that kids see things through kids' eyes. So I think often kids' eyes are closer to poets' eyes than ours."

How to Participate

To join the growing movement and participate in the project, teachers must register at the Dream Flag Project website . Teachers will find a number of resources for different grade levels to help them plan how to use dream flags in the classroom.

What was once a small hope for student expression has already grown beyond the founders' wildest dreams.

"There's a wonderful path that's unfolding," Harlan said. His hope is not only that more students get involved, but that the program finds more ways for them to connect.

"That's when the magic happens."

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