Celebrating the Rural Poet Laureate and Rural Poetry
Date: July 2007
Summary: The Rural Sites Network collaborated with the Rural School and Community Trust to create the Rural Poetry of Place project. Eight sites were awarded grants to support the teaching and celebration of place-based poetry.
In 2004 Nebraskan poet and essayist Ted Kooser was named United Sates Poet Laureate. That got his friends and colleagues in the Nebraska Writing Project and the Rural School and Community Trust thinking, How can we celebrate this achievement and make Kooser and his poetry, which celebrates the local wonders of rural life, visible to young rural writers?
Through collaboration with the National Writing Project's Rural Sites Network, the Rural Poetry of Place project was born.
The words of this young West Virginia poet should inspire us to think about life through the eyes of a coal miner.
Student Poets Explore Their Back Roads
The project had three goals:
- to encourage rural public school students to write poetry about the people and places of rural America they know best
- to encourage rural schools to adopt "sense of place" curricula
- to raise the profile of rural schools and communities among educators, poets, and readers of poetry, and within Congress.
Eight local writing project sites that proposed projects to meet these goals were awarded grants of $3,000 each by the Rural Sites Network. They used the funds to present professional development programs on place-conscious writing to teachers in their service area, to host local celebrations, to collect and vet student work, and to choose eight students—one from each site—to read their poems at a celebration at the Library of Congress in May 2006.
In true Writing Project fashion, each site designed work that best fit their local context and met the needs of their local teachers and communities. They developed teaching units and poetry toolkits for teachers, provided model lessons in teachers' home schools, and brought teachers together for writing conferences.
In West Virginia, the Coalfield Writers satellite site provided teachers with place-conscious writing lesson plans. Said West Virginia project coordinator Tracy Baisden, "These lesson plans were coordinated to our state's content standards, and were also coordinated to our district's curriculum maps, so the local teachers who received these lesson plans felt not just `invited' to participate, but felt as if they had `permission' to participate, because the lessons fit so well with the curriculum standards on a state and local level."
Each site also hosted local events to celebrate the poetry produced through these efforts. There were festivals, readings, and radio broadcasts. In Nebraska, students participated in public readings at various venues across the state and in awards gatherings at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and at the state capitol building. At the Upper Peninsula Writing Project in Michigan, student writers performed at the Landmark Inn in Marquette.
Young Poets Go to Washington
Certainly for many involved the highlight of the Rural Poetry of Place Project was the students' trip to Washington, D.C. Each site chose one student to read his or her poetry at an event at the Library of Congress, held on May 8, 2006.
Rebecca Dierking, from the Prairie Lands Writing Project, wrote of their Washington experience, "The weekend was a joy to all involved. The poets toured the senate chambers in the capitol, dined elegantly at Union Station, and met with congressional staff from their home states. . . . The culminating event of the Washington trip was the reading held in the Madison Building at the Library of Congress."
While their trip to Washington made a strong impression on the student poets, clearly the students also left their mark on the city. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia asked that Budro Baisen's poem "Life Through a Coal Miner's Eyes" be shared with his colleagues and the public, and made part of the congressional record.
Speaking on the senator's behalf, a staffer commented, "The spirit and simplicity of [Baisen's] words implore us to acknowledge the parallel experiences of rural Americans nationwide. The words of this young West Virginia poet should inspire us to think about life through the eyes of a coal miner."
Sounds of Poetry Continue to Resonate
Meg Peterson, director of the Plymouth Writing Project in Plymouth, New Hampshire, made a similar claim about the lasting effects of place-based writing in the hands of student poets: "The voices of young people resonate locally and spiral out globally; they tell us what is praiseworthy in our communities and remind us that we have the power to transform that which is not working well."
Site coordinators also named many lasting effects from this event for their writing project sites. One was increased visibility of the writing project in their service area. As Tracy Baisden put it, "Anything that shows off a student is beneficial to our work."
Two further impacts at many sites were the increased involvement of the teacher-consultants who led the work and the addition of place-conscious writing programs to their continuity and/or inservice offerings. Meg Peterson spoke for many sites and project directors when she told her local paper, "We hope to make the rural poetry program a yearly event."