Teaching Self-Expression and Healing Through the Written Word

I am inspired by life and using poetry as healing has been my mantra for years. I started using poetry in this way around the age of eighteen when I was dealing with the absence of my father and having body image issues. A lot of my poems were based on having really negative views of men and I used my words to have a conversation about how I viewed them, why I viewed them that way and how I could change the view. I eventually came to the understanding that I had to deal with my father being an absent factor which had me relaying very negative to men in my life. I then dealt with that issue and began using poetry to write poems about friendship, love, and anything abstract. The more poems I wrote the better I felt. This release was something that was needed and appreciated in my life. It was as if I was my own therapist. By throwing a few words on a paper, a journal, or on a computer screen I was able to deal with the demons or angels in my life with no problems. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I write because I feel freedom in speaking my stories, not worried about hunters with arrows, or others who may have comments about what I’m talking about. I like to explore relationships and people and perspectives. This is what I try to pass on to my students.

With this background in self-expression it was so easy for me to help the students relay to their insecurity, pain, love and other issues in their own poetry. My approach to teaching the art form is to give the basics in a clear and concise way that makes my students feel at ease, yet challenge them to go outside of their boundaries to free their soul of any demons, or explore some new poetic form to discuss something close to their heart.

During my twenty weeks at South Shore High School I was able to challenge my students to use their poetry in different ways, and every week many of my students used poetry as a way of self-healing and expression but only a few would actually hand in poems and read in front of the class.

One particular student used her poetry one day to tell a story. She is an attentive student who sits and waits until I get to class, brightly smiles at me, gently greets me “Hi, Miss Pam!” and shows me a new poem she has written the previous week. A medium-built girl with a smooth ponytail and wearing her pink gym shoes with a little pink purse. She always says and does the right thing and tries to get other students involved in the creative process by passing out the forms I create for class. For over twenty weeks I taught Vivian Jones and other students in the school-based poetry program. Vivian is a seventeen-year old student with lots of energy and always with a smile on her face.

But her story…a story of hurt, pain and shame was enlightening and surprising for even I did not know the effects of my work in the class to this particular student. And when she got through reading the poem, I had realized that she had told a story of endurance and self-love and that somehow, someway, through my teaching, she had learned a valuable lesson of using the art form as a way of healing her own soul.

One might wonder how Vivian felt inspired to write such a powerful poem. Well, throughout my time with the students in the British Literature class I always had a laid-back approach to creating a poem. My approach basically included giving the students the poetic tools and giving examples of the tools. My mantra for them creating their soul stories (poems) was always, “be true to your souls.” I didn’t want them to write a poem that I wanted them to write, but more like feel comfortable in telling their own truth. Taking the risk to paint the picture and let others view it without worrying about their comments and opinions. I always gave them positive comments to works they have submitted in class and gave them constructive criticism. For example, if I didn’t like the poem all together, I would focus on the good parts and asked them to try to “re-paint” the picture so I could see it more clearly. On their poems, I always told them to not be stressed about the assignment, but do the best they could.

For this particular class we examined the following poem that I used in my community poetry class. I was inspired to write a short poem that discussed how this one girl in a class looked at her world uniquely. Actually I based this poem on one of my better poets from 4th period class. Her poetry stands out and she rarely talks of love or relationships. Rather she speaks of having individuality and accepting your own self and other issues that many of the other students skip over daily.

Before handing out the poem I asked students if they knew what metaphors, similes, internal rhymes, personification, alliteration and repetition was. How did they know these poetic devices? Did they know how to use them? As they shouted out items to me, I passed the poems out and asked for a volunteer in the class to read the following poem:

Untitled by Pam Osbey

With a vulture’s eye
she watched the class
while the teacher screamed
like a bird
and the class heckled peckled their
voices into a special song

With a vulture’s eye
She watched class.
The quiet girl goes
Into her own little
world while the
simpletons make
fool of themselves.

After reading and breaking down the poem, students felt this person used the phrase, ‘vulture’s eye” as the way the person was viewing her class room. Then line by line the class identified each poetic device. After that was completed, I asked the students to take twenty minutes to create a free verse poem with three stanzas that included the same elements the untitled poem.

A Mother’s Love
From the beginning of this poem, you can see that this student clearly states her subject matter, “My Son.” She paints a picture of maternal love and devotion by talking about the physical beauty of him “eyes of gold”, how his skins looks “beautiful black skin”, and how tender he feels “softness of his small touch”. She deepens the affect by giving readers more details on how his presence in her life “that sweeness..the beautiful child.” It was great to see that she was inspired to use her tools (metaphors, alliteration, and free verse) to tell the world that she loves her son. She gets across the point of a fragile, yet, little baby and how he has affected her life with simplicity and beauty. Looking through the eyes of a child things become more simple, than complex and deep adult eyes.

My Son
By C. Green

With eyes of gold
As I look at the beauty of his beautiful black skin
This softness of his small touch.

My son.

With a gentle of his cry.
Try to tell me he wants me.
As I stare, he stares harder.
With that sparks that wools me with
That sweetness.
The beautiful child.
As from me.
My baby boy.

A Raging Heart
C. Bailey demonstrates how I ask students to show not tell us (the readers) but why was she inspired to write a poem about her irritation of her period? That I do not know. It was interesting to see the reaction of the male students who chuckled by the third stanza.

Untitled by C. Bailey

My nerves are bad, now that you’re here.
I feel like puking, when you come near.
On this day, you decide to come.
I wish I knew so I could just run.
Like an annoying sound, you irritate me.
My life is over, how can this be?

Look what you’ve done, you’ve ruined my clothes.
You scared my man, now he’s with the hoes.
You got my insides ripping with pain.
Laying on the tracks, struck by a train.
Feels like someone tugging at my stomach.
Oh, here it comes, I think I’m gonna vomit.

You may me sick, please go away.
Don’t wanna see you, or hear what you’ve got to say.
Like a sex offender, you violate me.
Kicking and picking and beating me badly.
Oh what a relief, now you’re gone.
Next month, the same thing, leave me alone.

I like how C. Bailey took the time to craft this poem. She actually wrote three stanzas and used a lot of rhyming and personification with a narrative point of view. I think the best line of her poem is “like a sex offender, you violate me.” It’s a physical and visual way for readers to be immediately connected to the way her body feels at that time. She goes into detail about how that feels – physically and then with a “relief” the torment is over. She uses her narrative tongue to paint a girl in physical pain. She has an easy way that makes a person comfortable and that is inviting to readers. The wonderful thing about this poem is that she felt comfortable enough to read the poem out loud in a classroom full of boys, who may or may not be sensitive to their sisters, moms, or girlfriends who go through this particular cycle. When reading this poem, C. Bailey, was not shy. Her voice was loud and clear and her stance was very bold. She was shaking her head from side to side and looked directly in the eyes of her audience.

I really like how C. Bailey used her writing as healing in this piece. She was not afraid and like a bird she felt free enough to let go. Her voice tells the story and she lets everything flow in a concentrated way. She had a beat within her soul and she let it be revealed as we soaked in her melody. Within this poem she let her heart and soul come together in way to say, “Hey, so what I got a period! I’m still beautiful anyway.” I felt that this poem was a way for her to tell that boy who pushed her away because of her period – that she doesn’t care about him not wanting her because of the “hoe” he chose. As a young lady who has to battle boys who change their minds at the drop of a dime, she chose to say that it was okay anyway. That despite her menstrual cycle, she still was okay with being a girl. And the fact that she was comfortable about putting her story out there, made me feel like I did my job as an educator.

A Healing Heart
Vivian’s poem was the one poem that caught the total class off guard. It was one of those ‘sleeper’ poems that deleted your previous thoughts from the funnier poems we had heard in class before she spoke. And from the point where Vivian stood up in class, I knew something special was up. She stood up shyly in front of the class, but her brown eyes were serious, not playful as usual. And her voice was stern, not as comical as she normally would recite.

Inside of My Heart

With pain that’ s so agonizing to feel.
He hit me right in my heart.
While I cried like a baby.
He screamed and creamed every
mean word that could break my soul.

His voice was a song of hell
with a dash of fire.
He hit me right in my heart.
I was tortured and brutalized just by the
look of his face.
He got everything out of me until
I became erased.

My body was being used
From doing what I thought was good.
As he tugged and pulled away with my
soul.

My body could no longer fight him.
Once I realized what happened I was
bruised, beat from head to toe
looking like a stuffed turkey.

Body was cold.
Blood everywhere.
I had been abused by someone who was always
There.

Something was wrong.
I could barely see.
My heart was aching and I couldn’t even cry.
I felt like an animal steam rolled by a car.
I’ve felt this way for 4 years but now
My life is full of laughs and cheers.
What happened to me, I hope it don’t
happen to you because that feeling
feeling will make you want to die.

What I really liked about the poem is the reaction of the class. There was so much compassion and love for Vivian. One, because she is a beautiful young lady, not physically, but inside of her “heart.” What a great title for a poem that talks about how she has healed from being abused by a person she trusted. In writing and reciting this powerful poem, she trusted us with her feelings. She felt free enough in the class to risk harsh comments and opinions about this poem. For when one takes the time to share feelings put on the page, and then take it to another level by speaking the words. In reciting this poem, she has healed her soul by sharing her world with others. One of my other students said, “Vivian felt strong enough to read this poem because of you.” And my response was “What did I do.” Vivian’s friend said, “You tell the truth in your poetry and you are real. You make us want to be real in our poetry.” I responded, “that’s true.”

I was grateful and surprised at the same time for I never thought that got across to a lot of students, but you never know how you inspire your students. Most days to tell you the truth I am trying to get through my material. Hoping that they will begin to feel free in their poetry. That they will learn to develop their own voice, not mine’s. Basically I want them to soak up the poetic devices and start to create their own distinctive style.

I know that Vivian, C. Bailey and C. Green used the one poem I used as an example to tell the class different stories from different points of view.

You might wonder how you can inspire your own students to use poetry as healing for themselves. One thing that has worked really well in my class is using free verse and telling students that the poem is their “life script” that they should not “write” but explore feelings on paper. That their thoughts and opinions must drip from their brain to their pen/paper. I ask them what their inspiration and what does it feel like, taste like, sound like? I give them what my inspirations are but tell them I want them to discover their inner voice and how that voice is moved by life – by the sounding of a train, by the cry of a baby, by life.

When introducing new poems and poets in the class, I give them background on the writers, not just thrusting a poem in their hands, and making them read it. They must have the full story of the writer, tell them where the poem came from, and what made the writer discuss a particular subject matter.

Whether I used a haiku exercise, or explored Pantoums with my students, I focused on their feelings, their fears, their future. Then being open enough to let them create their own forum for discussing that feeling, fear, or future. Sometimes when we push hard on the form of the poem, students will recoil, and I find that giving them the freedom to use poetic knowledge and tools in their own way will help them to use the poems as a way to express themselves.

I love this work, this work as a poet educator and still like I have a lot to learn, only being an educator for 3 years. My students are ripe for the knowledge and open for it. Even when there are those who resist I do not take it seriously (their rejection of the materials) or the teaching style. But I am eager to come up with interesting activities that both teacher and student can enjoy.

The Expose’
With exploring feelings, emotions, and experiences and using those tools in a free verse poem about something that needs to be healed, sometimes it might be a scary thing. This is because it might be the first time that a student is being told it’s okay to express themselves in a free format where they will not be penalized. For some it can be like “cool.” For some students, you may have to spend one-on-one time and encourage them to be open and not be afraid to risk embarrassment. Especially for those students who are in Middle or High school. You are not only encouraging them to use their individuality but learning how to grow and foster their creativity in a way that will expose hidden feelings. Or opinions that may not be socially acceptable by their peers. For my students, I feel like me telling them that it was okay to be out of the ‘norm’ and to be themselves, was a free feeling for most.

With feeling more free about their own experiences and own path, they begin to develop ways to use poetry to heal themselves. Many of my students use poetry as a way to understand themselves, to try to understand the world around them, and get a new perspective.

The Healing
The more you write about a subject matter, the more comfortable you feel about that subject, and somewhere between exposing it, the healing comes. For Vivian she said that having a “strong positive black woman” as a poetry teacher helped her. She loved my energy and very good way of relating to all students in the class even those who didn’t “get it.” Also, she shared with me that she liked my little stories I shared every time I recited a new poem. I use my narrative voice to tell stories, and as a student under me, she said that she learned that it was okay to be open and keep things real with poetry. Her healing came as she got rid of negative influences and learned to love herself. She began to love herself more by writing poems that chronicled her personal journey from little hurt girl to empowered girl who loves herself and healed her soul. Not only writing assisted with this, but reconstructing her inner circle of family and friends.

The Healing Garden
If you see your students as a garden, yourself as a gardener, the poems and poets as fertilizers and water, then you have your own literary garden. As you spread the water in the garden, giving proper attention to those flowers in the garden that need to be tended to more, then you will be successful in your journey as a teacher. Sometimes you may have to reconfigure your garden to help grow those flowers, get rid of some weeds, and heal your garden with words that soul and help their young souls, you will be the greatest gardener ever.

When you shower your students with words that help them to see the beauty in their own stories, you are helping them to create a foundation for their own healing garden. Especially if they are dealing with some very heavy issues in their young lives. Whether that is being a young mother, family conflict, or just being a teen. When you tend to the garden and show them how to tend to theirs, then you are helping them to learn the tools of the trade as they navigate this thing we call life.

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