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No Song Left Unsung

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At InsideOut Literary Arts Project we witness each day the way the voices of Detroit's young people reshape and strengthen our community. The backbone of InsideOut is a cadre of dedicated creative writers who, year after year, in classrooms all across Detroit, put pencils into children's hands to help them find their songs and tell their stories. Click here for this year's roster. Writers like Peter Markus, a native Detroiter who has been a writer-in-residence with InsideOut since Day One, whose encouragement goes straight to the heart.

"Your words," Pete tells students, "can and do make a difference. They can change your life, or my life, of even the life of someone you will probably never even meet who reads your poem or story, or just a single sentence written from the core of your heart. In this life, here in this city... you can leave a mark."

More than ever, youth across Detroit need the empowerment and confidence to know that their words, their lives matter. "A city that cannot put into words what makes its experience unique to its time and place,'' says Peter, "is a city destined to explode." Fortunately, the students we see have learned to enjoy the art of exploding on the page. Click here to see how and why this happens.

Our youths' courage inspires and emboldens me to show others what the children of Detroit are capable of with words. It's the largest part of why I agreed to submit a chapter to a forthcoming anthology Creative Writing in the Community featuring youth writing programs around the country, edited by poet Terry Ann Thaxton, Director of the University of Central Florida's Literary Arts Partnership. I am, like Thaxton, eager to show how InsideOut averts the silences, the submission and the inevitable explosions that Peter describes when "children are too often told Not right now. Or, Quiet down. Or, I'm not listening. Or even, Shut up." I want my chapter to show what the writers of InsideOut do to make sure that the songs of our children do not go unsung.

To remind me of unsung songs, I keep in my office the framed cover of one of InsideOut's many literary magazines (over 330 published since we began in 1995), this one titled The Blue Monster -- a framed furry three-legged creature with great big teeth, many carefully rendered toenails and other protrusions that casts a mysterious blue shadow behind it. Its joyful ferocity reminded me of its creator, Rahfael, a 3rd grader at Stewart Elementary some years ago, through whom I first learned of the special education classification POHI--Physically and Otherwise Health Impaired. Because of severe language impairment, Rahfael had been placed in special education classes where he was languishing and misbehaving. As the story went, his guardians had fed him nothing but baby food for his first five years, leading to undeveloped musculature that left him unable to articulate consonants and thus to communicate.

Once Rahfael's intelligence was discovered -- he had a great aptitude for maps, for example -- he was placed in the classroom of a veteran teacher who hosted in her classroom that year a poet from InsideOut. Poetry and art gave Rahfael an outlet. Stewart's magazine featured his art on its cover as well as his poem, "The Dragon Fired Career Day," and at the school's year-end gala Rahfael performed that poem at full voice, forcefully punching the air with his hands, while InsideOut writer Anita Schmaltz pointed to the poem's words, writ large on an easel pad, so the other children could follow along.

Anita loves circuses, and she emcee'd the children's performances wearing clown shoes and a huge orange wig. InsideOut writers go to some lengths to take writing out of the ordinary classroom routine and into the imagination. Suzanne Scarfone's Poetry Palace starts each visit with a chime, calling for silence. Then the children stand and chant a poem together before entering the creative realm. From nautical poetic journeys navigated by "Cap'n" Robert Fanning to weekly airline trips steered by poetic pilots-in-residence Darrel Holnes and George Ramos, students in IO classrooms journey through their imaginations. Some writers seem to have a penchant for dress-up. In addition to the aforementioned pilots' and cap'ns' caps, visits to IO classrooms have found our teaching poets sporting bunny ears or fairy wings. Children in Peter Markus's classes use their "Magic Pencils" as spyglasses to peer imaginatively into their lives. "Mr. Pete" carries a beat-up pencil in his pocket as a talisman, a reminder, no -- not a reminder -- the very thing, his very first pencil, his origin story of looking up into the sky through a pencil when he was a boy and finding a new world of words. Click here to hear Mr. Pete at work with kids.

I am proud that InsideOut attracts talented writers like Pete and Anita, and I'm happy that they find joy and fulfillment in bringing the beauty of Detroit youth out into the world. As former InsideOut writer Stacy Parker Aab, author of Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House, noted on my last post here, "I've had some fancy experiences in my life but nothing beats the feeling of standing in the back of the classroom after a well-prepared lesson and every student in every seat is writing." Click here for words from our beloved David Blair (now of blessed memory) in an interview following InsideOut's May 2011 showcase, which he emceed in one of his last public appearances.

Rahfael's story put me in mind of another youngster, Kallen, a second grader whom Peter Markus picked out of a forest of eagerly waving hands to stand and read his words for at the end of class one day. It was early in the year, only Pete's first or second session with the children, so when Kallen stood and fluently poured out his long string of sentences, Pete was quite pleased. Kallen's teacher, however, was "blown away." "You don't know what just happened," she said. I'll let Pete -- describing himself as "the writer" -- pick up the story here.

The writer suspected that the teacher was pleased, as was he, with the amount of writing that the kids produced: the vivid details, for one, the sense of invention that stood like a bright light at the center of these young writers' lives. "Yeah, they did a great job," the writer told the teacher. "When you tell a child that you'll believe whatever they say, that's when they embrace the notion that anything is possible."

The teacher shook her head and grinned. "That's not what I'm talking about," she said. "I'm talking about Kallen. He never speaks in front of the class." This the writer couldn't believe. "He did a great job." The teacher shook her head again. "You don't even know... Kallen has a very severe stutter." The writer shook his head. "But he read beautifully. It was almost like he was singing."

The miracles of moments like this are repeated time and again with Detroit children in InsideOut classrooms as they discover the words that connect with and explain their worlds. These moments stay with us writers. As with my last blog entry, I end with a miracle from my own teaching. I remember Lawan as dependable and quiet, and very self-contained -- the kind of kid who doesn't say much and doesn't let you know whether or not you are reaching him at all. So when he wrote this poem, as we were exploring the emotional effects of various colors and writing poems about that, my heart leapt up. His words do what we want all our students' words to do. As Mr. Pete says, they make a difference.

JUST LIKE ME

Black describes me.
My moods, my personality.
Black is a color that everyone likes.
Black is subtle.
Not too flashy, not too boring
Black is power, authority.
Black moves like air.
Close your eyes, it's everywhere.
Black's nonchalant.
Black's carefree.
Nothing phases this color.
Black's hard as steel.

Black is my best friend
Because we're both alike,
Plain, basic, understated.
Unlike red, orange or yellow
We don't brighten up a room.
We bring a coolness
That can't be produced by another.
Stone-faced is our expression.
Relaxed is our mood,
Our state of mind.
We stand alone
But we can mix
With all people, all colors.

Lawan Mitchell
11th Grade
You Hear Me? Poems and Writing by Teenage Boys
Betsy Franco (ed).
Candlewick Press, 2000