Monday, June 9, 2014

Reflection on a Poetry residency

Reflection on a Poetry residency at Winston Churchill Elementary School, Fairfield, NJ
by Anndee Hochman

On my final day at Churchill Elementary in Fairfield, I gathered each class into a circle. We’d begun the week that way—a fidgety ring of 5th-graders listening as I recited “Arbol de Limón” in Spanish and English, then talked about the magical power of poetry to make pictures inside your head. But now, after four days of writing, I wanted to hear from them.

“When you think about this week—about this time of making poems together—what one word comes to mind?” I asked. “Creative,” said one boy. “Detail.” “Alliteration.” “Funny.” “Imagination.”

One serious girl standing near me said “More.” When everyone had spoken, she raised her hand. “Do you want to know why I said ‘more’? It’s because I want to write more and more poems.”

I started to speak and found myself blinking back tears. “You don’t need me to write poems,” I said. “You have the tools now. You can do it on your own. You can write poems anywhere and everywhere. And I hope you will, because the world needs to hear your voices.”

Yes, the world needs to hear from the quiet girl in the front seat, wild bush of hair nearly shielding her eyes, who wrote, “Loss is like a bullet through your heart,” and the one who wrote, “Love is an open door. Love smells like 1,000 roses.”

Before I came, they’d been writing fill-in-the-blank poetry—worksheets on rhyme and meter that gave them starting words to construct their own cinquains and diamante poems. I taught them some strategies—compression, simile, repetition, personification—and set them loose.

The school was skeptical. I could feel it in the principal’s handshake, in the lead teacher’s insistence that I focus on “style and voice” because that’s what middle school teachers claim is lacking in students’ writing. Churchill is a high-achieving place; no one wants to mess with a winning formula.

But you can’t snuff the creative urge. Even the lead teacher found herself writing along with the students, creating a “Where I’m From” poem that captured the details of her raucous, much-adored Italian family. “I read it to my aunt last night,” she told me the next day. “I sent it to a bunch of relatives. They loved it!”

She stood in that final circle, too, a writer who had spent the week alongside her students, composing and revising and listening. Her word? “Impressed.”

For more than 20 years, Anndee Hochman has helped writers of all ages locate the touchstones of their lives and shape them into powerful memoirs and poems. She has worked in schools, juvenile detention centers, senior centers and after-school programs. Her articles and essays appear frequently in The Philadelphia Inquirer,, Purple Clover, Brain Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and elsewhere. She is the creator of Heart & Craft: A Memoir Workshop for Women, which will take place in November 2014 on Mexico's Pacific coast. More information at

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

At the Core of a NJWP Basic Residency

Four Days of Wide, Deep, & Thoughtful Engagment with the World
by Shelley Benaroya

 “The first virtue of a painting is to be a feast for the eyes.”

– Eugene Delacroix

For Delacroix, the 19th century French Romantic painter, art’s greatest virtue may be the sustenance it provided him for higher-level thinking. He is said to have fed his hungry eyes, his mind and imagination on paintings by Rubens and Tintoretto, the music of Mozart, the writings of Goethe, Hugo, Walter Scott, and the poems of Shakespeare, Poe, and Lord Bryon.

This grand tradition of engaging with works of art is known in poetry as ekphrasis (the Greek ek for “out of” + phrasis for “expression”). For a young language artist, a work of art can stop you in your tracks, confound you with questions, cause you to speculate on not just what’s there, but what isn’t. It can inspire the very best kind of writing, the kind that—in the words of poet Lucille Clifton—“comes out of wonder, not out of knowing.”

This November, as part of a New Jersey Writers Project four-day basic residency, the third graders from South Mountain School in Millburn, New Jersey, set out to explore with me how poets throughout the centuries have used art as a springboard for speculation, meditation, and reflection.

The young poets of Mrs. Falco's 3rd grade class and me.

Some back story: For the past ten years, South Mountain, one of five elementary schools in the district, has incorporated a NJWP basic residency into their 3rd grade curriculum. Creative expression has always held a valued place here. A larger-than-life, eco-sculpture students built last year stands at the front door. Ceramic installations,  framed student art work and creative writing line the hallways. Before the school day even begins, the sound of young musicians practicing fills the air.

Over the course of the seven years I’ve been invited as their writer-in-residence, we’ve explored themes ranging from “Where Does Poetry Come From?”, “Guide to the Writer’s Body,” “The Brain on Poetry,” “Poetry & Dream,” and “The Art of Seeing.” Last year, with adoption of the new Common Core State Standards for English & Language Arts, we focused on writing realistic fiction with a four-day residency entitled “That’s the Way the Story Goes: Writing Stories That Matter.”

This year, 3rd grade teachers Erin Falco, Tara Filippini, and Karin Odell will  use our four-day residency “Poetry & The Art of Speculation” as a way to introduce, reinforce, and practice essential common core standards for narrative writing:

·         construction of real or imagined experiences
·         organizing an event sequence that unfolds naturally
·         description using precise, vivid language and concrete, sensory detail.

Scheduling the residency early in the school year is important to teachers. Students get a heads-up this way on creative problem-solving. Strategies such as “finding similitude in dissimiltude” (Aristotle’s definition of metaphor/analogy)—a concept they’ll need to master in middle and high school—get introduced. The NJWP residency helps establish a classroom environment that nurtures a “wide, deep and thoughtful engagement” with the world.

Day One:
Early Sunday Morning by Edward Hopper (1930) @ The Whitney Museum of American Art
We contemplate Edward Hopper’s deserted cityscape Early Sunday Morning and pose the essential question: “Where is everyone?” Students are invited to use their writer’s body (all five senses, head and heart) to bring the street to life with sights, sounds, and activity. You can hear “a worm squirm” writes Zachary in “Silence Street.”Another student gives us a tour of “Time Street” where he lives above the barbershop and the toy store next door has “clocks and gears, wind-up toys and a clock tower that goes clockity-ever-after.”

Day Two:
Constellation – Morning Star by Joan Miro (1942) @ Miro Foundation, Barcelona Spain
Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci teaches us the art of metaphor-making and helps us see Constellation: The Morning Star, one of 23 small paintings Joan Miro completed during World War II, in new ways.  Students are challenged to “surprise themselves” by adding fresh details to each metaphor they create. Using his imagination, Bryson sees “a crab that had just washed up on the shore, a house burning down.” Stars in the night sky, for Rebecca, look like “a big spider crawling up a volcano as it erupts, . . . a cane that an old man uses.” Colors attract Ellie's eyes. In her poem (see below), she discovers “a pink pig the color of a sunset” and “a shark that has a black and blue spot on its fin,”  In Scott’s beautifully-shaped poem “Pictures in the Sky,” (see below), he sees “a parrot on a stand partly in the shade” and  “two puppets having a strange conversation."

Day Three:
Ancient Greek Poet With Lyre @ National Archeological Museum in Naples, Italy
We spend time today exploring the history of poetry and its connection to song, dance, and performance at the ancient Greek Olympics. Strategies on how to shape a poem into lines and stanzas are shared. The Roman sculpture above, once owned by Cosimo de’Medici, inspires us to write our own odes—songs of celebration and praise in the tradition of the ancient lyric poet Pindar.

Victoria, in her “Ode to Millburn” sings of “the moon shining brightly” and “teachers humming while checking tests.” In “Ode to My Big Brother Nasim,” Saeed honors his brother’s athleticism and ability to make peace: “His glorious moment was when/ two kids were fighting and he broke them apart./ He taught me never to bully.”

In Carli’s tribute to her mother “My Mom Is My Hero”, she closes with these lines:

“You are the one who told me,
‘It doesn’t matter if people call you a nerd or a book worm.
Deep down inside, you know who you really are.’”

Here some of our poets perform their odes with the help of their own Greek chorus:


Day Four:
Sudden Shower Over Shin Ohashi Bridge & Atake by Utagawa Hiroshige (1858) @ The Brooklyn Museum
Today, we try our hand at composing Japanese five-line tankas connecting us to the natural world pictured in a Utagawa Hiroshige woodblock print.

I’m always astounded at how this simple form inspires fresh insight and deep personal connection for young writers. Here’s a sample of the work that came out of this writing invitation:


A bridge, like a big sideways tree trunk
The bridge
trying to resist the challenging over flow of rain
I think of the time
I climbed a tree at my friend’s house.


Black but fluffy
holding colossal raindrops
and letting them go
Just like a shadow
of a giant tree.

Students like Grace and Gael take the challenge of finding their “ahaa moment” in Hiroshige’s work and develop longer pieces:

CLOUDS by Grace

In sight are dark clouds in the sky
spreading across swiftly.
I suspect if darkness falls,
the sky will be a bottle of ink.
The night sky will be blank darkness
and the moon and stars will only shine.
I wonder if clouds cover the moon and stars,
the sky will be black as a cat’s fur.


The dark sky summons
metallic black clouds as they shoot down on the
bridge, ocean, and
everything else in sight
as if furious
at the people.
A poor rafter caught at
sea tries to escape
to land.

Gaël brought in a poem one day that he wrote outside of class, at home. It integrates lush sensory detail (using your whole writer’s body: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, head & heart) as well as metaphor--concepts introduced on the first and second days of the residency:
The sun’s rays shine beautifully on the earth,
creating the metallic night sky
as a dragon of air struggles
through the rustling trees.
The ocean crashes and bubbles on the bristly sand
as small crabs hurry home
being cautious not to get washed away.

You can hear the canyons and mountains calling.
The animals glide across the dirt and dust
as a bird sings, its flock flying over the grassy meadows.
The shadows of the moon seem to come down
as large beautiful fires glimmer
brighter than usual.

And as the rain falls, it dresses the grass with a skirt of water.
You can still hear fish struggling through the current.
You can hear dogs howling.
There is an aurora of unspeakable colors
as the sky seems to open up its wings.
The sky is now calm and rested and ready for a new day.
The sun is now sweetly shining down
telling us it is time to awaken.

Preparing for the Final Project:

To celebrate and honor the hard work students do over the course of  our four days together, each NJWP residency concludes with a culminating project: a bound anthology, a reading/performance, a visual/media & literary arts project, or a community service project. 

On the last day of the residency, we spend time talking about selecting and revising (seeing with new eyes) our strongest, most meaningful work for the anthology students will publish. We talk briefly about the art of performance, how—in the words of Cynthia Rylant—you want to read your poem to “take their breath away.”

In the weeks that follow, teachers will give their students time to revise their work, proof, edit and shape it into the made thing that a poem is. At South Mountain, the anthology that comes out this process—a creative collaboration of students, teachers and parents alike—is itself a work of art:

On Friday morning, December 13th, family and friends were invited to the book launch of the 2013 edition of the South Mountain’s Third Grade Poetry Anthology. Each student got a chance to share his/her favorite poem, as well as present a copy of the anthology to their family for the holidays.      
What makes these NJWP residencies so exciting for me is seeing how in four short days, each young writer—the child with special needs, the gifted student, as well as everyone in between—gets a chance to problem-solve as artists do, tap creative resources essential for success, and shine in the spotlight.

Rewarding, too, is the partnering that takes place between teacher and teaching artist as we present the big picture to young writers like Gaël,  “that aurora of unspeakable colors as the sky opens its wings.” Each NJWP residency and the concepts it introduces becomes a platform for “the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagment with the world” that can continue long after the residency is over.

Shelley Benaroya, a published writer, poet and certified English teacher, has been a New Jersey Writers Project and NJSCA teaching artist since 2000.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Residency sites for 2013-2014

The New Jersey Writers Project is the cornerstone of arts education programming at Playwrights Theatre of NJ. In addition to basic residencies of 4 and 8 days, various sub-projects provide residencies in special populations, geographic regions, and other sites. This year we have programs in the following schools:

  • Arthur Stanlick School, Jefferson Twp.
  • Arts HS, Newark
  • Branch Brook ES, Newark
  • Chatham MS
  • Cherry Hill HS East
  • The Cranbury School
  • Creative & Performing Arts HS, Camden
  • Drum Point Road ES, Brick Twp.
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower MS, Wyckoff
  • G. Harold Antrim School, Point Pleasant Beach
  • H & M Potter ES, Berkeley Twp.
  • Harmony Township ES
  • Harrington Park ES
  • Hazelwood ES, Middlesex
  • Hugh J. Boyd MS, Seaside Heights
  • John F. Kennedy HS, Newark
  • Lafayette ES, Chatham
  • Lincoln-Hubbard ES, Summit
  • Mill Pond ES, Lanoka Harbor/Lacey Twp.
  • Park Ridge HS
  • Pines Lake ES, Wayne
  • Salt Brook ES, New Providence
  • South Mountain ES, Millburn
  • St. Cloud ES, West Orange
  • Sussex Avenue ES, Newark
  • Union County Academy for the Performing Arts, Scotch Plains
  • Winston Churchill ES, Fairfield

Friday, February 21, 2014

Introducing the NJWP blog!

Pines Lake ES (Wayne) students w/teaching artist Meredith Sue Willis
For many years the NJ Writers Project has engaged students throughout the state in creative writing residencies primarily in poetry, prose, and playwriting. These dynamic programs are experienced by a variety of participants whose experiences have been documented in a series of evaluations and narratives that are not often shared with the public. This blog will provide us with a forum through which to share some of those stories. Stay tuned!

Anthology cover page from Lincoln Hubbard ES (Summit).
Clara B. Worth ES (Bayville) students.