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.