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


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