Clark students help middle schoolers find their voices through poetry, art

In Our Own Words Program partners with Worcester's Claremont Academy
May 8, 2017

For three hours each week, Clark University students bring a world of poetry into Worcester classrooms — with the impact extending far beyond the city limits.

The In Our Own Words program pairs Clark undergraduates with 25 seventh, eighth and ninth graders from Claremont Academy to translate poetry from around the world into English and to create art based on their interpretations. Most of the middle-school students speak a language other than English at home.

The program, which began as a First Year Intensive (FYI) course in fall 2013, quickly became a successful after-school program. It has spread within and outside of Worcester, as far away as Philadelphia.

Sarah Michaels sits at a desk with a middle-school student and talks to her about poetry
Professor Sarah Michaels works with a
Claremont Academy student on poetry.

The core group of student leaders who help run In Our Own Words are Celia Ringland ’17, Rachel Hedgepath ’17, Despoina Lioliou ’17, Cole Silva ’17, and Margaret Foster ’18. Professor Sarah Michaels of Clark’s Jacob Hiatt Center for Urban Education is the faculty adviser.

In addition, three faculty from the Language, Literature and Culture Department — Dolores Juan-Moreno, visiting assistant professor of Spanish; Odile Ferly, associate professor of Francophone Studies; and Belén Atienza, associate professor of Spanish — and undergraduates enrolled in a seminar course also help plan and run the program. The course is offered in both fall and spring.

“Fall courses are typically devoted to planning and organizing the spring renditions of the program, while spring classes run the 10-week-long after-school program that take place at Clark during this semester,” Foster says. “Additionally, undergraduates use In Our Own Words as a research site to explore intersections between such themes as cultural identities, language, meaning and community.”

Michaels describes In Our Own Words as “an intellectually ambitious program linking the humanities and literacy development” that helps Main South youth “develop powerful public and creative voices through poetry analysis and through their own poetry and artwork.”

The key to transforming In Our Own Words from a Clark course into a creative literary program was the implementation of the Poetry Inside Out program at Claremont Academy.

Poetry Inside Out, developed by the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco, gives students a space to translate the work of leading poets.

“Poetry Inside Out seeks to empower students of all ages and at all levels of English language proficiency through encouraging literacy skills while fostering innovation and creativity, and helps build a community dedicated to collaboration and compassionate listening,” Foster says.

In Our Own Words on YouTube

Watch a YouTube video of Clark students working with seventh and eighth graders at Claremont Academy in Worcester.

At the end of each In Our Own Words program, the Claremont Academy and Clark students create self-portraits and write original poems. Their final artwork is then exhibited.

In Our Own Words received a $6,500 grant from Mass Humanities, as well as the Harrison grant from Clark, which was matched by the Hiatt Center for Urban Education. Additional support comes from the Clinton Global Initiative University, the President’s Office at Clark University, and Clark’s Visual and Performing Arts Department.

“Mass Humanities was particularly interested because In Our Own Words is creating new audiences for the humanities — recruiting youth who typically do not have the opportunity to engage in such deep discussions about the human condition and also involving their teachers, families and members of the Main South community in a public art exhibit of these students’ work,” Michaels says.

Program organizers are now submitting a grant proposal for long-term funding to make the program self-sustaining.

In Our Own Words has caught the eye of other Worcester teachers, as well as teachers beyond the city who wish to implement it in their own classrooms.

“After our last trip to the Ethnography in Education conference in Philadelphia, the program got picked up in the Philadelphia school system,” Silva says.  

Michaels explains, “The Philadelphia teachers were so intrigued and excited about the program that they asked the Center for the Art of Translation to run a workshop for a large number of Philadelphia Writing Project teachers in the summer of 2015 — particularly teachers who work with English learners. Through this, Worcester teachers involved with Poetry Inside Out, and Philadelphia teachers, are beginning to connect around their work.”

The program also has created research opportunities for Clark students and inspired multiple LEEP projects, in collaboration with Claremont Academy seniors, around the expression of language and personal identity in poetry and art, Silva says.

Clark students have presented their research at the Ethnography in Education Research Forum at the University of Pennsylvania, the New England Undergraduate Sociology Research Conference at Bryant University, the American Educational Research Association conference, and at Clark’s Academic Spree Day and Fall Fest, Foster says.

“This element of ‘effective practice’ is very much in line with Clark’s LEEP initiative — providing real-world experience for undergraduates,” Michaels says. “This experience engages them in work of consequence both for Main South middle school students and for the broader field of education.”

In Our Own Words challenges the “deficit perspective” that is predominant in many classrooms nationwide.

“This perspective views students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds as hindrances to be overcome in the educative process, rather than resources to be used to enhance the process,” Silva says. “In Our Own Words actively draws on those resources, too often repressed, to help students learn in new ways and create a learning environment from which everyone can benefit.”

Above, Despoina Lioliou ’17 works with a middle-school student.

(All photos by Mitchell Gamache '17)