"Ifyou carry around a pen and paper, you write poems."
-Yusef Komunyakaa, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet
For the 4th-graders at Fulton Elementary School in Lancaster, poetry is an everyday pleasure. Their literacy coach, Barbara Strasko, is a nationally recognized teacher of poetry to children, and with her support and that of Principal Matthew Stem, the Writers House has been able to bring extraordinary writers to this local elementary school for one-of-a-kind workshops.
"Who knows what a Venus Flytrap is," Yusef Komunyakaa asks a small group of fourth-graders assembled in the school's cheerful library. After a moment, he explains the flower physically -- and them metaphorically. "It's what we're attracted to, but don't really understand," he says. "And that's what poetry is about."
To illustrate the point, he recites in a rich yet deferential tone the beginning of a poem he had started that morning. Then heinvites the students to finish it. "Sometimes, if we are half-way lucky, we may stumble and glimpse goodness in the face of a stranger," -- the students wrote about peace, flowers, angst, and even existential musings: "What is goodness..." one boy wondered.
When the exercise is finished, and everyone has shared, the students demand something else from Komunyakaa. How do you know what to write, they want to know.
"I hear people telling each other secrets," Komunyakaa says.
Komunyakaa's visit to the Fulton School is part of the Writers House's long-standing Writers in the Schools program, which also has included award-winning poet and Guggenheim Fellow Naomi Shihab Nye, Ryan Harty, author of a prize-winning collection of short stories, and many others. In addition to bringing in eminent writers, Writers House sends Franklin & Marshall students to intern with Strasko and the kids. "Barbara's students are incredible young poets, and I was honored to have the opportunity to work with them," says Madison Kille ‘11, a Writers House student in the program.
Now, "Writers in the Schools" goes to High School. Last February, novelist, short-story writer and National Book Award nominee Ken Kalfus read from his novel, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, and spoke to an enthusiastic group of 70 gifted students from McCaskey High School. Liaison Sharon Dietz, Enrichment Coordinator at McCaskey, is primed to partner with Writers House again next year, as well as to help develop a Creative Writing mentorship program between McCaskey and Writers House.
At the same time, Writers House plans to continue engaging with the city's younger students. As Naomi Shihab Nye said during her presentation to a packed auditorium at the Fulton School: "I found out at six, something magical happens when you put words on a page."