Ink sheds, veggie wraps and 10,000 poets

Professor Andrew Titus, the man behind the operation, during one of his classes at St Thomas University (Nathan Paton/AQ)
Professor Andrew Titus, the man behind the operation, during one of his classes at St Thomas University (Nathan Paton/AQ)

Years ago, St. Thomas University English professor Andrew Titus did a presentation for teachers about poetry and “the power that it might potentially wield when taught in a certain way to school aged children.”

A George Street Middle School teacher invited Titus to present the same idea to Grade 8 students. Titus sat down with him and together they worked out a plan. Soon STU english students started visiting local middle schools to hold poetry workshops.

“Everyone has felt alienated or different at one time, probably [during] middle school. Poetry is the weapon used in defence of one’s own life,” Titus says.

“Poetry offers them a vehicle for learning what they really think and believe, and performance gives them the soapbox upon which they can stand and proclaim their identity, authority and truth to the world.”

***

Kathleen Groves is one of the students going to George Street Middle School and Bliss Carmen Middle School. Every time, she says, their hour-long workshops are different. Sometimes, they get the students to “ink shed,” writing down anything that comes to mind in a certain time to later turn it into poetry. Another day, they made “veggie wraps” with the kids.

“We taught them a little bit how to do ‘wrap’ [which is] like spoken word poetry. And we decided, because they always talk about food in the end really with a lot of poetry. So, we told them to write about veggies and then turned [the poems] to ‘veggie wraps.’”

Groves says many of the middle school poets have come out of their shell and gained more confidence in their writing and performance. Last December, the STU poets got the young teenagers to do a poetry slam with their own work during their Christmas assembly in the school cafeteria.

“The teachers are loving it. There’s actually one boy who, before we came in, wasn’t interested in school at all. He barely did any work in his other classes. He just wasn’t motivated in doing it.” says Groves.

“Now he’s working more in his classes and is really showing an interest. And before he didn’t read at all, but now that we’re there, Andrew actually has suggested a book for him to read and now he’s reading. So it’s shown so much growth already.”

Groves, a poetry lover and writer herself, hopes the middle school students continue writing.

“[My goal is] just to get them to really try full-heartedly and to learn from it. To realize that it’s not something that’s measurable by whether you’re the best at it or the poorest at it. It’s just, it’s your art form, it’s your ability and it’s only that you can enjoy. And it can carry through your day-to-day life.”

***

In the years to come, Titus will adapt the project to the schools’ plans and to the number of STU poets he will have. His ultimate goal, he says, came from a chance encounter.

“A few years ago, I ran into a local legendary musician named Nic DeVries on the street. He asked me what I had been up to, so I told him about the poetry project. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I always loved teaching music in the schools! You know, I think that over the years I taught 10,000 kids how to at least pluck out a tune, and that’s bound to make the world a little bit of a better place.’ In that moment, it all fell together for me – we are going to make 10,000 poets. No problem.”

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