Reflection & Celebration – A Collaborative Anthology of Student Poetry

Jeff SchwartzBy Jeff Schwartz (Greenwich Academy), Sallie F. (Student, Germantown Friends School) and Gurutam (Goo) T., (Student, The Harker School). Compiled & edited by Eric Hudson, GOA Dean of Instruction

What makes a great online learning assessment? We asked students and a teacher to tell us the story of one particularly successful project:

Collaborative Anthologies in Global Voices: Poetry Writing

From the teacher, Jeff Schwartz of Greenwich Academy: I knew all along that I wanted to have students create their own poetry anthologies.  I’ve done variations of this in my brick-and-mortar classes; it concludes a unit or year of looking at poetry (and developing as readers, writers, and thinkers), but it’s also about putting students in charge of their own learning.  In addition to the selection of poems, they have to articulate a manifesto– a statement of poetics — that clearly and passionately (and with examples) proclaims what they look for in poetry.

This normally independent project evolved, in response to student surveys and my own development as an online teacher, into a collaborative project.  It could still include the original selection, statement of poetics, and multimedia components, but instead of being a solitary task, it grew into a collaboration between two partners.

Jeff paired Sallie of Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, PA and Gurutam (Goo) of the Harker School in San Jose, CA.

Jeff: Before students “met,” they had to post their top 20 poetry selections.  That meant that when they “met,” they had to negotiate the selections down to a mutually satisfying top 20 (plus optional visual & verbal media, etc)…  Goo and Sallie had clearly clicked in their earlier work together. It showed in their poems and in their other comments on the paradox of growing intimacy through distance learning.

From Sallie: We used emails to organize meeting times for Google Hangouts, or video chats, where we worked together to pick our poem selections and put together the anthology. For me, a favorite part was a cross-continental guitar jam session we had during one of our Hangouts.

From Goo: I play guitar, and when I’m in a band and the other parts are off working their stuff while I’m just sitting around, I’ll start playing a little tune to keep myself busy. That tune is “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix, and it just happens to be Sallie’s favorite song. I ended up playing it absentmindedly while she was talking once, and she stopped on a dime to listen to my guitar. Then she ran and pulled out her Tele[caster guitar] and began playing the song with me. Any discussion regarding the actual assignment ceased at that point.

Sallie: The manifesto has so much of our actual voices in it, and it captures our relationship perfectly. Plus, it was an interesting structure that I had never worked with before.

Goo: Looking back, I don’t really remember how we wrote it. I think Sallie just sent me her part and I filled in the blanks between. But I’m surprised at how it wasn’t really about the poetry (though we still did cover all the points of the poetic journey) as much as the story of two strangers whose lives briefly intersected, transforming them into interstate poetry pals. I think the manifesto managed to capture our interaction clearly and truthfully.

Listen to Sallie read her letter poem

Jeff: I was blown away by Sallie and Goo’s project.  Just a few examples: 1) they were clearly engaged in the project and cared about each other as well as the poems, 2) they included their own poems as well as those of published poets (a goal of any writing course for students to see themselves as writers both in a class community and in the larger literary world), 3) they expanded the boundaries [of the project] by creating imaginative categories, using a wide variety of visual, verbal, and oral media (in addition to poems, there are songs, visual art, video), 4) they played with the wiki pages, altering columns and inserting a wide variety of stimulating material that was still easy to read on a screen.

Sallie: Mostly, Mr. Schwartz gave us a lot of freedom with the project, which was great as it allowed us to really explore ourselves as poets.

Goo: I think Mr. Schwartz’s honest support helped me along greatly. I’ve come to him several times when I was unhappy with something I’d written, and he’d impartially discuss what worked and what didn’t.

Jeff: I wrote immediately after reading their project:

I just finished reading your duet, your cross-continental thought process, your collaborative manifesto.  And I had to write immediately—because what you’ve created is so exciting! This isn’t just an intro to a terrific selection of poems; it’s a creative work in itself. As a matter of fact, I could see it published in a journal that values language, emotion, pioneering technological exchanges, thinking, and strong voices. It’s a long poem, an unconventional essay, a truly remarkable work. It sounds spoken & spontaneous, which makes me hesitant to even touch/edit because it feels alive.

In your statement, you’re exploring how words (& art & music) connect us.  There’s a lively, honest conversation that DOES what it says.  It’s visceral and cerebral [their words]. It sings. It’s authentic. This is what I look for in poetry.

I suppose I could have written something like that for my conventional classes, but I wouldn’t have typed and sent this kind of immediate feedback. And I’m still trying to figure this out — there’s a different kind of immediacy and intimacy that happens electronically.  There’s the possibility — as Sallie and Goo demonstrate — to open up in ways that might not happen in a conventional classroom.

My biggest concern for online learning was that the community we create online cannot duplicate a classroom environment, particularly a poetry workshop that depends so much on mutual trust and personal risk-taking. Goo and Sallie’s project shows that we can create that kind of learning and intimacy I was hoping for.

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