Arts and Urban Youth: Sarah Green on teaching poetry to at-risk youth
Urban arts programs often build confidence and agency among youth who are disheartened by — or disconnected from — public schools. Starting today, and over the next few weeks, we’ll be presenting a series on Art and Urban Youth, featuring interviews with leaders in this field. At a time when education is being shaped by a rigid test-taking culture, these educators often succeed in eliciting a sense of inquiry and belonging among their students.
Sarah Green is a poet and singer-songwriter who has worked as a teaching artist, ESL teacher, and writing teacher with youth in community settings since 2002. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Purdue University and her BA from Oberlin College. We sat down with Sarah to discuss what strategies have been most successful in her work with youth.
Dowser: How did you get started working with youth?
Green: I started out as a volunteer poetry instructor [in Michael Dowling’s public art organization Medicine Wheel in South Boston, offering] a kind of break for teen employees from the intensive landscaping and building they were doing [in an abandoned lot] behind South Boston High.
Why do you think that writing is an effective tool in working with at-risk youth?
On one hand, writing is intensely personal and revelatory, which means it can feel good to do it when you’re hurting. On the other hand, there’s an amount of remove and a persona of voice that’s possible in writing that can protect youth who might want that protection for a variety of reasons. In writing poetry, a young person might learn for the first time that he has the power to move other people. In writing fiction, she might learn that she has the power to decide what happens to her. On the collective level, shared writing allows all of us to find commonalities that are absolute surprises and delights.
What strategies do you bring to working with at-risk youth?
I try to learn my audience very well, gear my lessons as much as possible to their actual values and lives, make room for individual choice within collective requirements, and give the same amount of respect that I ask for. I also try to keep a sense of humor. When all else fails, I sing.
Tell me about one of your favorite classes or workshops.
Writing erasure poems — where participants take an existing text and erase out words until they have a poem made from the words left — with a group of teen girls in recovery from substance abuse was one of the most beautiful classes I’ve ever been part of. Poetry was meant for teenage girls. They understand it. The poem that blew them away, I still remember, was Antonio Machado’s ‘Last Night As I Was Sleeping’, which is all about second chances, tenderness and forgiveness.
How do you know when you are successful?
When a formerly disengaged teen stays in the classroom during his free lunch hour to continue working on a poem with me, or when a quiet or overlooked child amazes the grown-ups with her poem’s insight, I feel successful.
What led you to this kind of work?
My mom is a child psychiatrist and public health researcher and because of a nonprofit she started I’ve spent a lot of time around youth with diverse backgrounds. Exposure to various subcultures of teens made me more open to traveling to South Boston, which was previously unknown to me, and practicing poetry with youth, some of whom were court or gang-involved. Both of my parents have inspiring records of creatively delivering resources to under-served communities, so in a way I was searching for my niche in that ‘family business.’
Which youth arts organization do you like and what are they doing right?
826 Boston, a youth writing center in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, has always been a blast for me because the kids want to be there and have signed up for specific, varied workshops that I’m teaching. I think what sets 826s apart is their devotion to creativity and play, to the wild chaos of ‘making things up,’ the adventure of being an artist or a writer. You can see that energy nourishing kids in front of your eyes like a delicious arts education smoothie.
What do you wish you had known when you first began working with youth?
I wish I had known how much they would remember of what I said and how much it mattered to some of them. I was distracted by wondering if I was doing things right, and I wish I’d skipped over that part of things faster and focused on reveling in our shared time.
Ever wanted to quit?
What keeps me going is hearing from youth that our interactions mattered, or watching my encouragement of a student almost miraculously change her investment in herself, or hearing youth talk about how unsupported they feel in many areas of their academic life. Looked at one way, this work is almost ridiculously easy, if two or three encouraging words can make that much difference in a young person’s outlook. I think the biggest thing I needed to learn is that I won’t be able to reach everybody, and if I waste my energy going after every disengaged youth who’s loosely put in my care, I will not have energy left to give to the motivated students. However, I work hard to resist assuming too early what motivation looks like and what’s possible—in my students and myself.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Green