Monday, October 19, 2009

Slammin' Since '95! We Celebrate Together: Poetry Night & Other Traditions

The children are the leaves that grow.

The teachers are the branches that help the leaves
The trunk is the house that guards them,
Safe and sound.

Like baby trees we are a bud,

growing every day.

With enough nutrients we will grow,
And be in full growth someday.

But like all willows,
We will keep growing and learning the ways 

                     -Jessie Shulman, '96,  The 1995 Willows Poetry Anthology

In a dim, cozy room hung with twinkling lanterns, the poet walks up to the stage.  Perching on a stool, she holds a paper in front of her.  Appreciative listeners nod while she reads her poem.  She acknowledges their claps and cheers with a bow before heading back to her seat.

Is it a poetry slam at a trendy coffeehouse in New York City?

No.  It's Poetry Night at The Willows!

1994-1995 was a year of "firsts," a year to establish the day-to-day life of the school, to set up routines -- and to establish traditions.

"When you start a new school," recalls Lisa Rosenstein, "you're able to start from scratch with everything.  That kind of creative freedom is incredibly exciting."

In January of 1995, teachers came together to celebrate The Willows' first month of poetry.  In every classroom, children read poetry, wrote poetry and performed poetry.  "Teachers didn't limit poetry to language arts periods during the day," Lisa says.  "Poetry infused everything we did -- we brought in music and art activities, social studies, even math and science.  We were such  a small school, and we had the luxury of flexibility."

That month, The Willows also welcomed guest poet Markhum Who as the school's first poet-in-residence.  He led activities with the 5th and 6th graders that challenged them to think about poetry in a new way.

"Our class loved him," remembers Willows' teacher and alum Greg Blum, '98, who was a 6th grader that year.  "Markhum was a gifted poet -- he was really passionate and inspiring."

At the end of the month, it seemed natural to want to celebrate with a school-wide gathering and so, the first Poetry Night was born.

Poetry Night wasn't just about celebrating poetry, remembers Founder and Board Member Mark Solomon -- it was also an opportunity to bring Willows' families together.  "From the onset, Lisa was insistent that the word "community" be a part of our school's name.  it was our mission to make sure that as The Willows evolved, we created a sense of community, holding events that brought families together was of paramount importance."

With this goal in mind, Lisa and the teachers structured the evening to unite families across age groups and grade levels.  There were no class presentations that first Poetry Night, recalls Lisa, but students did break up into small groups to share poems with each other and their families, in classrooms that had been redecorated as bohemian coffeehouses.

Greg Blum remembers that the transformation of the school that first night seemed almost magical.  "The teachers brought in couches, lava lamps and a throw rug so it was like a big, comfy coffeehouse.  There was also a set of bongos there, which I used when I recited one of my poems. I remember thinking that it was all pretty cool."

Richard Vishevsky, '03, who was in Kindergarten at the time, also recalls the excitement of sharing his work with his peers and his family.  "We illustrated our poems. Then on Poetry Night we read them and our parents got to look at our drawings.  I remember mine was about my struggle to learn how to tie my shoes."

"It was a great night," says Greg.  "It was very quiet and very fun."  Noting that the intimate setting provided a supportive environment for everyone to share their creative side, he adds, "We read our poems. We snapped for each other, and on one could do anything wrong, because it was poetry."

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