Intergenerational Poetry Study – mutual learning at its best

by Helen Young

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Belle Hankey (left), and Helen Young, (right), discuss a poem.
(Photo by Ellen Huber)

It feels strange to sit once more at a desk in a high school classroom, but I am pretty sure that I appreciate the experience more than I did as a teenager. Now, along with seven other senior citizens from Carlisle and one from Concord, I have the privilege of being part of an English class at Concord-Carlisle High School. We meet once a week with our tenth-grade classmates to discuss and respond to poetry centered on the theme of the day. The class is small, and so we are able to work, for part of the time, in senior-sophomore pairs. The students are wonderfully welcoming and responsive, and they are usually eager to contribute their ideas, but are also receptive to listening and to responding thoughtfully to what their guests have to say.  They are amazing in their perceptiveness and creativity as well as in their courtesy.

The program is the brainchild of Certified Poetry Therapist Patti Russo, of Carleton Road. With help from a grant from the Concord-Carlisle Community Chest, Russo located the senior participants, found a teacher at the high school who supported the program, and selected the themes and poems that we study each week. The program in which I am participating is actually the sixth intergenerational group that Russo has organized and facilitated. Her first was in 2006 at Easter Seals shared site facility in New Hampshire, and the next four took place at the Carlisle Integrated Preschool. This year, happily in my opinion, she decided to take the program to the high school and work with teens.  Russo describes the goals of the group as not only to “bridge the gap” between the two generations, but also to “get the kids fired up about poetry. The adults are poetry fans already given that they signed up for the class. If even just a couple of students come to see that poetry is something they can understand, enjoy, and use to help them make sense of the world, then that’s wonderful.”

The teacher who has generously welcomed us into her class is Dr. Rebecca Loprete, chairman of the English Department at Concord-Carlisle. It is clear from the classroom atmosphere she has created that she is a master teacher who has earned her students’ enthusiastic respect. Loprete, whose PhD in Literature is from Brandeis University, began teaching at CCHS in 2000 after, “a long-term sub gig.” She has been English Department Chair since 2008.

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Brendan Geoffroy (left) and Dee Stillings (right) read a poem together.
(Photo by Ellen Huber)

While most sophomore English classes at CCHS range from 24-27 students, the class into which the intergenerational poetry unit has been incorporated is a very small one because the schedule puts it at the same time as a biology block. On the weekdays when we, the seniors are not in class, the sophomore students in the course concentrate especially on writing skills.

Typically, in a poetry class, we read and discuss two or three poems chosen to connect with the theme of the day.  Each poem is read aloud, either by Russo or by the rest of us, one line per person. In the first session, one of the poems was “Possibilities” by Nobel-Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska. Each line begins, “I prefer,” and then mentions one of the poet’s choices, such as movies, cats and the color green. We responded by writing our own preferences and then sharing them with our partners.  It was a natural-feeling and revealing way to get to know one another. Later, as a group, we repeated some of our favorite responses.  Those of the students were remarkably varied. One of the most memorable came from Carlisle student Robbie Kamenz of Ice Pond Road. He said, “I prefer weirdness to normalcy.”

In another class, we considered the pressures that students feel due to the myriad demands on their time, and we talked about how they try to cope with and relieve them. In that class, we read, “The Armful” by Robert Frost. Several of the written responses by the sophomores came in the form of rhymed poetry rather than simple prose, an impressive feat given the short time we had to compose our thoughts. The high school students, as well as the seniors, really seem to enjoy the process. Brandon Geoffroy, of Acton Street, said to me, “I usually don’t find myself reading or writing poetry, but when I do it in class with you, I really enjoy it.”

Most recently, we discussed odes, reading, among other poems, “Ode to Fried Potatoes” by Pablo Neruda.  Afterwards, we were given about ten minutes to compose an ode of our own to some familiar object. Belle Hankey, of Koning Farm Road, contributed the following ode to her cell phone:

The communication to the everywhere world,

No longer being distant,

The quick subtraction of privacy,

The sudden burst of reliability,

The ability to talk, type, play and listen

In the palm of your hand.

The advancement never thought to be possible,

The advancement overlooked by the now,

The speed, accuracy and convenience brought in one touch.

I’ve asked my senior classmates to send me their reactions to the class so far.  Marje Stickler, of Indian Hill Road, wrote about how thoughtful the young students are, “with politeness, asking ‘how was your weekend’ with all they have on their minds – ‘yawns’ from staying up late with homework, busy weekends in Harvard Square, sports to relieve some tension, wishes to succeed in school’.”

Mary Daigle, of Westford Street, reported that she found the students “eager to become involved,” and that she “will truly miss them when this session is over.” Tom Dunkers, of East Street, the brave lone man among the seniors, wrote, “The sharing of both elder and youth views was a lovely experience.” Bea Shneider, of Stearns Street, commented, “Exchanging deep thoughts and small talk seems to make the short hour pass yet more quickly. Then the bell rings, they go on to their next venue, and we climb happily into our home-bound van, enlivened by the connection with these children in the spring of their lives.”

Dee Stillings, of East Street, said, “The understanding [the students] show of the poems read is more than I could or would have done at their age. The poems they compose in answer are amazing. I think [this class] should be an annual event if we can get Dr. Loprete to agree.”

Fortunately, our positive sentiments are shared by Dr. Loprete. When I asked her about her own feelings on the unit, she wrote, “I leapt at the chance to work with Patti because I myself am a bit timid around poetry.

“I tend to feel like I have to get things ‘right,’ and that’s a drive that works fundamentally against allowing kids to just enjoy the poems. This program is the study of poetry in its purest form, because the kids are not reading for a test or a grade, just for each other, and at a minimum, to be polite. I love it.”

Although it is far too early to speculate, especially in print, about what might happen next year, I think that Stillings’ hopes for a repeat are embraced by all of us.  ∆

Carlisle Poets, Come Forth!

April is National Poetry Month, and the library is sponsoring a contest for local poets! Send your sonnets, free verse, blank verse, haiku, villanelles, limericks or other good or bad poetry of your choice to amollet@mvlc.org or drop them off at the Library attention: “Poetry Contest” to enter. Submissions should be 350 words or less (longer submissions and creative interpretations of the rules are welcome but will be judged in a separate group); the deadline is April 19 at 9 p.m.  Please include in your email/note which age group you’re entering; categories are: “Under 10 years of age”, “10 through 17 years old”, or “18 and up”.

Winners will receive a cash prize (provided by the Friends of the Gleason Public Library and Library Endowment), and winning poems will be highlighted on the Gleason Public Library website and in the Carlisle Mosquito.  ∆