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By Ruthanne Greeley
Arts-inquiry program nudges kids toward their best selves.
She stood on the stage, petite and soft-voiced, dressed in traditional Navajo style with ornate silver-and-turquoise jewelry and a silver concho belt. With one quiet word, she immediately commanded the attention of nearly 200 young students. Then she launched into a poetry reading and storytelling that would keep the audience rapt for nearly an hour.
Luci Tapahonso, the first Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation, was sharing her poems and stories with Santa Fe Public School students in the auditorium of the New Mexico History Museum as part of ArtWorks, a program of the Partners in Education Foundation for the Santa Fe Public Schools.
Her work, presented in a soft, rhythmic cadence that was almost singing, touched on simple themes of home and family, everyday life and traditional rituals: an ode to her uncle’s favorite Hills Brothers Coffee; a mouth-watering description of baking bread in an horno; a word-portrait of her wild, horse-training grandmother. The poems, in English, were sprinkled with Navajo words, catching the attention of many students whose first language was not English. Between the poems, she shared stories of her life, and Navajo origin stories.
Afterwards, the students had the opportunity to ask questions. Hands shot up, and the session finally had to be cut off after 20 minutes. Students wanted to know how many languages she spoke. She told them her story of going to a school where her first language, Navajo, was forbidden, and she had to learn English. She encouraged bilingual students to write in both languages to make their poetry “delicious.” One boy asked how she thought of words for poems. Tapahonso advised them to use the dictionary and thesaurus, and to keep a journal or notebook with them at all times.
As the students finally filed out to their waiting buses, Tapahonso stood at the door and shook hands with each of them, thanking them for coming.
The week prior to the reading, students had enjoyed a classroom workshop with ArtWorks Teaching Artist Joan Logghe, Santa Fe Poet Laureate 2010-12. ArtWorks lesson plans are built around a “Line of Inquiry” (LOI) or essential question: Logghe’s LOI was, “How does Luci Tapahonso create poetry of family and culture using alliteration, rhythm, sense images and the sound of language?” After the reading, Logghe returned to each class and guided students as they polished their own poems, many of which were included in the annual poetry book published by ArtWorks/Partners. In addition, she worked with the classes to develop group poems, such as the one shown at left by Laura Mayo Rodriguez’s sixth-grade class at Nava Elementary School.
Logghe noted that students and teachers all had a strong response to hearing Luci Tapahonso’s poetry and then writing their own. “A third grader from El Dorado said, ‘When she read her poems I felt really calm and focused on her. I felt like I was inside the poem.’ Teachers mentioned the phenomenon that poetry breaks open a creative joy, [and] shows a surprising side of a student,” she said. “In one class, students asked if, after they finished math, they could write another poem. It is yet another example of how the arts tune us in to our best selves, and literacy can’t help but be a result.”
These types of reactions from both teachers and students are among the results ArtWorks aims to achieve by engaging students in higher-order thinking, including critical thinking and making connections between concepts, and training teachers to integrate the arts into existing classroom curricula.
ArtWorks partners closely with the Santa Fe Public Schools, arts organizations, artists and philanthropists to bring the richness of Santa Fe’s arts community into the schools. Based on the Lincoln Center Institute model of integrative arts learning, ArtWorks provides direct, hands-on and process-oriented experiences with art. Students participate and learn by making art, viewing live performances and exhibits, and inquiring and reflecting on these experiences.
Classroom teachers who have gone through the ArtWorks training can receive two Units of Study for their class during a school year — one centered around a visit to a museum and a second around a trip to see a live performance, such as the annual poetry reading.
During a Unit of Study, a professional Teaching Artist and a trained classroom teacher work together to design and deliver an in-class workshop that prepares students to understand a work of art. Then the students take a field trip to experience that work of art — museum exhibit, poetry reading, play, dance performance or concert. Then they have a follow-up classroom workshop where the Teaching Artist engages the students in reflecting on their experience with the work of art, and they make art themselves. Since ArtWorks began in 2001, there have been more than 16,000 student encounters, and nearly 500 public school teachers have been trained in the methodology.
Logghe offered some of her techniques for parents or teachers who might want to help their children write poetry like the group poem above. “The poems are already inside the kids,” she said. “They just need a nudge.”
• Read a poem to the children. Then have the children repeat the lines after you. Explore the rhythm of the lines; have them clap out the rhythm as they say it. • Discuss literary techniques: alliteration, simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia (a word and concept children love). Talk about imagery of the senses.
• Choose a topic: a family vacation, Grandma or another family member, or a shared meal.
• Ask them what they remember, what they noticed. Encourage them to use words that evoke their senses — how did something look, smell, feel, taste. If the child says, “I was happy,” probe deeper. Ask what made them happy. Write down each line the children say. Logghe often asks students to begin with the words “I remember…” and then repeat that at the beginning of each sentence like a chant. Have them end with an image.
• Shape their poem. Read through the lines that have been written down and arrange them in stanzas in the form of a poem. If some lines are about the same thing, they can be grouped together.
• Read the children’s poem back to them.
In the 2016-2017 school year, ArtWorks’ poetry unit of study features James McGrath, a poet/artist/writer/ environmentalist who was named a Santa Fe Living Treasure in 2008. Approximately 400 students in grades 3 to 6, from Acequia Madre, Carlos Gilbert, E.J. Martinez, and Nava Elementary Schools; El Dorado and Gonzales Community Schools; and Turquoise Trail Charter Elementary School, will attend his readings. Partners in Education will again publish a collection of student poems, inspired by McGrath’s reading.
The ArtWorks program is open to K-6 teachers in the Santa Fe Public Schools. To participate, teachers must first complete an ArtWorks Teacher Training, which is usually held in the beginning of the school year. Teachers are then eligible to receive two units of study — one visual arts and one performing arts — each school year.
For more information, visit www.artworkssantafe.org.
It snowed and it was cold.
The kids in front of us were loud
and we were quiet.
We got to experience eating lunch at a college.
She’s small and she came from Shiprock.
People over there are tall.
They make fun of her because she’s short.
Her voice is calm like water.
You say the word Navajo, “Diné”
in the Navajo language.
She has a soft voice.
When she speaks her poems she says them kinda slow.
She wears skirts like when you go to church.
She speaks like an angel.
She sings like a hummingbird.
Her poems reach out to you, they grab you.
She is delicate like a wing.
You can imagine that you are in the poem.
The sweet way she told the poem.
She loved when we asked questions
because she loved to say her memories.
When she was reading you could see an image of her life.
Her voice made us feel like we were on a cloud.
You lose yourself in her poem.
Her hands were soft when I touched them.
When you close your eyes
it felt like you were in the poem.
Her hands were soft as a butterfly’s wings
as we left.
Class poem for Luci Tapahonso
Laura Mayo Rodriguez’s sixth grade, Nava Elementary