Monday, April 24, 2006

Stepping 'Off the Page'


These happy faces have just had a big dose of poetry. They're students at the Invergarry Learning Centre in Surrey, BC.

That grey-haired one in the middle is me. And I'm the lucky one who got to provide the dose of poems.

Because I'm a member of the Federation of BC Writers, I'm able to participate in a program called 'Off the Page' -- an initiative that pays writers to bring their work to BC classrooms.

Anyway, look at the faces of those students. Not a frown among them. But really, weren't they just subjected to an hour of poetry?!

I’m convinced that the key to their happy faces is that their teacher, Pat Corder, did such a fantastic job of preparing them for my visit.

Pat got a copy of my book, Rattlesnake Plantain. She read it, then asked me for permission to photocopy a few poems, so the students could read them. I emailed her back, suggesting several titles she might like to use. Beyond that, I left the rest up to her.

When I arrived at the school library, I was happy to see a full-colour notice announcing my reading, encouraging students from other classes to attend the session (some did). Pat (and her colleague, David) greeted me – and even gave me lunch. Lucky for me, I’d arrived during their annual thank-you event for library volunteers.

While we ate, Pat told me some of the prep she’d done with her students. Not only had she reproduced all four of the poems I’d suggested she might choose from, she had gone much further.

The first section of my book is a suite of poems headed by brief descriptions of wildflowers. Pat had downloaded information on a buttercup-like plant, had purchased a potted sample of it, and challenged her students to write poems based on it as a prompt. She let me read a few of the students’ poems (only four – nothing overwhelming, just a nice taste). She also told me that during the previous day’s class, they had talked about my poems, and generated a few questions they wanted to ask me.

Then Pat went on ahead to her portable, to begin her class. After a few minutes, David guided me out through the maze of what looked like an army base to help me find the right portable. (If he hadn’t, I might still be wandering, I am sure.) Pat introduced me, and off we went.

At first the students were fairly shy, but I’ll admit, I probably scared them some – I know I can be pretty loud and fast-talking, and that I tend to jump all over the place when I’m keen on something (like poetry!). Still, they laughed in the right places, were thoughtful when the piece asked for that, and gradually started warming up with a willingness to ask.

We ended up having a good discussion about writing. We talked about how useful it can be to find a friend (or better yet, a group) who wants to write too. I even saw some scribbling as I spoke about guidelines for workshopping: ways to focus on improving the work; ways to ensure you’re critiquing the work, not the writer.

Much of this discussion took place over a post-reading tea. Pat had asked the students to bring some little treat from home. Once again, she’s such a star to think of giving them this ‘ownership’ of thanking me for coming. There were tarts, brownies and cookies (one of the young women explained that her husband had baked the cookies the night before).

But the expressions of thanks went on: I received an interesting book of poetry (which, to my delight, I learned had been gleaned from a library book sale) and copies of some of the poems based on the little yellow wildflower. I was even presented with the potted plant that had served as the prompt for the poems – something to take home for my own garden.

Not only will I be receiving my fee for this reading (thank you, O gods of the grants!), but I will have a growing reminder in my yard of this very special event. I am also taking away a new appreciation for the amazing work that teachers like Pat Corder do.

1 comment:

kimmy said...

good heavens, heidi! what a marvelous report of a clearly stellar experience for you and the students. thanks for blogging about this. i thoroughly enjoyed it.