Poets Young, Forever Young, Timeless:James M. Brewbaker and Dawnelle J. Hyland
Creating Becoming One with the Lights
Since late 1997, we have worked toward creating Becoming One with the Lights, a new kind of poetry anthology for classroom teachers, for teenagers, maybe even for parents. We began our work with three basic beliefs: first, poetry by adolescents is an untapped resource for classroom use; second, teachers should frequently use poems by adolescents and adults alongside one another; third, if we were to gather good poems from young people and cluster them thematically with good poems by published adult poets, we could develop an anthology that would be a unique resource for middle school and secondary English teachers. Eighteen months later, manuscript in hand, our beliefs have been affirmed.
With generous support from the ALAN Research Foundation, we have built a collection of 150 poems, 104 by adolescents in grades 5-12 --- from 27 states plus British Columbia --- the remainder by both well-known poets (Kathy Appelt, Sandra Cisneros, Charles Ghigna, Nikki Giovanni, Mary Oliver, Gary Soto, and William Stafford) and numerous adults, many of whose poems appeared in English Journal during the 1990s. The eleven themes we use as the basis for organizing the collection, themes close to the hearts of young people, are these: school life; peers; generations (dealing with parents, grandparents, and siblings); love; masks and the search for identity; body, mind, and soul (sports and extracurricular activities); gender; tough personal choices; social issues; individual, group, crowd; and goals and dreams.1
Before relating how we created our anthology, we pause for two asides: first, who are we? Second, where does Becoming One with the Lights, the title for our anthology, come from?
First question first. We are Jim Brewbaker, a veteran teacher educator from Columbus State University (Georgia), and Dawnelle Hyland, a third-year language arts teacher from Chewning Middle School (Durham, North Carolina). We are, in a sense, an odd couple. Despite or maybe because of our differences (age, geography, gender, professional roles), we formed a partnership that, out of mutual respect, affected the product of our labors in good ways. Jim, who describes himself as a third-rate, occasionally published poet, has greater experience with reading, evaluating, and "when and if his creative juices flow," writing poetry. He has introduced pre-service teachers to the both the joy and power of poetry in the classroom for more than twenty years. Dawnelle, working with learning-disabled inner-city sixth-graders bused into the outer suburbs, is much closer to the minds and hearts of contemporary adolescents. When she began the anthology project, she, like many teachers in their first two or three years in the classroom, wasn't exactly sure what to do with poetry. She knew that poetry wasn't or shouldn't be about quatrains and metaphor hunts, but what it ought to be about took shape as she and Jim Brewbaker worked on their anthology project.
Put crassly, Jim knows more about poetry than Dawnelle. Dawnelle has more immediate experience teaching today's young adolescents than Jim.
Fittingly enough, Becoming One with the Lights is a line from a student poem. Valerie Voter's "The Dancer," written in 1990 when she was a high school junior, recounts her experiences at a dance recital. In her poem are these lines: ". . . the familiar feeling/builds within her until/it explodes from her soul/becoming one with/the lights,/the music,/the dance." Valerie's transforming moment, the moment when, through dance, she and her feelings, became "one with the lights," captured something essential about adolescence at its most powerful and bewildering. When we developed a title for our anthology, we settled on Becoming One with the Lights. Valerie's poem leads off those we've grouped in our "Body, Mind, and Spirit" theme.
In 1996-1997, we had worked with Hal Foster (University of Akron) on "Poetry Mission Possible," a national survey of teachers regarding how they planned poetry lessons. The three of us presented our findings to NCTE's 1997 spring conference in Charlotte. In the midst of this work, we discussed what we regarded then (and still do) as a scarcity of student-centered poetry collections for young readers. We agreed, as well, that teachers should use poems written by adolescents much more than they do, because, others things being equal, what young people write is innately appealing to middle and high school students. On a related topic, we discussed the notion that the typical distinction English teachers make between student writing and the fiction and poems of established authors may a false one. Why, we wondered, don't teachers place the poems of Robert Frost and Gwendolyn Brooks alongside those of poems from the school literary magazine or, for that matter, those written in class?
Out of this conversation we decided to develop a unique collection of poems, a collection organized around student-centered themes, a collection that would freely mix poems by young people with those of adults at about a 2:1 ratio. That summer, we submitted a grant proposal to ALAN to support our work.
Between October 1997 and NCTE's annual convention in Detroit, we developed a plan for promoting Becoming One with the Lights among middle-level and secondary English teachers. We prepared flyers for distribution at NCTE conferences (1,000 at the Detroit convention and a like number at the 1998 Albuquerque spring conference) and we prepared a mailing to selected NCTE leaders.
In Detroit, encouraged by Chair Alan Olds, we met with the Advisory Committee of NCTE's Program to Recognize Excellence in Student Literary Magazines. Committee members suggested ways to approach (and not to approach) English teachers about gathering student submissions. They recognized ALAN's support as a plus; if, along with making this connection clear, we emphasized that students would not have to pay for a poem to be selected, in which case teachers would be more favorably disposed to ask students to participate. Among other topics addressed during this meeting was how best to acquire permission-to-publish statements and how we should set the age range for students submitting their work.2 As a group, the committee voiced considerable support for the endeavor.
In December, we sent a call for submissions to approximately 200 NCTE members: selected affiliate officers, editors of state and regional affiliate publications, members of the NCTE network who, on an annual basis, recruit judges for NCTE's Program to Recognize Excellence in Student Literary Magazines. The mailing included a cover letter and one-page flyer-announcement. On its reverse side was an entry form with space for permission-to-publish statements from both the student and a parent. The flyer advised entrants to provide postage if they wanted notification of a rejection. It also emphasized that students would receive a complimentary copy of the anthology (1) if one or more of their poems was accepted; and (2) if and when Becoming One with the Lights was published.
The most helpful publicity for the anthology project came through a January 1998 English Journal call-for-submissions and a similar announcement in the winter 1998 issue of The ALAN Review. Fortunately, then English Journal editor Leila Christenbury found a filler space for the announcement. Additional publicity came from e-mail announcements to NCTE-Talk (the NCTE listserv), and through the distribution of flyers at various affiliate conferences in January-May 1998.
Processing and Evaluating Submissions
We received submissions to Becoming One with the Lights at Columbus State University. On receipt, we assigned each poem a control number (from 1 to 835, the number of students submitting their work) and letter (A, B or C, depending on whether the student submitted one, two, or three poems). A number and code letter such as 121B would be assigned to the second poem submitted by entrant number 121.
By the June 1 postmark deadline, 835 students had submitted 1,637 poems. They represented thirty-eight states, four Canadian provinces, and Okinawa. Teachers played a major role in gathering and organizing submissions. A majority came in large envelopes with school return addresses in which were poems from as many as twenty or thirty different students.
In order to rate poems, we delineated criteria we then applied to submissions. We wanted poems with strong and/or original voice, with memorable or fresh language, with skillful use of poetic conventions, and with clear connections to a theme we planned to use as a cluster in the collection. Our overarching criterion was that poems we picked should have what we called, for lack of a better term, "kid appeal"; that is, we wanted poems that were accessible to most adolescents rather than obscure, that captured a youthful experience or perspective, and that were short rather than long.
We evaluated submissions quickly and independent of one another. We rated poems as "N" (meaning no or no way), "Po" (meaning possible for inclusion), or "Pr" (meaning probable). Then we compared ratings, discussed our frequent differences, and shifted poems from "Po" to "N" or "Pr" ratings. Our ratings became increasingly similar as we worked through the summer months. As June turned to July and then August, we became more aware of (and respectful of) how the other would apply our criteria.
Claudia Wells and Tom Perry, veteran secondary English teachers with twenty-eight and eight years experience, respectively, assisted in the rating process, adding their ratings to ours. This process provided a third and sometimes fourth perspective using the "N," "Po," and "Pr" system. Tom skimmed approximately 200 poems tentatively identified as possibles and suggested those he would be most likely to reassess as probables or, on the other hand, drop from consideration.
Ratings by Panels of Grades 7-12 Students and Pre-Service Teachers
Between June and August 1998, we recruited classroom teachers and English teacher preparation faculty to help further narrow the pool of possible and probable poems to about 100, the number we believed most suitable for Becoming One with the Lights. By late August, seven English teachers (from North Carolina, Michigan, California, and Minnesota) agreed that, when the school year began, they would ask their students to participate in a forced-choice rating of poems we had judged as possibles. Similarly, seven teacher educators (from Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Georgia) agreed to ask their students, pre-service English language arts teachers, to participate in the same exercise.
The forced-choice exercise was reasonably simple. Students and pre-service teachers selected, from a packet of 9-11 poems, three they would be most likely to keep in the anthology and the three they would be most likely to drop. In all instances, participants in the exercises, working in pairs or collaborative small groups, were encouraged to make their decisions by consensus rather than simply voting. Report forms provided space for comments on each poem, whether it was rated keep, drop, or no decision.
A late-August mailing to these volunteers comprised a cover letter, a set of instructions, a criteria sheet, a packet of student poems, a report form, and a return envelope. Information about each young poet --- that is, name, gender, grade level, school, and home town --- was removed from poems in the packet.
From the report forms, returned by early October, we laid out student and pre-service teacher ratings in these three categories:
+ (keep) 0 (no decision) - (drop)
We used these ratings to help shape but not to dictate our final choices of student poems. To be sure, high ratings from both grades 7-12 students and pre-service teachers tipped the scales in favor of some poems that, in their absence, we would have discarded. Similarly, negative ratings from both groups were hard to ignore.
From the outset, however, we knew we would make our own decisions regarding which poems to include. We emphasized to all that the project was not a contest or competition per se; rather, it was a means of gathering good poems which, collectively, would make an excellent theme-based anthology.
We met in October and November, 1998, to make final selections. Following Christmas, ninety-eight young poets, ranging from a lone fifth-grader to forty-one high school seniors, were notified by letter that their poems were among those selected for publication in Becoming One with the Lights. Two young people, Gina Marie Damiano, an eleventh-grader from Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, and Lindsey Blackburn, a senior from Norman, Oklahoma, had three poems selected. Four adolescents, David Clark (grade 12, Papillon, NE), David Darst (grade 10, Greenwich, CT), Derik Gummesen (grade 12, Salmon Arm, British Columbia), and Tara Ritchie (grade 7, Grand Junction, CO), had two selected. The remaining young poets had one poem each. After receiving our good news letter, one decided that she did not want her poem published; we subsequently pulled it.
Selecting Adult Poems
We began selecting contemporary adult poems for Becoming One with the Lights early in 1998. We wanted to use under-anthologized poems rather than those frequently used in textbook series; that is, in reviewing poems by William Stafford, we avoided his well-known "Traveling Through the Dark" or "Freedom," in favor of "A Farewell, Age 10." Needing several adult poems to place in each theme, we looked for high quality shorter poems with strong appeal to young readers, both in terms of their accessibility and what they said.
For several months, we gathered, shared, and subsequently evaluated published poems from an array of sources: discount and used bookstores, libraries, obscure literary journals, small poetry magazines, even yard sales. Our friends recommended still others. We turned to well-known poets such as William Stafford, Nikki Giovanni, and Gary Soto. Along the way we discovered other engaging poets such as Mary Oliver (a Pulitzer Prize winner), Charles Ghigna, and Kathy Appelt. Appelt's Just People (1997) was a 1998 ALA Best Book for Young Adults; she spoke at the 1997 NCTE convention.
For the most part, we avoided collections of poems originally published for younger readers. An exception is Ruth Gordon's (Ed.) anthology, Pierced by a Ray of Sun: Poems About the Times We Feel Alone (1991). We selected two poems, "Beating Up Billie Murphy in Fifth Grade," by Kathleen Aguero, and "Recipe," by Janice Mirikitani, from this collection. We also used American Sports Poems, edited by Knudsen and Swenson (1995), from which we picked three poems.
Before long, we realized that we were replete with adult poem in some areas (love and family relations, for example) but needed more in others (such as school life and gender). Serendipitously, we turned to English Journal, a rich source that was, in the vernacular, right under our noses. Reviewing all poems published by English Journal in the 1990s, we identified a substantial number that not only filled in some of our gaps but also were, on balance, superior to some poems we had already tentatively chosen. The final set of 46 adult poems includes 23 that appeared first in English Journal.
Characteristics of Student Submissions [Over the summer months, Jim commented that he'd better read, read, and read poems by adolescents or drown in them. Dawnelle confirmed his perception.]
Even as we separated probable and possible poems from the larger mass of less effective work, we made a number of informal observations about the characteristics of the 1,637 poems we received the June 1, 1998 deadline.
Here, in capsule form, is what we noticed:
Characteristics of Poems Chosen for Publication
- Poems from the 50-100 individual adolescents who seemed to regard themselves as writers or poets were among the earliest and latest submissions. We were more likely to pick their work for eventual publication. These adolescents submitted their own poems using forms provided by their English teacher. Many attached SASEs to learn as soon as possible of our decision.
- We were most likely to rate poems from elective writing or creative writing classes as probable and possible; similarly, these poems were most likely to earn keep ratings by student and pre-service teacher panels. They showed greater evidence of thorough and thoughtful writing.
- Poems that seemed to be the products of a required class assignment in regular English classes were weaker overall than those submitted by individual adolescents or by young people enrolled in creative writing classes. These poems, the majority of submissions, had occasional pearls selected for eventual publication, but, more often than not, poems submitted by numerous students in an English class seemed to be the product of compliance rather than commitment to the task of creating a poem.
- Judging by their work alone, many, if not most, of the 835 adolescents submitting poems to Becoming One with the Lights seem to regard poetry as serious business, rhymed no matter what, and replete with abstract words rather than sensory language. Too few poems, in our view, had any sort of "twist" or surprise. Too many had a somber, even glum voice.
- Approximately 70 percent of submissions were from girls; 30 percent were from boys.
We selected 104 student poems for eventual publication in Becoming One with the Lights.
These are general characteristics of the collection:
- Twenty poems (19 percent) rhyme; the remaining 84 (81 percent) do not. This reflects our taste as well as the taste of the two veteran English teachers who assisted us with the initial screening, the preferences of the grades 7-12 students participating in the forced-choice rating of possible poems, and the assessment in the same forced-choice rating by pre-service English teachers.
- Twenty-six poems we selected are by boys (25 percent); the remaining 78 (75 percent) are by girls. This imbalance was the case despite our efforts to balance the collection among males and females.
- The poems we selected for publication represent 27 states plus British Columbia, as follows:
16 poems Michigan 10 poems New Jersey 9 poems Georgia 7 poems British Columbia 6 poems Colorado, Pennsylvania 5 poems Oklahoma, Texas 4 poems Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska 3 poems Louisiana, Missouri, Washington 2 poems California, Connecticut, Idaho, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina 1 poem Massachusetts, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming
High numbers from Michigan are linked, we believe, to the fact that the 1997 NCTE convention was in Detroit and that many flyers promoting the anthology were distributed there. Similarly, we publicized the project extensively in Georgia, Jim's home state, including at a February 1998 GCTE conference attended by 1,000 teachers.
- Because students did not indicate their ethnicity on submission forms, we had no way to determine that factor for the 104 poems selected for publication.
- The poems we selected for publication represent a substantial age and grade range, as follows:Obviously, there is a gradual increase in the frequency of poems, by grade, as one moves from grade 5 to grade 6, grade 7, and so on. We chose more poems by seniors, though, than we did for grades 9-11 combined. We find ourselves speculating as to reasons why. One may be the greater likelihood that seniors enroll in elective creative writing classes, submit their writing to school literary magazines, and so forth. Beyond this, it may be that seniors who hope to attend selective-admissions colleges and universities are more inclined to participate in essay contests and other events than are younger students. Finally, although we did not tally submissions by grade, it may also be that more seniors (for either or both of the two reasons cited above) submitted their poems to Becoming One with the Lights than did younger students.
We believe that the poems written by students in the middle school or junior high set are as "good" as those written by juniors and seniors. At no point did we select a poem while reasoning, "Let's use this one. It's really good for an eighth-grader." Rather, our reasoning was more likely to be this: "Let's use this one. It's really good, and it is by an eighth grader who uses language marvelously well." Similarly, for those poems rated by grades 7-12 students and pre-service English language arts teachers, we did not identify them by grade level, gender, or geographic location. As a result, positive ratings were based on perceptions of the poems themselves and not extraneous characteristics of the young poets.
We will submit a proposal to publish Becoming One with the Lights to NCTE before this issue of The ALAN Review goes to press. Consistent with all or most NCTE publications, our primary audience will be classroom teachers. In addition to the meat of the collection, 149 poems clustered into eleven student-centered themes and topics, we plan to include helpful support materials. These will include the following:
Poets' Explanations: We will feature between 10-12 brief essays by our poets --- some adolescent, some adult --- regarding (1) the experience on which a poem is based and (2) the techniques or strategies used to write the poem.
Teacher's Essays: We will invite Mike Petrizzo, a sixth-grade teacher from Houston, Texas, and Tina Chambers, a high school teacher of English from Clarkston, Michigan, to submit essays of 500-1000 words regarding their approaches to teaching poetry writing in their classrooms. Mike and Tina were, respectively, highly successful in guiding their students in creating poems we chose to publish.
Resources: We will include appendices that highlight professional references on using poetry or helping young people to write poetry.
We began our anthology project, what we soon came to call Becoming One with the Lights, with three beliefs: that poetry by adolescents is an untapped resource for classroom use, that teachers should frequently use poems by adolescents and adults alongside one another, and that, if we gathered good poems from young people and clustered them thematically alongside good poems by adult poets, we could create a unique resource for middle school and secondary English teachers. We conclude with both satisfaction in the product and confidence in the future: before long Becoming One with the Lights will find a publisher (NCTE, we hope) and be on its way to teachers and kids, where it will do the most good.
Along the way we've learned a great deal. We've learned that, at a point in our culture when English teachers are neck-deep in print and electronic information, it is difficult but certainly possible, even in six months, to publicize a worthy project on a national basis. We've affirmed our knowledge that committed English teachers, from Harris County Middle School, just north of where Jim works at Columbus State; from the North Carolina School of Mathematics and Science near Dawnelle's home in Durham; from as far away as Salmon Arm, British Columbia, three thousand miles to the northwest; teachers from these communities and scores of others can be counted on to take the extra step to help talented young people have a chance to see their work in print. Most of all, we've been amazed by the realization that, through their language used well, young people can touch us, amuse us, surprise us with their human savvy and their ways with words.
Finally, we've used our work to grow professionally: neither of us is the same teacher or person we were before we began the project. It may be a stretch to say that we have, in Valerie Voter's terms, "become one with the lights," but we have, each in his or her own fashion, become more than we were.
1. We owe several of our theme titles to Barbara Stanford (1971). Stanford proposed a curriculum organized around developmental tasks. Two of our themes (Masks and the Sear for Identify and Individual, Group, Crowd) come directly from Stanford's proposal. 2. Although Becoming One with the Lights emphasizes adolescent appeal, we agreed that submissions might come from any public or private school student who had not, as of the end of the 1997-1998 school year, graduated or finished grade 12. In fact, we received submisions from children as young as age nine (fourth grade).
Havighurst, R. Developmental Tasks and Education. New York: Longman, 1972.
Stanford, B. "How Innovators Fail." Media and Methods. October 1971: 26-35.
James Brewbaker writes the Interdisciplinary Connections Column for The ALAN Review. Dawnelle Hyland is a first time contributor.
Copyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Brewbaker, James M. and Dawnelle L. Hyland. (1999). Poets young, forever young, timeless: Creating Becoming One with the Lights. The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 1, pp. 17-22.