Authoring Action Anthology Foreword
By Dr. Kathleen Smith McIlwain, Director of Undergraduate Elementary Education/ Director of Reading and Writing Certification, Rivier College
When I first teamed-up with Nathan Ross Freeman and Lynn Rhoades in 2006 to teach my struggling adolescent writers I was enthusiastic, but skeptical. Incarcerated parents, gangs, violence and abuse might translate into rap, I thought, but good poetry requires a deliberate, purposeful, more meticulous use of language.
Nathan and Lynn asked me to provide some students with promise. They didn’t say, “Bring us your students who like to write.’ So I developed my own criteria for “promise.” I sent the unruly, the big-talkers, the anxious, the shy, the traumatized and the miserable. I recommended some because they needed a friend and some because they were on the road to ruin. That was the extent of my participation the first year. I provided some students and a classroom. What happened next changed the lives of these “promising” young people.
Nathan was like a Marine Corps drill sergeant: mince no words, make no excuses, work until you get it right, and never, ever, settle for less than perfect effort. Lynn provided the tender heart, the listening ear. She railed against junk food, spoke softly, and understood the language of pain as it expressed itself in self-destructive behavior.
My students responded the only way possible: they discovered that when frustration and anger, poverty and violence, loss and shame, find their way into purposefully crafted language, trauma becomes truth, and shame becomes power. Nathan and Lynn gave value to the experiences and feelings of these adolescents. In the applause and congratulations that accompanied the public performances of their works, they gained access to society, to success, and to the belief that they control their own destinies.
I have since seized upon the model that these two teachers use to structure the writing of poetry. When I met Lynn and Nathan, I was teaching in an alternative middle school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Under their method, my students generated enough poems to merit compiling an anthology of their works. Students not only wrote poems in class, they stopped me in the hall to show what they wrote at home. They read their poems to each other, to other teachers, to the principal, and ultimately on stage, in front of an audience, during our annual poetry slams.
The change I witnessed in these students was no less than transformational. Awkward, shy, anxiety-ridden, and marginalized, they pleaded for more opportunities to stand up in front of an audience and share the intimate and sometimes shocking details of their lives.
I left public education and now teach at a private college in New Hampshire. I keep the three volumes of poetry on my shelf and share them with my students, and others, to demonstrate the powerful force of language. My college students are awed by the quality of the poems and startled by the content. I have used Lynn and Nathan’s model for writing with my college students with equally successful results.
Lynn and Nathan give adolescents the opportunity to become. In the process of becoming these young people realize that there is something so important inside themselves that it is worth the strain and struggle of perfect effort. They realize that the promise is theirs to fulfill.