Nurturing Creativity Through PoetryNurturing Creativity Through Poetry

April 25, 2011 –

On April 25, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and 826DC to celebrate young poets. The PCAH, led by committee member Olivia Morgan, help support a three-month series of poetry workshop for DC high school students that culminated in this April 25 event, which she describes in this blog.

I’d just spent time in a youth poetry workshop at 826DC, a nonprofit organization that helps students ages 6-18 develop writing skills, as well as train teachers.  After spending two hours at their new facility in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC watching staff  guide a group of underserved kids through poetry writing exercises, I wanted to understand the challenges organizations like these face. I asked, what do you need?

Revealing their instinctive focus, Joe Callahan and Mariam Al-Shawaf, the center’s director and deputy, reinterpreted my question. “Attention” they said simultaneously.  “These kids just need attention.”

The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities has spent the past 18 months developing a wide-ranging survey on the role of arts in education.  It examines both the challenges and opportunities for arts education today. In particular, the arts and humanities significant role in graduating a generation of students proficient in all classroom disciplines with the ability to think creatively and to fluently communicate those thoughts.  This groundbreaking report will be released May 6.

At the local level, the President’s Committee has been working with 826DC and a group of high school students from across the city on a three-month poetry workshop to support and bring attention to arts education where it actually takes place—in the community.



Led by poetry professor Kyle Dargan from American University, with assistance from Sally Keith from George Mason University, and Carolyn Forche from Georgetown University, students from Duke Ellington, Ballou, Wilson, and Bell High Schools have met every Wednesday evening at 826DC’s “Museum of Unnatural History” space in Columbia Heights.  Using metaphors, dreams, lists, personas, rhymes and alliteration and copying artists from Lauryn Hill to Gwendolyn Brooks, the students have reported on their world and explored the range and power of their own voices.


On April 25, we held a special workshop at the Library of Congress. Some of the city’s brightest poetic lights—Holly Bass, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Kenneth Carroll, Reuben Jackson, Simone Jacobson, Katy Richey and Silvana Straw—shared their own paths to poetry and strongest influences. 

Fittingly the man who appoints our national Poet Laureate, Dr. James Billington, Librarian of Congress, welcomed the students to  lunch and a special guest, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“One of the most important things we can do as educators is to help all our young people find their voice,” Duncan told the students. “It may be poetry, art, debate, robotics or even sports, but there is a genius in every single one of our young people…When you have students who can find their voice, who can find their passion, and who can find out what they love to do and what they can excel in, I feel very confident about where they’ll go in life.”


The students quickly showed him how right he was, with sharp questions and well-considered insights on what they had gleaned from the workshops and the value of art programs in their schools.

Melissa Jackson, the school librarian at Ballou High School,  personally drove her students every week from Anacostia to Columbia Heights because she believed so strongly in the opportunity the 826DC poetry workshop presented and its potential to shape her students’ future.

And two students, Luis Zeleya from Bell and Tiesha Hines from Ballou, shared their poems and brought down the house. I think I may have seen Dr. Billington taking notes.

I know I saw a glow on every face in the room. Our students had earned – and held – the attention of some pretty big thinkers.


By Luis Zelaya


I remember those good ole days,
The days when I ran with a Barbie in my right hand
And a toy car in my left
The days when I ate the chicken and put the veggies in a napkin
The days of naptime and milk with cookies.
I remember those days,
With the screams and yells,

The whips and brooms,
The ultimatums and the death stare.
Those were the days.
I remember those days,
With the beer bottles and hard liquor,
With the tears and blood.

Those good ole days,
With police and the jail visits,
The C.I.A. and immigration,
And lonely nights with no one to tuck me in.

Those days where
I did my homework with no help,
I cooked my own food,
I did the cleaning,
I got fatter and fatter,
I remember those days,
Which I worked out alone,
Which I exceeded without you,
Which I ate my burnt food,
Yea, I remember.