In a private ceremony at the White House, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) Honorary Chair Michelle Obama presented the fifth class of National Student Poets with their pins, signifying their role as poetry ambassadors for the coming year and identifying them as recipients of the nation’s highest honor for high school poets creating original work. The National Student Poets program is a partnership between the PCAH and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists & Writers (AYAW).
First Lady Michelle Obama said to this new class of poets, “So I have one request that I make of all of our student poets, and I'm going to make that of you all here today. I want you to go out there and share your gifts with others. That's your job now, all right?”
Since its inception five years ago as a signature program of the President’s Committee, the core of the program is a year-long poetry ambassadorship carried out by the five poets, who each represent different regions of the country. Two key elements define the year for these young poets—creating a community service project and doing events during National Poetry Month in April. Beginning with the Class of 2012, poets have taught teachers how to present poetry; poets have done workshops with women inmates and nursing home residents; and poets have led creative writing workshops with veterans and Native American middle-school students. The program has showcased poets in in a range of places and venues—some as prestigious as the National Book Festival in Washington DC and Lincoln Center, others included schools in rural communities with a student population of 38, as well as libraries and museums from Birmingham to Boise.
The Class of 2016 National Students Poets introduced and pinned as poetry ambassadors by First Lady Michele Obama are:
Stella Binion, Chicago, IL (Midwest Region)
Maya Eashwaran, Alpharetta, GA (Southeast Region)
Gopal Raman, Dallas, TX (Southwest Region)
Joey Reisberg, Towson, MD (Northeast Region)
Maya Salameh, San Diego, CA (West Region)
PCAH Committee member Olivia Morgan during the pinning ceremony presented the First Lady with a box set of chapbooks from each class and said: “Mrs. Obama, the National Student Poets Program exists because of the example you have set for all the appointees of the Administration. You have insisted that this White House be open to young people from every corner of the nation. You have inspired us to use whatever tools we have to lift up new voices and invest with generosity, confidence and good faith in today’s teens as future leaders.”
For the next year, the Class of 2016 will follow in the footsteps of the previous four classes and engage audiences of all ages in the art of poetry through readings, workshops and other events at museums, libraries, festivals and other venues. All these activities will focus on the essential role of writing and the arts in academic and personal success, as well as celebrating teens as makers and doers. Their ambassadorial role began immediately after their White House ceremony, with their first public appearance at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. Here they not only recited poems from their portfolio, but also a new poem specifically for this occasion of reading in a gallery space with an object projected behind each poet on which their poems were based.
National Student Poets are selected from a pool of National Medalists in Poetry through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the exclusive pathway to be considered for the program. Each year, from this pool of Gold and Silver Medal winners, 35 semi-finalists are selected based on creativity, dedication to craft and promise. Their work is then submitted to a distinguished jury for the final selection of five National Student Poets. The 2016 jurors included Kwame Alexander (Award-winning Writer); Jennifer Benka (Executive Director, Academy of American Poets); Glenis Redmond (Poet and Performance Artist); Michael Earl Craig (Montana State Poet Laureate); Naomi Shihab Nye (Award-winning Poet); Jacqueline Woodson (Award-winning Writer); Edward Hirsch (President, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation); Alice Quinn (Executive Director, Poetry Society of America); Toi Derricotte (Poet and Cave-Canem Co-founder); and Alfre Woodard (Actor and Activist).
In addition to honoring the National Students Poets, the First Lady recognized the first class of the Spoken Word Ambassador Program, which was established to recognize students who demonstrate an exceptional ability to tell stories, to critically and creatively analyze their worlds, and to present that information in a way that is accessible to large and diverse audiences. The PCAH and the National Endowment for the Humanities have joined with Youth Speaks and Urban Word in leading this new initiative.