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Imagine fifth grade students filled with excitement about writing two weeks after state testing? The Fifth Grade Poetry Slam at Alma Intermediate School builds enthusiasm for writing and adds a new instructional focus at a time of the year which might easily suffer from an emotional dip. “The experience was awesome! Reading in front of everyone got my spine a-tingling,” said one fifth grader. The poetry workshop is funded through the Arkansas Arts Council Mini Grant Program.
Nationally recognized guest poet, Clayton Scott, spent one week working with fifth graders in poetry sessions and taking students to the next level in their expressive writing. Mr. Scott met with all 260 fifth grade students each day. More than 1,200 poems were written by students during the week. Scott taught a variety of poetry styles and techniques along with creative tools that help even the most reluctant writers engage in the process.
A major focus of the week was encouraging students to “confront their inner chicken.” Students were challenged to stand up and speak out as they wrote and shared their poems. “I liked writing my poems and learned that fear shouldn’t keep you from doing something. I learned to confront my inner chicken and how to write better poetry,” said one typically reserved fifth grader.
Mr. Scott used an eagle graphic to represent a balanced approach to writing. For students’ writing to “soar” it takes a balanced effort by both wings. One wing contains the mechanics of good writing. Mr. Scott doesn’t dwell on these elements because they should be in place and are accomplished in editing. He places great emphasis on the creative wing which contains sensory imagery, power words, simile, metaphor, and many more. According to one student, “The experience was awesome. I learned how to use expressive language in all of my writing.”
Students had writing assignments each night based on poetry techniques taught that day. As students shared their poems the following day, Mr. Scott coached students on speech, delivery, and expressive reading.
The week culminated in a Poetry Slam open to the public. Finalists from every class were in competition on the final afternoon. Students were selected to act as judges for the Poetry Slam. Students were designated as masters of ceremony and filled other duties for the event which gave a strong sense of student ownership.
A total of twenty-six finalists performed in the Poetry Slam along with Clayton Scott. Five students were selected as overall trophy winners. It was noted that some students who had not exhibited outstanding writing in the past came to the forefront in the poetry competition. It was a great chance for students to celebrate the successes of their peers. One finalist said, “At the poetry workshop I learned that you can have courage and express the stories of your life through poetry.”
Courage and creativity are exactly what our children need! Alma Intermediate School has found that poetry is a tool for helping students acquire both of these qualities.
It may have been my music theory professor, Dr. Underwood, who said something about Adams Book Store while I was a student at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. I was pleased to find this store located in a house at the east end of Main Street and visited it several times.
I had a few short conversations with Mr. Adams while browsing. I remember being immediately impressed with him. I had never seen a bookstore like this. It was filled with an eclectic and rich collection of books, and he seemed to know where every single one was located.
On one of my visits, he wheeled up and asked if I would help him get something from his living quarters. He may have asked me to move something or retrieve a book from his personal bookshelves but while we were back there, he asked if I might be interested in working a few hours a week. I had no idea at the time but would later realize I was beginning a learning association as significant as any that would occur during my college years. He would become a professor, friend, and mentor. My only regret is that I didn’t ask more questions, listen much closer to what he said, and take notes.
I learned later that he’d broken his neck during an Arkadelphia High School football game in the late 30s. It was to be his last football game because his Aunt Bessie wanted him to devote more time to his piano practice. He was in the eleventh grade. This left him a quadriplegic. He was able to move his arms some and could type by pecking his manual typewriter using a pencil secured to his palm with a rubber band. His breathing was labored, and he would pause for a breath of air before speaking.
I was thinking about him recently and decided to Google his name, fully aware that he’d died in the mid-1980s. I discovered that a biography had been written, entitled Fortune Teller’s Blessing, by Dr. Charles Hughes. I immediately downloaded the e-version and began a fascinating read, learning much of my college mentor’s fascinating backstory.
This reading has caused several memories to emerge from my time working in his store. John loved books, poetry, and writing, but he loved people more. I remember him reading a letter from a lady who was thanking him for helping her discover the author, Loren Easley. After reading that she thought her relationships with authors were more significant than her day-to-day relationships with people, he leaned back in his chair and said, “I don’t think I agree with that.”
Occasionally, John would ask if I’d ever read a certain author probably knowing that I hadn’t. He would then give me a book by the author or a collection of poetry containing poems by the author he’d mentioned.
When I got close to doing my internship, he gave me a hardback copy of The World Bible, a collection of excerpts from many sacred texts. It was signed “To Jim from John Allen and Joy, May 1978.” Joy was his wonderful wife. She took great pleasure in telling me step by step cooking instructions. It was a struggle to listen politely, but she was a sweet lady. I gradually learned that Joy and John were at polar opposites in some areas of philosophy and religion, but their relationship worked.
John was gentle and kind in word and deed, but he was a deep thinker and able to discern thin thinking on my part though he would never confront me directly or belittle. He would simply ask a thoughtful and well-placed question or two and allow me to discover my wayward thinking on my own.
I remember being surprised to learn that during the late 60s and early 70s, John’s name was placed on an FBI watch list containing vocal, and possibly radical, objectors to the Vietnam War. He thought it was odd that they would be concerned about a man confined to a wheelchair in a small town in Arkansas, but his writing had gained their attention. He took some pride in being on that list.
In the afternoons, John would carefully turn on his stereo next to his desk. He would invite me to listen with him as he played a classical selection, occasionally commenting on its beauty or sharing a little tidbit about the composer. Although I was a music major, I think this may have been the first time I actually sat still and listened carefully to music for pure enjoyment.
John would take a deep breath, close his eyes, and sign slightly as the music began. I wonder if he thought of his youth and how he would explore the bluffs of the Ouachita River close by. I wish I could listen to music with John. I’m thankful to have known him but still miss him very much.
Here’s some info about Dr. Hughes’ wonderful book:
Dr. Charles Hughes’ most recent book is A Fortune Teller’s Blessing—The Story of John Allen Adams. During the depths of the Great Depression a handsome and gifted seventeen-year-old high school athlete saw his future shattered when his neck was broken in a football game. Few at the time thought the honor student, Eagle Scout, editor of his school paper, and president of his class every year since the seventh grade would survive. But John Allen Adams, son of a carnival fortune teller, did survive and was able to adapt to his severe handicap and go on to lead a remarkably successful life. Though left a quadriplegic, he proved to be a man of extraordinary inner resources, one who found freedom while bound to a wheelchair and independence while almost totally dependent on those around him.
You can learn more about Hughes and his books at http://www.dochughesbooks.com
June, 2015 Update: A collection of John Allen Adam’s poetry was recently published. This will be a treasure! Thank you Dr. Hughes!