In Dr. Felicia Mitchell’s Studies in Poetry course, students learn more than just how to analyze poetry from an academic perspective. Students learn the nature of enjoying and understanding poetry by sharing poetry with others.
This semester, 31 students enrolled in the course participated in service-learning projects that allowed them to read poetry to members of the community. Service sites included area nursing homes, day care centers, and public schools. Several students read to residents of Valley Health Care Center in Chilhowie, Gregory’s Assisted Living in Meadowview, and Grace Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center in Abingdon.
The exercise, which is known as the Poetry in Action Project, served as a catalyst for extending conversations with the community members.
“I think it’s wonderful when students can sit down with people at a nursing home and learn from them as they listen to their stories and sometimes their poems. Often, people will surprise us with poems they have written in the past or poems they write for the students,” said Mitchell, who serves chair of the English Department and a poet herself.
E&H junior Brittany Lloyd visited Kids are Special Christian Day Care in Meadowview to read poetry to children ages 5 to 8.
“On my first visit, I asked the kids if they like poetry, and a few of them told me that they did not. On the day of my last visit, I asked the same question and all of the kids responded with ‘yes!’ I think this was a good experience for me to learn and utilize the concepts of poetry and to help others enjoy poetry, too,” said Lloyd, who is planning to teach after graduation.
First-year student Julian Bright read poetry to students at Meadowview Elementary. “My first day with the kids was such an enjoyable experience because I gained the confidence needed to communicate, analyze and evaluate the poems,” said Bright.
Mitchell said her students do more than visit their service sites and read poetry. They have to write and share reflection logs that reinforce the connections between literary concepts taught in the class and literary concepts applied to real-life experiences with poetry. They also write a creative nonfiction essay that shares their insights from the service project. During class time, the students learn to read poems more critically. Complementary poetry-writing activities nurture connections between poetry and personal interests.
"In class, sometimes I lecture, and sometimes students converse,” explained Mitchell. “In the class, we find a way to make a circle in a big room and offer insights into the poems that they read for homework. In addition to analyzing poetry, we also write some. Sometimes students write poems in response to their service projects, and sometimes I will give a prompt in class to help reinforce some idea from a poem."
The professor said an interesting development this semester was the “meta-conversation,” a poem that was composed collaboratively on a computer and projected on the board. Some students sat in a circle and talked, while other students wrote poetry.
Mitchell is just one of many professors at the college who integrate service learning into course work. Service learning at Emory & Henry joins classroom teaching and learning with engagement in Southwest Virginia communities through service. “Service learning is as much about making a difference in the community as it is about transforming our students’ lives,” said Robin Grossman, who coordinates the placements. “A poem written by class member Masha Campbell (see below) gives a glimpse into the transformation that can occur when students are open to the possibilities and willing to take risks and challenge themselves in their service-learning placements.”
Give a Chance
We come in, to do what we have been told to do.
Once we walk in, everything might change.
Every child stares at us like we're a new invention.
We speak our introductory statements and try to live the scenes.
I never thought I would like children again.
How they spew words I can't always understand.
But somehow I make sense of it.
I have to laugh at myself for being so unsure.
Then we start to read; we see the kids listen.
That was unexpected.
I would ask "what did the tree do?" And they would answer.
I always listened.
By the time they grew tired, I started to act out the part.
They loved it.
By the time we see them for the last time, they remember my name.
There was tenderness in what I saw.
I guess it wasn't so mechanical after all.
by Masha Campbell
Class of 2013