Rachel Lomot | 4/4/14 5:24pm
Joseph Green doesn’t stop moving. He moves from school to school; from one meeting to another; from picking up his son early in the morning to bar tending late at night; and from paycheck to paycheck.
Green doesn’t stop moving because he can’t. In his journey of co-founding poetryN.O.W., a non-profit organization which aims to bring poetry to local middle and high schools, he has come to find students depend on him.
“You have to go through for the people that are counting on you,” Green said. “Whether or not I volunteered to have these kids counting on me, they are counting on me now.”
Green and his co-founder Brian Hannon created poetryN.O.W. by accident three years ago at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Va.
“I started doing spoken word poetry in class, and the next year I wanted to start an after school club to maintain some kind of enthusiasm for it throughout the year, and kids started coming on their own,” said Hannon.
Green and Hannon taught poetry in one of Hannon’s English classes once a month. Soon, once a month became once a week. Then once a week became a daily request. Then it became a full-time job.
After showing Louder than a Bomb, a film which documents the largest youth slam poetry contest in Chicago, to 30 teachers, six were convinced a poetry club was something that would benefit the students.
When beginning to search for an outline of how to create the club, Green thought he would be able to just look to other school’s programs. However, he found no schools in the northern Virginia area had poetry clubs.
Green described the area as a “Giant wasteland of no creative writing programs.”
But he kept moving.
An idea becomes reality in the classroom
Over the course of the three years poetryN.O.W. has been active in the noVa area, it has turned into something unique. Today the club is in 14 schools in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
In the past two years the club has exploded and become an organizer for the largest teen poetry competition in the area, Louder than a Bomb, the same competition that originally inspired the first meeting with 30 teachers, according to poetryN.O.W.’s website.
Every time a student reads a poem Green will fidget in his seat, listening with an intense focus that is rarely present in a world full of constant movement. Although Green may have moved to one corner to chat with a student or gone back and checked his phone for messages, the second a student begins a poem he stops to listen. For him, that moment when a student opens up is all that matters.
After each poem he responds with thoughtful remarks, and although very nit-picky, they almost always turn into bigger life lessons for the students.
A boy in the far back corner of the classroom offers to read his poem. He asks, “Do I have to stand?” Immediately everyone says yes.
There is a process Green has learned to follow in order to teach students confidence and public speaking skills.
“You see a kid come in and they’re super shy and they are really into themselves because nerdom is their coolness, it’s their Linus blanket that they hold on to,” Green said.
The first step: making them stand up. When students stand up, they read louder and feel more empowered.
Step two is to have everyone clap. Step three, ask the other students to respond to the poem read. What did they like about it? How did it make them feel?
“For most of these kids, even at the age 13, 14, 15, it is the first time that anyone has actually listened to them,” Green said. “The purpose of the club is to have a safe space for kids to share and be listened to.”
Students respond to being heard. After being involved in the program for a few weeks, students show improved performance skills and writing ability, according to Brannan.
“It teaches them how to write poetry, but more importantly it teaches them the intricacies of language and the purpose behind writing in certain ways,” Brannan said.
So the shy boy in the corner readers his poem. And students react. One girl, looking the complete opposite direction of the boy, smiles after a line. Her dark eyes light up as she relates to the content. A moment shared.
Leaving financial security behind
Money has been tough since poetryN.O.W.’s formation. The project has seen its ups and downs, and for Green and Hannon, a teacher and a poet, it is a constant series of trials and errors.
Currently, poetryN.O.W. is not independent. Since October 2012, it has been financially sponsored under United Charitable Programs, a non-profit that helps other non-profits trying to get on their feet. For poetryN.O.W., it has been a blessing and a foothold to keep them alive as they search for more donors.
The local school administrations are on board. According to Green, many of the administration members support the club and even come to the poetry slams.
“It’s not that they don’t want us, it’s that they don’t want to pay for us,” Green said.
When trying to explain his mission to donors, Green struggles to answer a crucial question: Is poetry worth it?
In this world there are a plethora of issues to tackle. Children are hungry. Disease is rampant. Poverty and violence are daily issues in many societies, especially in the lower income areas of Alexandria. Why then is poetry a noble enough cause to receive people’s money?
Poetry, according to Green, makes the world a better place. It brings empathy into people’s lives that could not see it before. Through the curriculum he created, the club has become more than just a place where students read poems. It is a live and ever-changing outlet for students to express themselves and ask the big questions. They talk about the politics in their own neighborhoods, about poverty across the world, about ignorance and how to avoid it.
“I don’t teach kids poetry so the world can have more poets,” Green said. “I teach kids poetry so that the world will have more empathetic human beings.”
One of the things Green enjoys most is when he finally stops moving, when students begin interacting without him.
On Nov. 14, poetryN.O.W. members came together at the Northern Virginia invitational poetry slam. A total of 14 schools and 300 students from all different walks of life came to share their poems. They met kids with similar interests. After the slam, students stayed connected through social media and continued the conversation.
“Kids from the bad part of Alexandria get to meet kids from the suburbs. All of a sudden both of these kids get to see the other side of the street, and realize that the differences may be there economically, but they’re not there humanly,” Green said. “We all feel, and that’s universal.”