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River Poems: A Q&A with Cai Sherley (SC ’19) on Collaborating with Campus School 3rd Graders

Smith College senior Cai Sherley ‘19 designed and facilitated a series of poetry-writing workshops in Campus School third grade classrooms this semester, in collaboration with the Poetry Center, Campus School Curriculum Director, and Smith’s Department of Education. Below, Meghan Wicks of Campus School speaks with Cai in a Q&A about her collaborative process.

MW: So tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your background? What brought you to Smith as a student?

CS: “I’m originally from Boston, Massachusetts. My mom’s best friend went to Smith, and I did the summer science engineering program, even though I had no interest in doing science. I really liked Smith during that summer in high school, so that’s why I came. I’m an Africana Studies major, I’m on the rugby team, and I do music on the side. My time at Smith has really been a process of learning and re-learning what my interests are. What I thought I was going to be doing post-grad at the beginning of Smith is very different than what I [think I will] be doing now. I thought I would be going right into a PhD program in Africana Studies, but now I’m taking a year off and looking at Urban Education programs.”

MW:  How did your collaboration with the Campus School third grade start?

CS: “Matt Donovan, who is the head of the Poetry Center, was helping me out, and he mentioned in passing a poetry collaboration with the Campus School. And I was like, hold up- let’s rewind. I am a Mellon researcher, my research is on poems written by black children in the 1970s, and I’ve been a camp counselor for a very long time and have been taking classes at Hampshire College, where we got to teach poetry workshops to eighth graders through a homeschool program and do mentorship with some high school students. So I was basically telling Matt that I have this background in youth poetry. It’s kind of my thing right now. Then through him, we had a meeting with Graeham Dodd [Curriculum Director at Campus School], and then it just seemed like [a collaboration] would make sense. Originally there was supposed to be an education major working with me on the project; that just ended up not being feasible for the students who were originally interested. After meeting with [third grade teachers] Jan and Amanda, and also Carol Berner [professor of Education at Smith], they kind of were like, ‘We think you can do it!,’ and have been very much helping me in the process since then.”

MW: So, going back to your study of African-American children’s poetry in the ‘70s, do you see any parallels between that work and work with the kids at the Campus School?

CS: “Yeah, I think they feel in some ways deeply related to me because a lot of my research is thinking about how black children in the 1970s are writing all this poetry and are being published and how that was kind of an anomaly– 1971 and there’s five books of poetry by black children published! And that doesn’t ever happen again, that spring of publications. So a lot of my work is thinking about poetry with young people as a means of allowing them space to express themselves, and the way that gets complicated by adult intervention, and the politics of any given kind of era.

When I have been teaching these poetry workshops and getting to do this awesome work with the third graders and seeing their ideas and their thoughts, it feels very related because I’ve been very conscious the whole time. The tension between teaching poetry in a school environment and the necessity of there being structural learning that happens, right? So my wanting to incorporate talking about personification with them, or thinking about line breaks, in a very constructive way, and then also the idea that young people have agency and they have their own creative ways of doing things and not wanting to stifle that! All of that kind of thinking has come from working with Rachel Conrad at Hampshire College. And through doing my Mellon research. [It’s] very connected in that way.”

MW: What has it been like being in third grade? What have you observed? Memorable moments? Biggest accomplishments?

CS: “First of all, I love third grade. Even when I was a camp counselor for five years, the third grade age group… those are my people.  I was really excited to be working with the third graders. I think some of the things that I noticed first and foremost, [and] this might not be obvious, there’s just a lot of paper involved with trying to make workshops happen– just logistical things. I became a folders person through this process! And I became way more organized out of necessity.

Some memorable moments: the first one is when I was in Amanda’s class at the end of my first workshop with the kids. A student said, “this was more fun than I thought it would be!” Okay, like that’s a good barometer for how it’s going. But I think I’ve genuinely just been amazed by the language that they’re using, the kind of images. I was also honestly surprised that they were so into it. I think that one of the things about the Campus School is that I think that students are being introduced to different literary forms in a much more open and exciting way than I think often happens in traditional public schools, just because of the regiment that those schools have. It was a very eye-opening experience for me that, while working with my third graders over the summer in Brooklyn, when we were trying to do poetry workshops, the first thing was just encouraging them to get over and get past the idea that writing was something that intimidated them. They were all at different writing and reading levels, so a lot of the intimidation for them with poetry was, like, ‘poetry represents something that I am afraid, that I can’t do,’ like being able to write something out and be able to put ideas down on paper. I felt there was much less of that hesitation [here], and I wasn’t expecting that.

Some challenging moments were just [surrounding the fact] that I’m new to them. The teachers were incredibly helpful, but as a workshop leader, I want to be able to support [students], but I know I don’t have the tools to be the person to say, like, “lean in, into this situation,” so it was also a lesson in asking for help and working with the teachers and figuring [it] out. I think the best moments have just been seeing these poems and seeing the revision process. The second workshop week, we did this thing about ‘How do you revise your poem? How do you add things that you want and take things out? They wrote the poem on one side of the page of their notebooks, and they wrote the revisions on the other side, and the attention with which they did the revisions was just so beautiful. It’s just night and day, the first and second drafts, and that’s awesome.”

MW: Did anything unexpected come out of the project?

CS: “The biggest thing I didn’t expect… last week we talked about line breaks and how you can shape your poem in many different ways. I knew that they were all very creative, and I’m going to be formatting their poems for the book the way that they have asked me to, and some of them have actually given me a real challenge! There were some very abstract ways that they want [their] poems formatted. And I think I underestimated their creativity. They have these incredible acrostic up-and-down sloping words, specific things that they wanted their poem to look [like] on the page. I don’t think I realized just how, you know, like any artists, they’re very particular about how they want things to look. I feel very honored that I get to make that happen for them. And also very intimidated.”

MW: What do you hope third graders have taken away from this unit?

CS: “The idea that poetry is a process, and that it is a process that belongs to each individual poet. One of the things that I noticed the most when we were doing poetry is that a lot of them were writing their poems the first time in paragraphs, because that’s how you learn to write in school. I hope that they take away that they can write poems however they want to, and that they have the agency to decide how a poem changes. There are so many sensory things that come into poetry that they are capable of doing. I don’t think poetry is something you have to wait for until you’re older. You can be a poet at any age! They have their poetry notebooks now and all of them asked “Can we keep them?” And I was like, “Yes, yes!” A lot of them seem very excited about that, so I hope that this is sparking some excitement about continuing to write poetry.”

MW: How has this informed your own poetry?

CS: “Oh my gosh. Honestly, so much. Mostly because I realized, in talking with them about the things that you can do in writing a poem, that it actually pushed me, too. I take poetry courses, and I’m doing this work to actually live up to those ideals myself. I have started trying to revise my poems in the way that I show [kids] to revise their poems, and even talking with them about poem shape has made me think more about my poem structures. It also has been helpful in the sense that they are so creative! Every single one of their poems has a line in it that’s so original. It’s really pushed me, in my own work, to step outside of the way that you can kind of get stuck in “What is a poem supposed to be?” and “What is a poem supposed to sound like?” to kind of embrace this reckless abandonment with which they all approached their poetry.

MW: What do you notice about the Campus School in the context of the Smith community here?

CS: “The biggest thing that I’ve noticed is there’s a huge interest [in], and welcoming of, collaboration. There’s a lot of trust that happens as a result of that. I have experience in youth work, but I’m not an education major, and there was so much support for me in terms of getting feedback on the lesson plans, and also just a [sense] of “We’re here if you need us.” I think that that also registers with the students as well. They’re so open to new people coming in to work with them, and they’re also really able to tell you what they need or don’t need. I think that that’s a thing about agency that I think the Campus School offers to, not just their students, but also to teachers and Smith College students who are coming into these spaces. That’s an incredibly important skill that the Campus School is encouraging [in] young people– to have a voice and to feel safe enough to say, “I don’t want to do this,” or “I would like to do this this way,” [or] “ I have a question that I need you to answer.” In the same way that being able to have people who are aspiring educators test out the ways that we might want to go about facilitating lesson plans, I think that that’s a rare opportunity.”

MW: If you could give advice to other Smith students hoping to establish relationships with other organizations in the community, what advice would you give?

CS: “One of my big things would be to listen…  I think one piece of advice is being open to change and being able to bend to the needs of both the school or whatever organization you’re working with, and then also people you’re teaching or collaborating with. I think another thing is to DO it! There are plenty of reasons why I could have told myself “ I shouldn’t do this” or thought “I’m not qualified.” I think the big thing is to go for it if you feel like you have the commitment and you feel like you have the skills– and to also ask for help! I needed a lot of help to be able to make this a fruitful process. If I had the chance to do it again, it would probably be even better. There’s still things that I’m learning and working on!”


Edited by Brittany Collins

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