‘All power to the poets” was the mantra last week in classrooms at Ames School in Riverside. Its invocation by poet/educator Bill Buczinsky provokes an immediate response – “All power to the poets” – from students, who have been working closely with him all week.
Buczinsky was in the school all week, beginning Jan. 11, introducing the children to poetry through music, rhythm and images that kids translate into poems. Several of those students read their poems during an all-school assembly Friday afternoon that capped the weeklong workshop.
“As a kid I loved stories and particularly music,” said Buczinsky, who left a short career in banking to pursue a degree in divinity and then as a high school English teacher. “In college I started working with kids, and there was always this great communication I had with them. After five years of banking, I thought about what I should be spending my time doing.”
For the past 14 years, he’s been hiring himself out to school districts and other institutions as an artist-in-residence through his company A Child’s Voice. In District 96, he has been hired at both central and Ames schools through the PTA organizations, which fund such programs. The PTA shelled out $4,500 for the week-long program last week.
“He’s generated tremendous enthusiasm in the students, which they have gone and shared at home as well,” said Ames School Principal Colleen Lieggi. “Anytime you can have a hands on experience like this, then the students can internalize the topic.”
In the classroom, Buczinsky turns poetry into a kind of game, interspersed with snippets of rhythmic verse, catchy lines and musical interludes.
Fourth-graders on Thursday sat mesmerized by Buczinsky as he introduced writing poetry to them.
“If you want to play poetry, you need the right equipment,” he said, “words, rhythm and images.” He passed out different images – some abstract, some humorous photos, some close-ups of people and flowers – and had the students write lists of words inspired by the images.
“Imagine putting the words in your hands and shaking them up,” he said. “We like to shake it up. We don’t want to make it in a prosaic way.”
The resulting word combinations are remarkably quirky and evocative, and Buczinsky points out the internal rhythm of the words and encourages students to build on the images and create contrasts.
“I don’t spend time on telling them what a haiku is or the structure of a sonnet,” Buczinsky said. “I’m giving every kid a simple palette – images you can work with, character, metaphor, contrast and any musical device you can throw in there.”
Emphasizing poetry in this kind of workshop meshes with District 96’s new push toward improving language arts, said Lieggi.
“What I like is that he helps children find their voice in writing,” Lieggi said, “developing word choices and connecting them to real-life experiences with writing.”
The key to making that connection, according to Buczinsky, is generating enthusiasm for writing.
“The main thing is enthusiasm,” Buczinsky said. “Nothing happens without a kind of enthusiasm. If I can build a little spark under it, they’ll take the ball and run.”