Fairfield sponsors “Poetry for Peace,” a writing celebration for community schools

by Nina M. Riccio

Fairfield sponsors “Poetry for Peace,” a writing celebration for community schools

Despite a daylong ice storm that closed all area schools, the University’s Kelley Center was a beehive of activity on Jan. 18, as children, their parents and teachers, along with University students, gathered to celebrate the culmination of the Poetry for Peace contest.

Open to all Bridgeport and Fairfield school children through grade 8, the Poetry for Peace contest has quickly become one of the most cherished traditions of the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. weeklong series of events. Last year, the contest garnered 700 entries; this year, there were over 1100 entrants, all writing a poem on peace – however they define, experience, or envision it.

It’s community outreach at its very best, a program coordinated by Fairfield faculty, with input from Fairfield students in various disciplines, and lots of effort from area teachers working with their own students.

“We recruit a team of student judges from the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions (GSEAP), plus undergraduate students from the English and modern languages departments,” explained Nels Pearson, assistant professor of English and co-coordinator of the contest. “It’s wonderful to witness the discussion between them about what constitutes a good poem. An English major might not be particularly impressed with a student’s use of a certain metaphor, for example, but the education student might point out that, developmentally, that metaphor was very advanced. Ultimately, the criteria [about what makes a good poem] come from our students.”

Cassandra Boskello ’12, an English and Spanish major and one of the judges, said she was surprised at the maturity level of several of the poems.

“I didn’t expect them to be so profound. Lots of the poems reflected the violence of the children’s environment, and that really moved me,” she said.

Each year, the winning authors – this year, there were 70 of them – are invited to bring their families to the campus and to read their poems during the ceremony; their poems and dozens of judges’ favorites are published in a book given to all winners and their school principals.

“The goal is simply to give students the opportunity to reflect creatively on the theme of peace at a time when so much of what they encounter in the media is dominated by images of violence and overwhelmed by the rhetoric of opposition and entrenched positions,” said Dr. Pearson. English teachers since the beginning of time have been telling their young writers to “describe it, don’t define it,’” said Dr. Pearson, “and the best of these poems did just that.”

Even for seasoned educators, it’s hard not to have a favorite. Dr. Jerelyn Johnson, assistant professor of Spanish and one of the co-coordinators of the event, cited one about the author’s annoying cousin: “When I’m not with my cousin that is peace to me. When we are together I wish he’d just let me be!”

The Bridgeport fifth grader read the poem at the University with a dramatic flair that had the audience laughing and applauding. “He annoys me so much, but I love him, after all he is my cousin,” the poem concluded.

“I love it for its message and honesty, and the underlying current of love behind her words,” said Dr. Johnson.

One contestant, Byron, an eighth-grader from Bridgeport’s Waltersville School thanked his teachers and parents for encouraging him, then added that he had spent the summer writing raps, “and that really helped me with this poem,” he said, reading:

My heart can’t be healed …

The bleeding can’t be sealed.

Gazing at the heavy weather

Doesn’t make me feel better.

The only thing I see

Is the fear within me.

“The quality of the poetry, the dynamic between University and community, and the shared leadership provided by our Fairfield faculty, Dr. Pearson and Dr. Johnson, along with their undergraduates were all exemplary outcomes of this event,” noted Dr. Robbin Crabtree, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Drs. Pearson and Johnson encouraged all authors to keep writing and to participate again next year, when students will be able to enter poems written in Spanish as well as English, thanks to a willing cadre of judges from Dr. Johnson’s Spanish classes.

One of those eager to sit on the judges’ panel again is sophomore Mabel Polanco. “I used to enter these types of contests when I was younger and was able to see myself in these poems,” she said. “Each has an individual touch. I’ll definitely do this again next year!”

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