Suspend Your Disbelief

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The Community-Word Project


On a bright Friday morning in late April, I met up with Michele Kotler, Founder and Director of The Community-Word Project (CWP) for a classroom visit to PS/MS 279 in the Bronx. In their own words,

CWP is a New York City based arts-in-education organization that inspires children in underserved communities to read, interpret and respond to their world and to become active citizens through collaborative arts residencies and teacher training program.

David Ciminello and Students

David Ciminello and Students

The K-8 Captain Manuel Rivera, Jr. School bustled with activity. As we entered a classroom packed with 26 fourth-graders, David Ciminello greeted us. David brought poetry, visual art, and performance art together as part of his year-long Teaching Artist residency with CWP.

That spring morning, Mr. Ciminello opened class with vocal calisthenics—a chorus of “Oh I feel so good”—that had the students gleefully chanting those words in the attitude of bacon frying, the color orange, and New York City.

David introduced the subject of the day—Odes—by asking a student to read “My Mother” by Melvin E. Lewis and asked the class to offer ideas on the sensory detail, metaphor, and anaphora of the poem. The students then launched into writing odes to community superheroes. Many of the children chose a parent, sibling, or caretaker and focused so completely on the task at hand that they hardly noticed when the principal announced through the P.A. system that the billowing smoke outside came from a blaze at a dry cleaners some blocks away. Ms. Thomas, the class’s teacher, moved among her pupils offering encouragement.

As the students read out lines from their odes, it was clear the muse thrived among the young poets:

My mother is a steaming bowl of water when she gets mad

My dad is peace
Even when he’s fighting in the war

My mom is the moon, following me every step I take

Michele Kotler in the classroom.

Michele Kotler in the classroom.

CWP has been working with PS/MS 279 for seven years, and the relationships Ms. Kotler has built up within the school over time could be seen in the enthusiastic greetings by teachers and administrators in the hallways. Since its inception in 1997, CWP has served more than 10,000 students and currently has resident artists in 16 New York City public schools.

The arts have suffered in many public schools as they face budget shortfalls, increased standardized testing, and difficult either/or decisions. I take heart that nonprofits like CWP marshal resources, and resident artists, to infuse a bit more poetry, art, and literature into those classrooms. CWP is one program of many—which organizations or individuals in your community have championed literature and the arts for young people? Maybe you’re one of them. If not, consider getting involved.

Further Reading:

  • Make a virtual visit to a CWP classroom:

  • See some of the CWP students’ murals and poems:

  • Interested in making a difference in your own community? Applications for CWP’s 2011-12 Teaching Artist Training and Internship Program are now available. Says the website, “Through our rigorous, year-long Teaching Artist Training and Internship Program, professional writers, visual artists, and performers learn to transform their talents into creative teaching tools to inspire at-risk young people. Every year, over 40 artists graduate from our program, ready to help underserved students gain the literacy, creative thinking, teamwork, and public speaking skills they need to thrive, inside and outside the classroom.” To learn more about the program and apply, visit the CWP website. Applications are due September 21, 2011.

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