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Reporting from St. Louis: A Brief History of PIO in St. Louis

I was first introduced to Poetry Inside Out by one of St. Louis’s revered teaching artists, poet and children’s book author Susan Grisgby. Susan was the first person to teach the PIO curriculum in St. Louis and has introduced PIO to three St. Louis schools since 2011. In particular, Susan had wonderful results with the students at Mason Elementary (SLPS), whose student population consists of 33% English Language Learners. Susan taught the curriculum at Mason for five years.

I was new to St. Louis, and I met Susan as a fellow teaching artist at COCA (Center of Creative Arts) and the St. Louis Poetry Center. I had previously worked as a writer-in-residence in Houston for the nonprofit Writers in the Schools in a few elementary schools, a hospital, and an art museum. I was excited to continue my work in St. Louis and was curious to learn more about PIO and why Susan was so passionate about the work.

Susan knew what a gem the curriculum was to her students. Some of them were navigating the English language for the first time, and she had seen how responsive the students were to translating poems and even creating their own work. Susan was inspired to facilitate the partnership between the St. Louis Poetry Center and the Center for the Art of Translation (CAT), in order to expand the program’s reach. Right now, we are celebrating our first year as curriculum partners.

One unusually warm December morning, I got coffee with Erin Quick, director of St. Louis Poetry Center (SLPC), to chat about the partnership that SLPC and CAT have formed. Erin was enthusiastic and hopeful about PIO’s current and future impact on the students and teachers in St. Louis. She said, “Anything that can help foster understanding and build bridges is a powerful tool and experience to be able to offer. To me, it’s poetry at its very best. It’s art as a connector and a change agent.”

Erin has served as director, SLPC’s first full-time director, for a little over a year, with prior experience in nonprofit management and program development. She said she was excited to get back into the literary arts and that it was “serendipitous” there was an opening at St. Louis Poetry Center. She had previously studied poetry and is a poet herself.

Susan convinced Erin in her new role as director to attend the PIO training in November 2016 in San Francisco, and that experience sealed the deal. Erin’s job as SLPC director is multifaceted, from helping to run local reading series to increasing community programs to hosting workshops, but she also has made it a goal to strengthen SLPC’s education program. She thinks that PIO is a great fit for the St. Louis community. Erin loves PIO’s collaborative process and believes it is “a unique and different way to approach writing.” She also loves that you don’t have to be a poet to start with. It’s accessible and really serves all students.

Within just one year, St. Louis Poetry Center has been able to expand the use of the PIO curriculum from 1 school to 4 schools and has increased exposure from 50 students to 350 students in St. Louis.

One of the new schools using the PIO curriculum this year is The Soulard School, a young, independent elementary school located in the Soulard neighborhood, an economically and culturally diverse neighborhood two miles south of downtown St. Louis. The Soulard School’s mission is to offer and promote equitable tuition, integrated studies curriculum, and community engagement.

Phil McFarlane

Phil McFarlane, a 5th grade teacher at The Soulard School, has enjoyed using PIO in his classroom this fall. His own route to teaching came via acting in Chicago, where he also worked as a teacher’s aide and later as a teacher at a Montessori school in the Oak Park neighborhood. Phil is the local “gardener” at the school, helping the school follow their farm-to-table philosophy. Phil described The Soulard School as a place that encourages students to think of themselves as lifelong learners. Learning the tools of poetry and translation, like learning to garden, can help encourage this approach.

Phil said that The Soulard School offers some instruction in Spanish. He was initially attracted to PIO because it introduces students to such a wide variety of languages. His students have even enthusiastically shouted out which language they want to focus on for their next unit.

“The first part of the translation is like a puzzle. It really takes the edge off of working with a different language and working with poetry.”

Phil said that because the curriculum utilizes a collaborative process, he hasn’t had any resistance from students to doing the work. He emphasized, “Dialoguing about the poem makes the translations easier and more accessible for the students.”

During the students’ latest translation, students began independently to create and perform a song for their poem during the “making it flow” step of the translation process. This inspired further creative interpretations from other students.

Phil said the students have begun to work on a project to tell the story of The Soulard School itself. He believes the work the students have done with PIO so far is going to help them with this creative process. Phil said, “We all have stories to tell,” and the PIO curriculum is something that embodies this.

I hope to continue to share more stories and highlights on the blog from our amazing St. Louis educators. Stay tuned!