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Missoula Writing Collaborative - 'Poetry saves lives'

Missoula Writing Collaborative - 'Poetry saves lives'

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The Missoula Writing Collaborative, created in 1994, has brought creative writing instruction to approximately 39,000 students in 28 schools in western Montana.

Our writers teach 2,000 students each year in settings ranging from a two-room school in Ovando to multi-classroom Missoula elementary, middle and high schools.

We teach writing in schools shadowed by the Mission Mountains on the Flathead Reservation of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Our 13 published, professional writers teach 12-week writing residencies and compile school anthologies featuring a poem from every student.

At the residency’s conclusion, young poets stand in front of microphones in school cafeterias, gymnasiums and libraries to read their work for family and friends. Our work is funded by individual donations, foundation grants, the Montana Arts Council and the beleaguered National Endowment for the Arts.

To see our writers in action or sign up for our teen and youth summer camps, see

Our work celebrates the power of language. We help student learn to tell their stories – stories about their lives, loves, hopes and sorrows, they shape into poems: odes, pantoums, sestinas, and poems about memory, place and the wild terrain of the imagination.

As they write, students learn to use sensory words to describe their experiences tasting, touching, smelling, seeing and listening to the world around them. They learn how detail drives story. They naturally use metaphors, similes, assonance, dissonance and contrast in their poems – and they learn that these are literary terms.

They learn to explore and articulate emotion. They learn as they read their work aloud to one another that they are not alone with their experiences, which creates a climate of compassion in a classroom. They learn that, once expressed, pain lessens. As our artistic director Sheryl Noethe says, “Poetry saves lives.”

Richard Hugo says poetry is a balance of meaning and music. Poetry, with its distillation of images and language, is more easily adapted to hourlong classroom lessons than longer narrative forms.

Our writers use models from classic literature (think Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams) to writing from the contemporary West (Sandra Alcosser, Richard Hugo) and American Indians (James Welch, Mandy Smoker Broaddus). Writers illustrate the exercises at the board, and then, as students write, writers circulate around the room, reading out interesting lines.

During the last 20 minutes, students read their work aloud. Students applaud and comment on strong images, metaphors and descriptions.

When our writers collaborate with classroom teachers to help students write poetry, all benefit. As Russell School Principal Cindy Christiansen noted, “students learn vocabulary acquisition, written and verbal expression, and the ability to organize and sequence thoughts.”

These skills, noted teacher Pablo fourth-grade teacher Carolyn Pardini, appear in other areas of the curriculum. “Similes appeared in social studies lessons, repetition in reading homework reflections, and addition poems spontaneously appeared in daily writing.”

Each year we see students transformed by poetry. There was one student who did not write for an entire year who, upon learning to write an acrostic poem, said, “Hey, that’s easy!”

After that, the student wrote fluently, poem after poem. There was the student so withdrawn he would not communicate until he stunned the writer, teacher and classmates with a gorgeous poem he read aloud.

At a parent-teachers conference in one class, students spontaneously showed parents their “before” and “after” poems to illustrate the improvement in their writing. This is education at its finest.

Our writers are also transformed by the students. We love watching children discover the power of the spoken word. We love watching students discover how much fun it is to tell a story. We love seeing kids crack up as they read their own poems in front of a class. We kneel down by desks next to students panicked by blank pages, and, as they tell us stories about pickup football game or bike races, and they ask, "Can I write about that?"

We love the look of relief on their faces. We love hearing that pencil begin to fly. We love seeing young adults revising, heads down, seeking just the right words to make their poems sing. We love the flush of pride as children – once so shy they could barely speak above a whisper – reading poems to bleachers full of parents.

The 10 poems on the following pages were chosen by MWC writers. They were selected to highlight the range of schools that the Missoula Writing Collaborative serves in Montana: Seeley-Swan and Ovando to the northeast; Lolo and Florence to the south; Dixon and Arlee to the north, and the varied Missoula schools right in the center.

These poems illustrate the complexity, talent and heart of the students we have the privilege of working with. Enjoy!

Caroline Patterson is the executive director of the Missoula Writing Collaborative.

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