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Stayin’ alive: keeping poetry relevant

ST. IGNATIUS – Mention poetry and many people turn away thinking it’s the boring stuff of dead people.

On Feb. 28, fourth and fifth-grade students in Mission Elementary School changed their minds about poetry with the help of real life poet Rachel Mindell, who helped four classes figure out how to face the blank page.

“She is helpful,” said Nashaunte Stevens, 11. “I never wrote poetry before and she makes it fun.” 

Mindell, about to graduate from the University of Montana with a master’s degree focusing on poetry, plans to support the kids through twelve weeks of poetry lessons by using the examples of many Native American poets. 

Students began the lesson by reading a poem called “If I Lived In That House” by Joseph McGeshick of the Fort Peck Reservation. They discovered poetic freedom as they read his poem.

“Where are the periods?” one student asked, commenting on the formatting of poems.

Mindell explained that poetry allows a person to be creative and “step outside the language of normal grammar.” 

The students took that creative cue and dug into their imaginations to find a bug scuttling across the floor, fairies being guarded by a dragon and creatures chilled by the whoosh of the wind —  far from boring.

“I didn’t like poetry before,” Keller Pitner, 9, said. “But I’ve gotten to write some and I’ve changed my mind.” 

Keller explained his writing process with the insight of a poet beyond his nine years.

“First, I get a general idea,” he said. “I look for something I can get my feelings out with. I didn’t want to do just any occasional poem. I wanted it to stand out.”

Each move he made through the poem was heavily considered as if he were working his way through a chess game.

“I thought, what if I do this or that. In this situation, there were so many objects I could use. I had all of these ideas I could get out of my system,” Keller said.

One last step finished the poem.

“When I’m finished, I draw a picture on the back to pull it all together and make sure I found all the details,” he said.

The young poets bravely stood in front of the class and shared their lines. Students were directed to snap their fingers after each reading.

“It’s a poet thing to give snaps — and it’s groovy,” Mindell said. 

Mindell plans to take the students finest poems from the poetry project and publish them in an anthology for the school.

“It’ll be their first published poem,” she said. “Even if they don’t continue writing poetry, they’ve been exposed to it. Kids come from all kinds of backgrounds and poetry is the way they can express themselves and explore how they see themselves. The main idea is for them to enjoy it.” 

Mindell is part of The Missoula Writing Collaborative that brings writers and kids together in classrooms. The program is funded by a grant from the NEA Foundation. The school’s Indian Education Committee helped supplement the grant. 

 “It’s such a neat thing to give the kids the opportunity to work with a professional poet,” teacher Tim Krantz said. “It allows us to celebrate the great writing kids do.” 

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