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Summer poetry series enhances teachers' creative outlets

Kristen B. Morales

June 20, 2019

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When Ming Sun steps onto the stage at Hendershots Coffee Bar in a few weeks, she'll be connecting childhood memories with an advanced teaching degree. And she's doing it all through poetry.

Sun is one of nearly a dozen graduate students enrolled in "Poetry for Interdisciplinary Understanding," a summer course through the University of Georgia College of Education that is also connected to three poetry events in July called A Seat in the Shade. The annual class and event series features free poetry readings that are open to the public, and also pushes students to write in different ways and share their experiences—and share them on the stage.

This year's lineup for A Seat in the Shade features a nationally recognized poet as well as local published writers. Readings take place 5:30-7 p.m. on Tuesdays at Hendershots. The lineup includes:

  • July 16: Deidre Sugiuchi and Jericho Brown
  • July 23: Sarah Baugh, Theresa Davis and Collin Kelley
  • July 30: Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor and teacher poets

By day, the students take classes and field trips that expose them to different settings, then are tasked with turning the experience into poetry. By night, the books they read as homework come alive when their authors come to Athens for live readings, followed by question-and-answer sessions.

"I want to show the students that wherever you are, you're always trying new things as a writer," said Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor, a professor in the department of language and literacy education in the College of Education who teaches the course. Her students are typically teachers who are pursuing a graduate degree, and so the experience not only helps connect them to their own writing, but it also helps infuse authenticity into their students' work.

"We tend to write in the language that we attach to certain concepts—for example, 'the sunset is radiant' is a cliché compared with 'the sunset at a barbecue with my family on the Georgia coast,'" she added. "It's the details that resonate the feelings. So much depends on those particulars and those moments, and if they can open up and share that with their students, they'll find new connections with their students. And then you've created community in your classroom."

This will be the second time Sun has taken the class; last year, she admits, she signed up for classes late and wasn't sure what she was getting into. But the experience was enlightening, she said, and as a future teacher of nonnative English speakers—and as a nonnative English speaker herself—she enjoyed the language challenges that poetry presents.

"When you mention a moon in Chinese poems, it means you're missing your hometown or family. But in English poems, it's not the same meaning," said Sun, who graduates this December with a master's degree in TESOL, or teaching English to speakers of other languages. "So, when I cite something in a poem in English, (Cahnmann-Taylor) will ask me, 'What is that? We won't know that.' So I need to explain more about it. It makes me feel more deeply about the language differences."

That deeper level of thinking is what Cahnmann-Taylor aims for, with the idea that the lessons will find their way back to the classrooms of her students. The result? More authentic writing from both teachers and students.

But the guest performers are the icing on the cake, especially since they're open to the public. Cahnmann-Taylor said she seeks out specific criteria for the poets she invites—they must be published by a reputable press, represent a diverse set of styles and put on a good performance, for starters.

The performance, she added, is key.

"It's not just a reading, but a discussion about their craft," she said. Just hearing the work by the poet can sometimes add depth to a work. "Suddenly, reading it out loud, you get something that you didn't get by reading it on the page. And watching someone perform will give you more insight into their work."