Meggie with Armoney, age 6,
at George R. Brown Convention Center

Days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, WITS Program Manager, Meggie Monahan, volunteered at George R. Brown Convention Center, reading, writing, and playing with children who had been displaced by the storm and floodwaters. Meggie reflects on the power of imagination, the generosity of listening, and the resilience of children. Read an excerpt from “The Shelter of Imagination,” which originally aired on KPFT 90.1 FM’s “So, What’s Your Story?”.

When I was a child, our sticky Pennsylvania summers were filled with “make-believe” games. My siblings and I strung stage curtains out of old Sesame Street bed sheets. We wrote new & improved scripts for our favorite Disney movies, and we choreographed music videos for Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” album. Then one summer, our parents got a new refrigerator. And in the weeks to follow, that huge empty box in the garage became pure and total magic. It was our special hideout: a dark and cool refuge from parents and chores, an escape from mosquitoes, and a ticket to a bigger world.

I haven’t thought about that refrigerator box in a long time. But last week at the George R Brown Convention Center, I recognized it from across the room as Davion and Abu led me by the hand to their special fort. We snaked our way through a sea of cots and blankets and belongings, and there was this beautiful empty box— a space that could be anything at all, anything they wanted it to be. There, smack-dab in the middle of noise and need and exhaustion and loss, these boys had chosen to stand on the shoreline of their imaginations and create a new, more hopeful world.

I came to Houston to study creative writing, and I stayed in Houston because of Writers in the Schools, an organization that believes in the life-saving power of the imagination. We believe that every child has a voice, that every voice is valuable and deserves to be heard— and that the act of sharing our stories is what makes us human, and what connects us to each other. When talking about WITS, I like to say that “wherever kids are, that’s where we want to be,” and that includes inside a cardboard box in the middle of the 4th largest city in the nation.

In the aftermath of Harvey, I’ve had the opportunity to sit with some of our city’s children at the GRB and the NRG and listen to their voices. And it has reminded me and affirmed in me two things: one, that kids are kids wherever they go. And two, that playfulness, imagination, and creativity are trustworthy tools for healing. Even after being displaced by a hurricane, kids want to sit in your lap and wear your sunglasses. They want to pretend to be tigers and practice their super hero moves with you, cover you in stickers, and braid your hair. Most of all, when they believe you are truly listening, kids want to talk. They are natural storytellers, and they want to tell you about their pets and their best friends and their dream vacations, and what they want to be when they grow up. And at WITS, our most important job is to listen— to really listen— and to celebrate and encourage and elevate children’s words at every level.

And that’s what I love about WITS: that we as a community of writers are committed to excavating and elevating the stories of our young people, and emboldening them to use their words to create a more just and beautiful world. And one day these kiddos— the Davions and Abus and Tianas and Bobbies and Anthonys and Nathans and Christiannas and Zias— all of these children are going to tell stories to their children about what happened when it rained for days and days they needed to leave their homes and live in a new and unfamiliar place. And it’s my hope that peppered within their stories and their families’ stories, there might be some small, treasured moments of play, lightness, and getting to be a kid, even in the midst of tragedy.

There is an Irish saying that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live,” and I would expand upon that by saying, “It is in the stories of each other that the people live.” When we take the time to sit and listen to the story of another person, especially a child, they may not know where to start— but the act of listening is powerful and invites generosity and willingness in the speaker. And when children know they are being listened to, they can’t help but fill empty spaces— air and pages and cardboard boxes— with all kinds of magic. Their giggles bounce across poured concrete floors. Their litanies of favorite foods transform phrases like “shrimp with garlic butter” into prayerful syllables in a crowded convention hall. And their Red Ninja lava super powers are, somehow, enough to defeat the Blue Ninja’s endless waves of water.

Jarvis, age 5, tells his story, “Batman and Robin Saving People,” through a drawing.

Dear WITS Family,

Finally the rain has ended in Houston. The storm has affected each of us in some way, even those of us lucky enough to avoid flood waters.

After five days of mad precipitation, the deluge transformed into mist and disappeared. That’s when I noticed my Instagram feed was populated with hundreds of sky photos—not dramatic sunsets or hyperbolic clouds, just pale blue sky. Here in Houston, we have never appreciated blue sky as much as we have this week.

When we asked the WITS Writers if they wanted to volunteer to work with flood-affected families, all 30 spots filled in less than an hour. I am humbled to work with such talented, authentic, and generous poets and writers.

Thousands of evacuated families are living in the George R. Brown Convention Center. Although many of the children have experienced trauma, we are not asking them directly about their experience. Instead WITS Writers are bringing joy and playfulness to these kids, telling stories, building houses out of blocks, and pretending to be cars or frogs. As we’ve discovered in the classroom, the stories we most need to share come through, regardless of the subject matter. Humans are storytellers to the core. We connect with one another through language. Through poetry. That’s what makes WITS a powerful part of the healing process.

I have been moved beyond belief by the spirit of generosity demonstrated here in Houston this week. Our Democratic Mayor and our Republican County Commissioner are working as a dynamic duo. It seems as though everyone who remains unscathed is pitching in, helping to feed, clothe, and support those in need. Even the pop radio station that my cynical teens like best has been sharing tales of human kindness, ending with the refrain: “We are all neighbors. We are all family. We are #HoustonStrong.”

Nothing has brought our city together like this moment. It is truly inspiring. It makes me want to work harder than ever to bring the healing power of storytelling to every Houston child.

With love,

Robin

Joshua Nguyen, Robin Reagler, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Emanualee Bean, and Reyes Ramirez working for Houston’s recovery after Hurricane Harvey.

This morning, we received a touching gift – a poem written by one of our Writers in the Schools (WITS) students, Eshaan.

Eshaan, a 6th grader, crafted this poem during the course of his family’s journey through Harvey, and offers it up to the city of Houston as a way of bringing everyone together with words of hope.

Starting this week, WITS is volunteering at shelters to help more of our young neighbors tell their stories, because storytelling is healing, and we are #houstonstrong.

Hurricane Harvey: A Terrifying Tempest

Daily gales gossip of terror,
And tornadoes clone as if in infinite mirrors,
God watches over us though,
And as the winds blow,
He oversees,
Cities turning into seas.

I feel helpless,
As I pray for victims’ wellness.
Distraught and crying,
Kin of victims sighing,
Why is Mother Nature so cruel?

One minute there is sunrise,
The next moment you hear cries,
Young babies,
Old ladies,
All trapped in this haplessness.

A second Noah’s Ark,
God tells us to hark!
Batten down the hatches,
And as He snaps trees like matches,
Remember we are all one.

As bombs explode,
And tears flow,
Those on cloud seven,
Come down from heaven.
As barrages fire,
All unite in this horrid quagmire.

As we come together,
We will remake Houston for the better.
Resurrection is impossible,
But together we make it possible.
Harvey left distraught in his wake,
Many a person who stay awake.
If we unite as one,
We can get rebuilding done.

Neighbors help neighbors,
And the common man labors.
The hand hardened from oaring,
Helpful souls soaring.
911 is overworked,
As residents do their tornado homework.

We must pray,
And not stray,
Stay calm and strong,
For I believe God will see us through this storm.

By Eshaan

Death is not

a tall figure dressed

in black.

It doesn’t have an intimidating

black cloak

or a skull for a face,

and it doesn’t bear a scythe to kill you.

We shouldn’t have to see Death as

this monster,

this scary,

violent,

ruthless

monster.

Maybe if we saw

Death

in a different light, not as a scary

entity, but as a small

but strong,

kitten

with dark–but not black–fur

and large, white, caring eyes,

we wouldn’t be so afraid

when Death crawls into our laps

to take us away.

 

by Cheyenne, 7th grade

Day One

The human form communicates with the mouth.

Day Two

The human form has a very round head.

Day Three

The human form has body types.

Day Four

The human form has different types

of fun and toys.

Day Five

Their planet has grass. They have

cheeseburgers and fries. They have weird names like

Ja’Sanderia.

Day Six

This is my final day on planet Earth.

I will stay at what they call the beach.

 

by Ja’Sanderia, 4th grade

 

The fire beside her was freshly

Lit and crackling. He stood there,

Above her sleeping body,

Quiet and waiting,

Waiting for her to awake from her

Peaceful sleep. The last

Dose of sunlight shone

On her face. Before, he too,

Went to sleep for the night,

He stood there thinking,

Thinking of what chaos would come

After this silent morning.

“Why am I doing this?”

Unable to find the answer,

He stood there watching,

Watching her and waiting.

 

by Mary, 10th grade

 

I am going to help the world

and make machines

that make food for poor people.

I am going to do everything that I can

to give them money.

I will make more money,

help schools, help teachers, and help others.

I will help insects and animals

living on the street,

help babies, help people who need cars fixed.

I will help other planets.

I will never give up.

I will try my best.

 

by Mia,1st grade


At 7 p.m. on Sunday, half an hour before the Meta-Four Houston vs. Houston VIP Send-Off Slam was set to begin, the performance space at Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston (MATCH) was already nearly full of families, friends, and fans awaiting an evening of pulse-pounding, breathtaking poetry.

The Send-Off Slam, part of a yearly slate of events leading up to Meta-Four Houston’s journey to Brave New Voices International, is more family reunion than competition. It’s a chance for Houston V.I.P., the nationally acclaimed adult slam team, to give their blessing and best wishes to the youth of Meta-Four. With many former members of Meta-Four going on to join Houston V.I.P. as adults, the collaboration serves to cultivate the next generation of gifted slam poets and grow Houston’s poetry scene year by year.

When all the performing team members and judges were in place, Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean, head coach of this year’s Meta-Four team and the DJ/emcee/scorekeeper of the night, kicked off the event with an introduction to the roots of slam poetry and an explanation of the slam’s format before volunteering himself as the “sacrificial poet,” the first performer of the night to brave the judges’ evaluations and the audience’s reactions.

After a joking round of all ones (with a single nine) for the sacrificial poet, the competition began in earnest. First up was Meta-Four, performing a searing group poem about school shootings and America’s seeming indifference to gun violence. Next, Houston V.I.P. sent up a single team member whose voice trembled with emotion as she performed a poem comparing black lives ended too soon to flowers ripped from the ground before being given a chance to fully bloom.

With each round came individual and group poems from both teams that covered a wide range of personal and political themes: “problem kids” in school, human trafficking in Houston, fears and phobias, and self-defining success in the face of personal challenges. The collection of performances had viewers in spellbound silence, peals of laughter, and most of all, full of shouts and snaps.

The judges were tough, and as is tradition in the slam world, audience members were quite vocal in reacting to the judges’ scores. Only one poem received not just one, but multiple scores of ten out of ten: MetaFour’s “Kill Bill,” a haunting poem about the daughter left behind in the wake of Philando Castille’s murder, and the irony of fictional characters receiving justice that real-life victims do not. The final tally was close, with only seven-tenths of a point difference, but Meta-Four emerged victorious.

This year’s send-off held a special significance, coming at the ten year mark for Meta-Four. The youth slam team was founded in 2007 by Shannon Buggs, a member of the WITS Board of Directors, after her first visit to Brave New Voices International. In the ten years since, the program has grown and evolved with collaboration from WITS Executive Director Robin Reagler, Houston Poet Laureate and former WITS Special Programs Manager Deborah DEEP Mouton, Meta-Four Coordinator Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean, and Sixto Wagan. Director of the University of Houston Center for Art & Social Engagement. In addition, Brave New Voices International celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year, and in the slam’s inaugural documentary-style podcast, Meta-Four will be one of three teams followed on their journey through the competition.

As the Meta-Four team jets off to San Francisco today, with their pockets full of poems and the wind of past successes at their backs, we here at WITS send our best wishes for an unforgettable Brave New Voices experience and look forward to ten more brilliant years from the bright burning star that is Meta-Four.

by Willow Curry

 0317156_l

With younger children, this concrete activity called “Rubber Band Stretching” works well.  Demonstrate how a rubber band starts out small and can be stretched much larger.  Read a simple sentence out loud, and ask for suggestions about how to expand it.  After a student successfully stretches a sentence by adding new words, hand her a rubber band ball.  When a second student stretches the sentence further, the first student passes the ball to the second.  The game continues until it is impossible to stretch the sentence anymore!  Students then apply the lesson to a piece of their own writing.

With older students, the rubber band can be used to discuss sentence length in more complexity. Bring in a strong piece of writing that includes short, medium, and long sentences.  Discuss the various effects.  If you have a geo board, you can actually record or map out the sentences using rubber bands.  Show how the rhythm of a piece changes depending on sentence lengths.

As a spinoff activity, ask students to map out sentence lengths in advance.  Then, try to write a paragraph that fits, and notice how the paragraph sounds.  For older students, it is empowering to see how they can control the rhythm of their piece just through sentence length.

-Marcia Chamberlain, WITS Houston

My name is all the numbers because

I don’t have a favorite.

 

My name is silver because

it is shiny and is in Slytherin.

 

My name loves vegetarian cooking

that makes me hungry.

 

My name is the peaceful sound of the sea

and the sound of a stormy sea.

 

My name feels happy when I save

my money to take a trip.

 

My name means HUMANITY!

 

by Vishwa, age 6

I once met a tiny

strange martian

named Louie.

He told me

he had a

deep temptation

to leave

his home

and escape

to the lush

green world

of sonic lime.

Empowering youth voices is at the core of our mission at WITS. That’s why we partnered with XQ America and Brave New Voices to bring the Rethink High School campaign to Houston, creating an open forum event where youth from across the city can voice their ideas of what high school can and should be, brainstorming with each other and sharing their viewpoints with local public officials and youth advocates—people with the power to make a difference.

The event kicked off with music from 97.9 The Box and a bold, challenging video from XQ America explaining the purpose of the Rethink High School campaign: to create a high school environment that makes students feel valued, challenged, instrumental in their own learning, and equipped to solve the problems facing their communities.

Houston Poet Laureate Deborah “D.E.E.P” Mouton and 97.9 The Box radio hosts KG Smooth and Keisha Nicole shared stories of their own high school experiences and served as moderators for the breakout sessions that followed. In the breakouts, students shared their answers to questions conceived of by members of WITS’ Youth Advisory Council. Students filled the posters with their ideas and voiced powerful insights on how social justice, mental health awareness, diversity & inclusion, and other pressing issues facing today’s youth could be better addressed by high schools.

The thought-provoking discussions were followed by poems performed by members of the Meta-Four Houston slam team and Houston’s Youth Poet Laureate, Fareena Arefeen. The poems delivered incisive critiques of our current education system. Between the lyrical messages of the young poets and the impassioned opinions shared by student attendees, the room pulsed with an eagerness to make the ideas expressed in the discussion sessions a reality.

The event’s key speakers and panelists included a wide array of stakeholders–Houston City Council member Karla Cisneros; Lisa Felske of the Harris County Department of Education; Douglas Torres-Edwards of the HISD Arts Access Initiative; OCA Co-Facilitator and president of the Education Rainbow Challenge, Cecil Fong; Mark Cueva of the City of Houston Department of Neighborhoods; and the Assistant Director of University of Houston’s Creative Writing program, Giuseppe Taurino. Asked to share their hopes for educational reform and innovation, ideas flowed easily, from Councilmember Cisneros’ call for job opportunities for students still in high school to Douglas Torres-Edwards’ proposition that the students without great grades or perfect attendance should be placed at the center, not pushed to the margins and left to slip through the cracks.

The panelists then fielded questions from students about how they could put their ideas into action, leading to more empowering answers. Mark Cueva and Giuseppe Taurino encouraged the students in attendance to be the ones to speak up and inspire others in the process. Cecil Fong issued a challenge to push beyond the built-in diversity of Houston and make an active effort to befriend people outside of their own social groupings. Lisa Felske reminded the students that although they weren’t yet old enough to vote, they could still make their voices heard by attending city council and school board meetings.

As the program drew to a close, event emcee and WITS/Youth Speaks Future Corps Fellow Monica Davidson issued a call to action to the students. “These conversations we’ve had have been incredible. They’ve been inspiring. But they can’t stay inside the walls of this community center! You have to take them with you, share them with your friends, bring them into the outside world.”

WITS Communications Strategist Analicia Sotelo will read from her new chapbook, Nonstop Godhead, on Friday 7pm at Brazos Bookstore. She will be joined by WITS Board Member Roberto Tejada and WITS Writer Beth Lyons. Nonstop Godhead recently won a fellowship award from the Poetry Society of America. It was selected by Rigoberto Gonzalez. Sotelo’s first full-length book, Virgin, will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2018. It is the winner of the Inaugural Jake Adam York Prize.

Each year, The Menil Collection opens its doors to dozens of WITS classrooms, giving students the opportunity to see an extraordinary collection of visual art that heightens the senses and stretches the imagination.

As students take a tour of the museum’s collections, they write poems and stories inspired by the art they see, making connections between sight and sound, image and story. Last night at the Young Writers Reading we had the privilege of hearing and picturing what they created.

Menil Assistant Director of Public Programs, Theodore Bale, thanked everyone for attending the special evening and reminded all that the museum is free and open for the public to enjoy.

WITS Executive Director, Robin Reagler, shared a story about her childhood, when she would stare at the pictures in her books and imagine the colors and animals coming to life. That creative moment is the basis for the Menil project, where students examine art until it tells its secrets to them. They write those secrets down in their original poems and stories.

Robin also shared that when she first started at WITS, Ms. Dominque de Menil made a point to attend the Young Writers Reading every year in her wheelchair, because the powerful poems and stories the children were writing helped inform her sense of what the art was really about, and in that sense, what was happening in the world. Robin then thanked the students for “schooling us” on “what is happening in our world” with their visions of the paintings.

The emcee for the night, Houston Poet Laureate, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, shared her love of creative writing and teaching with the crowd, and introduced each student. It was a truly amazing night. We look forward to next year!

WITS writers Erika Jo Brown and Andrew Karnavas with student Kloe, who read a poem about her experience with radiation.

From left to right: WITS writer Abigail Drozek-Fitzwater, Houston Poet Laureate, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, WITS writer Gloria Alvarez, and WITS Executive Director, Robin Reagler.

Thank you to our major funders: The Menil Collection, The Houston Endowment, Youth Speaks, The Brown Foundation, The Simmons Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, The City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance, Copy.com, the Texas Commission on the Arts, The Farish Fund, The Clayton Fund, The Powell Foundation, and The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

The Annual Fresh Ink Writing Contest is now accepting submissions. Texas students in middle and high school may apply.

Here’s some information from their site:

Winners receive a cash prize: $250 for first place, $100 for second, and $50 for third. In addition, winners are awarded a plaque, have their stories published on the TBF website, and are invited to participate on a panel during the Texas Book Festival weekend. Entries must be 2,000 words or less, 12 point type, double-spaced, and related to the 2017 Fresh Ink Fiction Contest theme: “Funny Running Into You Here.”

Read the complete guidelines before applying. The submissions are due June 1st, 2017.

 

The beautiful sunset
making shades
of blue,
green,
red,
pink,
yellow,
and orange,
eyes of the wandering beings
opening,
looking,
watching
from their windows,
the golden yellow tree,
the sunset lake,
children playing,
bluebirds chirping,
the blue leaves,
dark green haunting shadows,
a red horse,
people hard at work,
a bright sunny day,
trees reaching up to grow,
mothers making supper for their children,
and a door opening,
telling people to come.
This is the birth of color.

by Kirby, 3rd grade

Click the media player above to listen to the poem read on Sunny 99.1KPFT 90.1, and KTRU 96.1 Addison, WITS Youth Advisory Council Student. The background music is “Sweet” by Bensound.com. Produced by Susan Phillips.

Poem a Day is made possible in part by H-E-B, Copy.com, The City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance, Texas Commission on the Arts, KPFT 90.1, Sunny 99.1, and KTR

 

Original post: October 11, 2016

 

This library music,

With the always-noise of

Strangers coughing

People falling in love

Smooching around the corner

Librarian shushing my crying cousin

 

Vocabulary of

Cough       Who         Kiss         Shhhhh…..

Language combinations,

Beauty to my ears

With the always-music of

Pages turning over and over,

Books falling from the shelves,

People’s laughter

 

The always-noise of library music.

 

by Alyiah, 4th grade

Click the media player above to listen to the poem read on Sunny 99.1KPFT 90.1, and KTRU 96.1 Tory, WITS Youth Advisory Council Student. The background music is “Molten Snow” by Jesse Spillane, Freemusicarchive.org. Produced by Susan Phillips.

Poem a Day is made possible in part by H-E-B, Copy.com, The City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance, Texas Commission on the Arts, KPFT 90.1, Sunny 99.1, and KTRU 96.