By Gillian Schneider, a teacher at Neuqua Valley High School and the recipient of the 2016 Penguin Random House Maya Angelou Teacher Award for Poetry.
Sitting at the NCTE secondary luncheon in November 2015, I found an application for the Penguin Random House Literacy Awards, including the Maya Angelou Poetry Award. I did not have a concrete idea of what I might propose, but by spring, I decided that I would make every effort to come up with something to support poetry awareness. I asked colleagues to read my application and suggest changes, and I asked students to help me with letters of support and haiku. The grant idea for “So You Want Me to Love Poetry? YES!” began as an appeal to students to stop saying “No” to poetry and start saying “Yes!” Once I submitted all of the required elements, I distracted myself.
I have three preps: one section of college placement sophomores and one of honors, and two sections of creative writing. Though I have taught creative writing for fifteen of my seventeen years at Neuqua Valley High School, I challenge myself to make the curriculum new each year. I know students struggle to read and understand poems. In some ways, we teach them to hate poetry: memorizing Shakespeare and analyzing the imagery and metaphors. Fortunately, I have the freedom to let students play with words using magnetic poetry online. I encourage students to try different words and forms, to avoid rhyming (unless they want to), and to write about topics that are relevant to them. We listen to slam poems; we go outside and write haiku, and we try emulating some of the great modern poets: Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Mark Strand, Sharon Olds, Philip Levine, and more.
Our creative writing program has expanded over the last five years, and the Maya Angelou Award will allow our school the opportunity to expand even more. Our school tried a poetry coffeehouse last year, but this year, we will use four key events to anchor our National Poetry Month celebration: Where the Sidewalk Chalk Ends (students writing poetry on the sidewalk outside); an expanded coffeehouse with more classes, more coffee, and food; a presentation by Kevin Coval, founder of Louder than a Bomb; and the release party for our poetry collection Senses Restored. With new coffeemakers and serving sets, and with a dedicated staff, we will be able to grow the coffeehouse and sidewalk chalk event. We will have a model for events to promote poetry with future students, and we will reuse our Maya Angelou display elements and class sets of the poetry collection to promote student writing.
I never imagined how a call from Penguin Random House informing me that I had received the inaugural Maya Angelou Poetry Award would change my entire year. I was monitoring the halls during PSAT testing when I started listening a voice message I noticed on my cell phone. My department chair saw me—jumping up and down excitedly—and came down the hall to investigate. She, too, started jumping excitedly. That afternoon, she announced at our English Department meeting that I had been given this prestigious the award. We shared the news with our administration, who in turn shared the news with our entire school—and then the district office, the School Board, and the community.
With school support, Penguin Random House arranged plans for my attendance at NCTE in Atlanta to receive the award. I had no idea what to expect and never imagined that I would receive the award from Caylin Johnson, Maya Angelou’s great-granddaughter. I pulled from Maya Angelou’s poetry in my acceptance speech: “Be and be / better. For [Maya Angelou] existed.”
Maya Angelou saw the good in others and used poetry to communicate a message of hope, especially in times of struggle. We look to her words, her poetry, to support our collection. Her words have guided us and inspired us. Thanks to her family and to Penguin Random House for supporting us with the inaugural Maya Angelou Poetry Award! Thanks to the students who wrote poetry and shared with us for this publication! Our student poetry collection, funded by this generous award, may be found here.