Since poets love alliteration: our pedagogical practice of poetry promotes three pivotal pursuits: play, practice, and personal expression.
In our experience, unconventional learners and students on the autism spectrum revel in the creative play of writing poetry. They are fascinated by the way language works when it’s liberated from the constraints of analytic sense. They are quick to recognize patterns in sound and expression, which makes them natural poets. We’ve even heard some fantastic autistic raps. But play isn’t only valuable in and of itself.
As has been demonstrated by many recent studies into the working of Executive Function, imaginative play plays a crucial role in fostering planning skills, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Writing a poem, especially in collaboration with someone else, involves all of these competencies, and helps bring some creative joy to the often tedious work of increasing Executive Function.
When you choose to write a poem in a certain form, you are making a plan, and when it comes to poetry this plan can range from simple to surprisingly complex. Sometimes at Unrestricted Interest we use common forms like the sonnet or villanelle, but more often we work with students to invent wholly unique forms, particularly suited to the subject matter at hand.
While you are writing the poem, you have to stick to the structures of the form, exercising your working memory. You have to hold all the “rules” or “constraints” of the poem in your head as you choose the words you want to use.
A poem written collaboratively demands high concentrations of cognitive flexibility. As the writing shifts back and forth between the collaborators, there may even be moments of constructive criticism and revision. Even when a poem is authored by just one person, the poet must constantly shift between writing, reading, and revision. This involves other important Executive Function skills like organization and self-monitoring.
Improvement always hinges on practice. While we’re not primarily motivated by “how good” each student is as a poet, we value the way improvement builds confidence and increases the likelihood of personal expression in and out of the classroom. As researchers have noted, practice is also one of the keys to improving Executive Function. We begin where students are comfortable and then successively challenge them toward greater complexity of thought and articulation.
At Unrestricted Interest we also hope to engage our students socially and emotionally. The practice of meeting and writing twice a week for months or even years provides the student with a stable foundation on which to build social and emotional skills. Writing poetry at Unrestricted Interest is inherently social. All poets write to join the larger conversation. When you are doing that alone or inconsistently it can be difficult to find your voice, but when you commit yourself to a practice of self-expression, your voice is heard and encouraged so often that you can’t help but take it seriously.
In our tender and buoyant way, we take play and practice very seriously. We make sure students understand how practice translates into tangible results. This is one reason why each student keeps a blog where they can post new writing and receive feedback from select family and friends. We take great pride in student writing and want each student to feel a deep sense of accomplishment when looking at his or her own work. When a student first holds a copy of his specially printed chapbook, we want him to revel in all the practice and play that went into fostering this beautifully written and designed work of contemporary literature.
The experience of being an unconventional learner can often feel like a series of dubious attempts to speak like other people, or how you imagine other people want you to speak. At Unrestricted Interest, young writers are given the opportunity to reclaim their voice, in all its particularity and exuberance.
But it’s also a chance to see and hear those particular voices braided into a larger community. Through the chapbooks, the blog, the Facebook page, and the yearly anthology, Unrestricted student-writers discover how their voices harmonize with others. We want our young writers to find the space where personal expression leads to connection and we foster that possibility wherever we can.