Poetry Garden by Destin Black
Poetry Garden Project
Words become art; art becomes thought; thought becomes words; words become art. It is a virtuous circle. The Poetry Garden catalyzed the action.
The Poetry Garden is a merging of art, literature, construction and landscape design. It began in a single English Literature classroom and expanded to include students, parents and community leaders. The cycle of learning was collaborative. Ideas were shared along with skills. The merging power of group-think became clear. The group mind created an outdoor space dedicated to literature, art and shared ideas. Poetry was transformed into art. The art was framed by a botanical landscape. Outdoor seating was incorporated to create safe space for contemplation and learning. The project began with literal interpretations of words. The artistic process expanded the literal into symbolic, abstract thinking. The project became a self-sustaining cycle of doing, thinking, interpreting and expanding that enhanced student learning and creative growth.
The Poetry Garden is an outdoor classroom, art gallery, literary experience and botanical garden created by students, parents, teachers and community leaders at Citrus High School in Inverness Florida, over the course of three academic years from 2005 to 2008. The contributors forged connections between literature and art that helped to develop their appreciation for both. They built an outlet for creativity that led to more abstract and critical thinking. The shaping of art and land gave them ownership, not only of the work itself but of their own learning. They learned to share ideas and work in collaborative groups. Ultimately the project was dismantled by a shift in administration but the loss did not decrease the value. The Poetry Garden taught students to be learners and that is something they will carry throughout their lives.
The Poetry Garden had its’ origin in a regular high school Literature class. Student’s don’t always love studying poetry. Even students who like to write it themselves don’t necessarily enjoy other people’s work. Sometimes they have a hard time connecting the words and ideas. It is hard to blame them. They are being asked to understand ideas that someone else thought were esoteric enough that prose could not fully express them. That requires complex, abstract thinking. Visual art is the perfect medium to transform the abstract into concrete physicality.
Empty Space begs to be filled. The Poetry Garden began with a blank, unused space located in the back of the campus. The area was dark, forgotten and loud (due to air conditioners). Teachers rushed past from parking lot to classroom. Students did not socialize there. They only used the overlooked space when plotting their escapes from campus. The space needed to be welcoming.
I worked with my students to come up with a plan to use their creativity to turn the unused space into something everyone could enjoy. The first year was all about creating interest and building a foundation for the project. We needed buy-in from students, parents and administrators. We also needed enough supplies and money to get started. The second year was expansion to more students and greater student leadership. It also required increased fundraising and organization. The third year was the year to build the actual outdoor classroom area. We eventually intended to add additional gardening in that area and continue to extend the art throughout campus.
The first year was exciting and time consuming. Everything was new. The students had no idea how to visualize a “Poetry Garden.” That made it hard to get more than one or two to be enthusiastic. We needed to get money and supplies. We also had to develop methods for building that were accessible to students. Collaboration was also an important issue to be established in the first year. We had to figure out how to decide who got to do what. The whole process was more than a little chaotic, but we figured it out through trial-and-error and a lot of effort.
The students needed to be interested. They were great brainstormers. They helped come up with the idea; but once they had it, they started to get distracted and unfocused. Only one student had an idea she really wanted to follow through with. She was obsessed with Lewis Carol. She wanted to build a life-sized jabberwocky and paint the scales with the words to the poem. She drew it up. I used some plywood from my own supplies. I cut it out. I brought in paint. She set to work. Two more students joined her to create a real window with a tapping raven in honor of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” The other students watched the process and they were hooked. They came up with ideas. I cut them out. They worked together to sand, prime, paint, and clear coat for durability in Florida weather. It became a group project.
The project became collaborative. Students created a book of idea and plans and a box of stencils. The plan book contained any piece of literature anyone liked well enough to put in the garden. The students added all their ideas, annotations and interpretations to that page. Anytime anyone came up with a new idea, they just picked up the book and added to it. Sometimes they left their names; sometimes they didn’t. Students were encouraged to share whatever they had. Since not everyone can draw, those that could, often went through the book and created designs from the ideas of their peers. They drew and redrew and created stencils for works to be cut out. They wrote plans and instructions for the builders. They revised each other’s ideas. There were so many that we had a very difficult time with funding, space and time.
We needed money. I could find scrap wood and use my own paint for one student, but not for thirty or more. The first round of fundraising involved community donations. I had to call and visit as many local business as possible to find sponsors for the program. I managed to raise a few hundred dollars and get material donations from a local construction company. I used my own tools. Then I contacted my gardening club and the local Master Gardeners. They came through with plants and gardening tools.
The initial workspace was a mess. We worked in my classroom or on the sidewalk in front of it. Fortunately, we were in the back of campus so the noise was not bothersome. We had to clean everything up every day so I could teach. We had no storage. We kept gardening tools in a janitorial supply closet. I had to bring tools from home. I kept supplies in the back of my truck with a tarp. It was a pretty crazy time. We all had to work together to make it happen.
There w ere many participants and everyone worked. Kid came early, stayed late and often refused to go home. I considered putting a cot behind my desk so I could nap. I did all of the cutting because safety regulations did not allow for students to use power tools. The students did most of the sanding and building. They also did all of their own gardening. The Master Gardeners and members of the local Gardening Club came on a Saturday with plants and the students put in the whole garden, complete with dry streambed and irrigation, in one afternoon.
The first art pieces were put on display in the garden. Students were free to choose any poetry or other literature that they wished. They showed a great deal of thought and consideration. Their choices ranged from classic to contemporary. Most of the first pieces were fairly literal but there were hints of symbolic thinking and individual interpretation. The garden was lovely. The students cared for it and defended it vigorously.
The end of year one showed that the students had developed a strong connection between literature and art. Words became pictures and pictures became ideas and poetry went from something they hated to something they loved. They began to get excited about what we would learn because they wanted to add it to the garden. Many class activities and discussions included suggestions for new pieces based on what we did. One class was obsessed with the idea of creating statues of Grendel and Beowulf doing battle amidst the plants. Another group wanted a whole rose garden dedicated to Shakespeare’s sonnets. They Poetry Garden gave them a new way to love words.
The second year was the highpoint of the program. Increased collaboration led to larger numbers of students involved. Fundraising efforts pulled in parents, siblings and students from lower grades. An article in the local newspaper got more students, teachers and members of the community involved in the process. We increased organization and improved the workspace. Of course, we also had to increase funding for the project
The collaboration established during year one was expanded during year two. Students continued to maintain the book of ideas. They also worked to bring in students from other classes and allow them to participate. This increased involvement went from a classroom-based group project to a school-wide effort. This led to a need for additional funds.
Thanks to the collaborative environment, the second year of fundraising was much more inclusive and complex. I continued to seek donations from community businesses. Students were not allowed to do this but they did provide many suggestions for possible contributors. The students got involved by working in a second class activity and turning it into a student-led fundraiser to support the Poetry Garden.
They gave Origami lessons. This began because I taught them to make origami as a form of assessment and motivation during the first days of a school year. The students liked it so much that they decided to try and fold 1000 cranes. They were not allowed to do this during class so they took home stacks of origami paper from me and brought back Ziploc baggies full of cranes every day. Eventually they made over 5000 cranes. The school was littered with random paper cranes. This gave the students the idea to give origami lessons to the community as a fundraiser.
One of the students created a book of instructions. I ordered lots of paper. The students packaged the paper. They advertised the classes. Then they taught the classes and sold the paper every day after school and on Saturday mornings. This involved students from younger grades and other schools. It also increased parent and community involvement. They managed to raise about $1000.00 dollars doing this. We put that money towards improving our garden.
We created a much better work space. We bought carpentry tools, gardening tools, wood and paint as well as organizational materials. We fixed the old lab tables in the back of my classroom and turned the area into an art studio. We set up a small gardening booth outside (and gave the janitorial staff their closet back). We organized student gardeners and maintenance. Then we also spent some money and a few afternoons taking OSHA safety classes so that the students could use more tools.
The work was dominantly student led during year two. I continued to cut the more complex shapes requiring specialized saws but the students took over more of the cutting and construction. They were allowed to use small saws and drills. It was great watching kids work with their hands. For some kids, it was the first time they felt valuable in an academic environment. For other kids, it was the first time they felt valuable as a worker. Students developed leadership skills and problem solving skills. They learned to work together. The typical boundaries of high school cliques were weakened. Students worked where they were needed, not just where they had buddies. Students who were normally quiet and reserved, stepped up to help others draw and paint. Students known to be outspoken began to see that they could let others lead as well. The whole group became closer and more productive.
The Garden was expanded. Another fifteen pieces of art were added. The newer works were even more diverse than the first. They also showed increased symbolic thinking and more individual interpretations. One of the students created a fascinating interpretation of a poem called “Zebra” that describes the dangers of materialism. Another showed the way that words in literature come together like puzzle pieces. The subjects ranged from alien invasion and apocalyptic events to romantic love and fairytale dreams. The new pieces were displayed around the air conditioning units. We used the art to enclose the area with a second fence. This reduced the noise pollution in the area and made it a more welcoming space and prepared for the final stage of the Garden.
The deep connection the students made between art and literature helped them to express their own creativity and to develop more powerful critical thinking skills. They learned to look for meaning in words and, perhaps more importantly, they learned to explain their own interpretations of meanings. Their enjoyment of literature increased. Their writing ability increased. Their grades and tests scores also went up. The Poetry Garden was more than art, more than inspiration; it was education.
The third year of the Poetry Garden brought everything together. There were numerous problems that had to be overcome. The funding surplus from the year before required supplementation. We managed to maintain a smooth, well-organized work space. Everyone contributed equally to the project. In the end, we added seven more pieces of art and a full outdoor classroom. The students were very proud of the space they created. It became a project everyone was honored to be a part of.
The problems that emerged in the third year kept us working hard. There were multiple hurricanes during that school year. Students and teachers lost many work days. The school flooded. The art was sturdy and secure and survived intact but many of the landscape features and plants were destroyed by wind and hail. We spent a lot of time on repair and maintenance. The wok was also complicated because I had an accident and a death in the family which required me to miss an unusual number of school days. Without direct teacher supervision, much of the work was halted. However, we persevered.
Funding was an issue. Changes in leadership at the school meant changes in fundraising guidelines. We were not allowed to solicit community donations and the origami lessons were canceled. We were not sure we were going to be able to finish the project. Then we secured funding in one lump sum from a friend of my family who did not wish to be named. This was a truly generous gift because it allowed the students to finish what they started.
We continued to use the classroom workspace. It functioned beautifully. Students developed a system of storage and maintenance that kept tools and art supplies out of the classroom area during instructional time. We were asked to remove the small garden shed so we reclaimed the janitorial closet for gardening supplies. Then we used a hidden alcove between two buildings to store the large lumber supplies we needed to build the seating for the outdoor classroom.
The collaboration on the outdoor classroom was complete. The students selected a rainbow theme. They designed a flower-shaped podium surrounded by raised benches. Parents and students rallied and came together every Saturday for six weeks so that we could build and paint the outdoor classroom. We eventually hoped to cover the area with garden trellises and a canopy, but we were unable to complete that work. It was an awesome group effort.
The space that we designed was an oasis in an otherwise boring campus. We built a place where students and teachers could enjoy the outdoors while learning. We filled it with plants and art made with our own hands. It was inspiring. The final project was something everyone could be proud of.
The use of land added created connection and a feeling of ownership in the students. It was like planting a flag. They claimed the space and made it their own. They grew plants. They dug in the dirt. They pulled the weeds. They watered. they watched. They filled it with their ideas. They invested themselves in maintaining their work. It wasn’t just a corner of the school to sneak off campus. It was a real place that mattered. It belonged to them because they made it. This investment in the land was also an investment in ideas and from that into learning. Creating something of their own encouraged them to be lifelong learners.
The poetry Garden was valuable because it helped students to see the connection between literature and art and art and nature. It created opportunity for personal creativity and provided an outlet for personal expression. Most importantly, it taught students the value of collaboration.
Students learned to care about Literature. Literature can be a tough thing for students to relate to. Art makes it more than just words on a page. It gives students a way to link the ideas to something real and solid. They can shape it with their hands and look at it with their eyes and that makes it important in their lives. The Poetry Garden did that. The students created. They got excited about the words they learned.
The Poetry Garden was an expression of creativity. Students got to interpret the words their own way. That was hard for me at first. As a teacher, the temptation was to guide the students to the “correct” way of thinking, but that is not always the way things need to be. The students need a chance to decide for themselves what things mean. Even when it is not perfect, they learn. Students began the project with very literal interpretations of poetry but by the end, more abstract thinking emerged. They felt free to express themselves and so they found they had more to express.
The most important part of the Poetry Garden was that it was truly collaborative. Everyone was important. Every single piece except the Jabberwocky was created by more than one set of hands. The students started off viciously claiming their own ideas and individual work but it did not take long before the scope of the project created communal bonds. Students gave what they had to give. Some students gave ideas, some drew plans, some built and some sanded. Even the painting was collaborative. They learned to work in layers so that each piece started off as a paint-by-number that anyone could work on. Only the final touches needed specialized hands. Students that did not think they were thinkers or builders or artists or leaders found that they could be all of those things if they had the support of the group.
The Poetry Garden was dismantled the following year. I was transferred to a different school in the county. The reasons were never explained. The new administration did not consult me about the garden. I drove by one day and it was gone. Only the seating was left intact. I called the school and asked what happened to the art pieces, but no one returned my class. I still don’t know what happened or why. I only know that it is gone. But in the end, it does not matter. The garden did what it was supposed to do. It taught students.
I will always consider the Poetry Garden one of my most successful teaching ventures. It taught students, to share their ideas, to help each other and to work together to achieve their goals. It extended the power of literature and art to students and pushed that outside of the school and into the community. It created an outlet for creativity. It increased student learning and it showed them that their work and their ideas were valuable.
This is an image document of an artificial printed in the Citrus County Chronicle in 2007. It contains the full text and photographs included in the print newspaper.
 During the 2007-2008 school years I taught two double term Intensive Reading/English II classes and 2 English IV classes. My students achieved a combined pass rate of 94%. My 10th grade Intensive students also performed very well on the FCAT writes. I taught approximately 30 students. 70% passed the FCAT Writes with a 3.5 or better. Five students scored a 4.5. The same students did equally well on the FCAT Reading test. 67% of the students showed learning gains of one year or more. The average learning gain for those students was 93 points. 26% of the students passed the FCAT Reading section. These scores are approximately 15% higher than the scores in similar intensive reading classes in the other two county high schools.