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Exploring Our Values Through Poetry

A Tapestry of Faith Program for Youth High School

Poetry can be an accessible and profound tool in our spiritual practice as we journey toward becoming more conscious as human beings and as Unitarian Universalists. This program utilizes poems that are concerned with elements of the spiritual life: acute observation, conscious and continuous inquiry, the unveiling of reality, hope and hopelessness, the afterlife, and the tenderness of the human condition.

About the Author

Karen Harris has taught poetry in public schools as a high school English teacher for about 16 years. As part of poet Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poems Project, she also trains English teachers interested in learning new ways to incorporate poetry into their curricula. She has also taught beginning teachers at Boston University's School of Education, where she is pursuing a doctoral degree in Education.

Karen is keenly interested in the intersection of literature and spirituality, especially as it regards teenagers' development of compassion toward self and others. She currently teaches at School-Within-a-School, an alternative democratic community of students and teachers that is a part of Brookline High School in Massachusetts.

In addition to literature, Karen is passionate about music; she sings, writes songs, and plays guitar for the Boston-based band Edith. The band has produced two critically acclaimed CDs.

Married to artist Morgan Cohen, Karen also loves being a mom to their two kids, Abby and Emmet. They live outside Boston, where they worship by reading spiritual texts (including poems, of course!) with their kids, going on lots of hikes, and sporadically attending a couple of different Unitarian churches and a Quaker Meeting.

Acknowledgments

Editors Susan Lawrence and Jessica York enriched this program with their contributions of additional activities. Judith Frediani guided the development throughout the process, and Nancy Burnett copyedited the finished manuscript.

The Program

The poem is a little myth of man's capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life.

— Robert Penn Warren

Unitarian Universalism has always embraced poetry as a call to worship.

Poetry can be an accessible and profound tool in our spiritual practice as we journey toward becoming more conscious as human beings and as Unitarian Universalists. This program utilizes poems that are concerned with elements of the spiritual life: acute observation, conscious and continuous inquiry, the unveiling of reality, hope and hopelessness, the afterlife, and the tenderness of the human condition.

Poetry, Czeslaw Milosz asserts, "enables us to look at a thing and identify with it, strengthening in that way its being" (Book of Luminous Things. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1996). In this program, that "being" is our being—as individuals, as members of a UU community, as members of the human race, as members of the planet and universe.

As with any curriculum, there is a set of assumptions and beliefs that inform and inspire this one. All of the following are born of the author's experience.

Poetry is a uniting and a connecting force.

Poetry—even very sad poetry—is a good remedy for loneliness, because it reminds us that our experience, no matter how extraordinary, in some way mirrors another's. In this way, we are not solitary beings. The poems featured in this program are from all over the world and represent different cultures, cosmologies, genders, races, and times in history. Yet striking similarities are evident in the poems' emotional terrain. In recognizing this, we recognize our own compassion for others and ourselves. Even discovering that others have some of the same questions as we do can be extraordinarily powerful and comforting.

Poetry asks the best questions. So do teenagers. Most of the things that we can say about poetry, we can also say about teenagers—a fact that makes the idea of doing this program with teens so exciting. Both poetry and teens ask the great, big questions: How do we live? What do we love? What deserves our faith? Who are we, and where do we fit in this universe? How do we keep our hope alive? Both poetry and teenagers are tireless seekers—of sense, justice, meaning, reason, hope, and sometimes just the plain old company of a good laugh.

Reading poems aloud is powerful. Discovering poems together is powerful.

Poetry read aloud is immediate, communitarian, and powerful. Robert Pinsky, poet and two-term national Poet Laureate, says it best:

... poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art. The medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth.... Moreover, there is a special intimacy to poetry because, in this idea of the art, the medium is not an expert's body, as when one goes to the ballet: in poetry, the medium is the audience's body...

From The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, by Robert Pinsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999)

Reading poetry is like finding our way home. As with all important journeys, it is helpful to have a compassionate and qualified guide (you) who has a map (this program).

Both poetry and workshops can teach us about ourselves, but we need a good guide with a good plan. While poetry is not a trove of secrets locked in a chest to be accessed by a select few, neither is it a blank slate onto which we may project any and all interpretations. As a guide, it is important to read the map, to know the general way but be open to detours, and to keep your group from getting lost on their way. Know the poems. Know yourself. And as much as possible, know your participants.

Goals

This program will:

  • Lead participants to discover the ways poetry illuminates the human experience.
  • Help youth recognize commonalities in our spiritual journey.
  • Demonstrate the use of poetry writing as a spiritual practice.
  • Provide multigenerational opportunities that will increase youth's sense of belonging to the congregation and the wider UU world.

Leaders

You do not need to be a poetry expert to facilitate these workshops effectively. You simply need an open mind and a sense of adventure. If, like many of us, you have at some point in your schooling felt daunted by poetry textbooks that feature poems followed by an "answer" section (or by the teaching of poetry "drill and kill" style), we hope you feel liberated by the approach we take here. These workshops envision poems not as entities to "decode" or master, but as a way in—to us, to truth, to others. These poems will be our partners in exploration, not our opponents.

They say that the best way to learn something is to teach it. While facilitating or leading are more apt words for what you will do as you guide participants through these workshops, you will certainly learn. Best of all, once you find a poem that speaks to you, that really sheds light on an essential truth as you have come to know it—that poem becomes a teacher, guide, and friend for life—something to which you can return for inspiration and solace again and again.

We recommend a team of two or more co-leaders. While one facilitates an activity, the second leader can focus on participants who need assistance. Your congregation might have guidelines that stipulate the number of adults needed to facilitate a program.

Participants

Exploring Our Values through Poetry is designed for use with high-school-aged youth. You may find it useful to think about the developmental norms for this age group. Not all youth arrive at each developmental stage at the same time, but knowing what to expect overall from fourteen- to eighteen-year-olds can be quite helpful, especially to first-time leaders.

In her book Nurturing Children and Youth: A Developmental Guidebook (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005), Tracey L. Hurd discusses developmental characteristics of older youth:

  • practices increased cognitive skills
  • expresses growing interest in abstract values and moral principles
  • engages in moral relativism
  • becomes less egocentric and more interested in the larger society
  • struggles with gender and sexual identities
  • continues to develop ethnic or racial identity
  • needs to belong and have a sense of self worth
  • demonstrates empathy
  • conceptualizes religion as an outside authority that can be questioned
  • questions faith, sometimes leading to deeper ownership of personal faith or disillusionment
  • deepens or attenuates religious or spiritual identity
  • explores sexuality
  • navigates greater risks relating to alcohol, drug use, and unsafe sexual activity
  • sustains the personal fable that "it couldn't happen to me"
  • considers friendships and peers important, with some shifting of alliances

Though this program is written for youth, adults might find it interesting also. Consider offering the program for a mixed group of youth and adults. If using this option, look for leaders who are experienced in working with both groups. During the workshops, you will want to monitor the group to make sure both youth and adults are given the space to contribute and that any personal sharing is appropriate for all ages involved. Safety issues will need to be addressed. Your congregation's religious educator can help with guidelines, as can advice from The Safe Congregation Handbook, edited by Pat Hoertdoerfer and Fredric Muir (Boston: UUA Publications, 2005).

Integrating All Participants

By adapting activities or using alternate activities, you can help ensure that every workshop is inclusive of participants with a range of physical and cognitive abilities and learning styles, food allergies, and other sensitivities or limitations. Below, you will find general guidance on adapting the activities along with some resources for implementing inclusion. Within the workshops, some activities suggest specific adaptations under the heading "Including All Participants."

As you plan your Poetry workshops, be aware of activities that might pose difficulties for youth who are differently-abled. All spaces, indoor and outdoor, need to be accessible to anyone who might be in the group. Check the width of doorways and aisles, the height of tables, and the terrain of outdoor landscapes.

Since many of the activities in this program involve reading and writing, pay particular attention to youth who might have learning disabilities. Be prepared to adjust times allocated for writing activities if some participants consistently need more time. Always seek volunteers to read so no one is forced to read who might not be comfortable doing so.

Find out about participants' medical conditions and their allergies, particularly to food. Adolescence is a time when bodies are busy growing. Consequently, youth will welcome food when it is available. Offering a snack at every workshop is a good idea, but make sure all youth can eat whatever is served.

Each workshop mixes active and quiet, expressive and listening, and whole-group and individual activities, along with alternate activities that you can substitute for core activities if you feel they better suit a group. As you begin to recognize different learning styles among the participants, let this information guide your selection of activities for each workshop.

Some activity descriptions mention specific concerns or suggest adaptations under the heading "Including All Participants." Feel free to devise your own adaptations to meet any special needs you perceive. As the leader, you will know best how to provide a fully inclusive learning experience for the group.

A helpful resource book is Sally Patton's Welcoming Children with Special Needs.

Families

Families are the primary influence on the faith development of their youth. As a program leader, you take on a special role: supporting families in your faith community to shape their youth’s Unitarian Universalist faith development. By involving parents in the Poetry program, you help youth take the meaning of the work they do in the workshops into their daily lives.

Each workshop offers Taking It Home resources including conversation topics and other ways for youth and their families to extend the workshop at home; these may include a game, a family ritual, or links to informative and/or interactive websites. Adapt each workshop’s Taking It Home section to reflect the activities the group will have engaged in and, if you like, to help youth and families prepare for workshops yet to come. If you have an e-mail address for each family, you may wish to provide Taking It Home as a group e-mail, either before or immediately after the workshop. Or you can print, photocopy, and distribute Taking It Home at the workshop’s closing.

The Faith in Action activities for each workshop offer opportunities to engage parents/caregivers and other congregants. Find out who can enrich your long-term Faith in Action activities with their personal interests, professional networks, or simply their time.

The leader/parent relationship is very important and must be both welcoming and reassuring. When parents bring their youth to experience Unitarian Universalist religious education, they need to feel confidence not only in the safety and enjoyment you will provide, but also in your faith leadership. Strong partnerships can foster parents’ commitment to becoming strong faith leaders in their own families. As a leader, you can support and inspire parents to bring intentionality and excitement to their role in their youth’s faith development.

Downloading the Document

You can download this program, save it on your computer, edit it, and print it. Or, you can download individual sessions or workshops.

Share, Print, or Explore

For more information contact religiouseducation@uua.org.

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