By Amanda McKenna —
It started out as a call to action, a project built to be a battle cry aimed at our students—“Pay attention to the struggle! Shout it out loud!” However, as is often the case, our students took what they were given and forged a new path, a path that swung sharply away from our expected destination.
The way we planned it, students would start with an exploration of the poem “Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits” by Brooklyn native and labor rights poet Martín Espada. It was a text we hoped would encourage our young classroom citizens to consider the ways in which the janitor in question does thankless work to the beat of complaining churchgoers. Students read and discussed portions of the poem in small groups, created posters to teach each other about their part, and ultimately stared, mildly confused, at each other as they stumbled through the dense fog of Espada’s metaphors.
It wasn’t the strong start we’d hoped for, but there were still the interviews! Yes, these would become the bridge spanning the gap between the work of Espada and students developing their own poems about the struggles of the workers within our school walls. It was here that we envisioned them making the connections between Jorge the church janitor’s work challenges and those of our school staff. The interview subjects included staff from our office, library, tech team, social work team, cafeteria, school safety team, and even a member of our administration.
Using their interviews as the basis for their writing, students then developed poetry about one of the interview subjects. In our minds these poems would likely mirror the words of Espada and lay bare the struggles of someone who performs tasks that are often done without recognition. It was here where the plan swerved off from our assumed direction and onto the path our students built.
As they began piecing together their writing what emerged was not a barren landscape of the hardships and challenges our staff’s experiences, but rather a lush field filled with declarations of our students’ gratefulness and celebrations of the people who hold up our school community on their shoulders.
As we read the first drafts of the poems we shifted our plan to encompass the joyful nature of our students’ work. We encouraged them to revise and then design/decorate a final draft in a way that they felt best celebrated the subject of their poem. Digital copies of the final drafts were shared with the people for whom they were written and the physical poems were organized by a group of students in a public hallway display to share their work with the entire school community. In the final weeks of the school year many people commented on how the poetry display brought a smile, a moment of happiness, or a bit of laughter. Through their writing, our students embodied a powerful concept that we had overlooked, that maybe the greatest achievement in a world of struggle is to prove that a campaign of joy can be far greater in strength than one of anger.