WITS Voices: Teaching 6th Graders Poetry

By Nikkita Oliver, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Sitting in a tiny interview room, Jeanine Walker asks me, “How do you feel about working with middle school students?” My gut instinct? “Oh, no way.” My professional interview response? “I prefer high school students.” The outcome: I am currently a writer-in-residence at Washington Middle School—and I love it!

For the record: There is absolutely nothing wrong with middle school students. However, middle school is without question an abyss of ill-fitting limbs, mixed-matched clothes, and a plethora of experiences I, personally, would like to forget. To put it strongly—I hated middle school. Though I can now say, “I love teaching middle school students.”

My first residency at Washington MS, I taught a lively bunch of 6th graders (over 100 students)—five class periods a day, for 9 days, over a period of 6 weeks. The experience was incredible and will stick with me for the rest of my life. Their honesty, vulnerability, and willingness to take risks reminded me why I started writing poetry in the first place. I had a lot to say and needed somewhere say to it and someone to say it to without judgement. I learned at a young age that a notebook and pen is an excellent companion and secret-keeper. Even more, I discovered a place to dream and create the world in which I want to live.

Reading the 6th graders’ pieces, I fell in love with poetry and creative writing all over again. I once again find myself waking up in the middle of the night with a poem on my heart. Rushing to my desk, I write down as much as my sleepy eyes will allow and urgently wake in the morning to finish. It is because of these young people’s stories and willingness to share that I have once again fallen head over heels—madly, deeply in love with poetry and writing.

Below is a poem I wrote during my fall 2015 writing residency with 6th grade students at Washington Middle School.

“Teaching 6th Graders Poetry”

Teaching 6th graders poetry
is a daily exercise in tenacity
is proudly proclaiming:
“Hey Ms. Nikkita
Guess what?
I woke up like this!”

All gangly-armed and crooked-legged
still growing into their limbs
6th graders will help you remember
you still have limbs
ready and willing to carry your ever bleeding heart
you plucked from your shirt sleeve and
stuffed tightly in your ribcage for protection.

I promise you,
they will get under your skin and
crack open your protection.

Teaching 6th graders poetry
is a daily lesson in small acts of kindness,
in doing nice things because no one is looking,
in how to be helpful even when you feel helpless.

Like Michele who never says much
but writes like her life depends on it
gives feedback to her peers like she knows
secrets can be stones around our necks,
but truth telling is a life raft,
especially when someone is listening.

Like Taylor whose backpack is full of god knows what,
but at the end of every class period makes his way round the room
picking up scraps of paper and pushing in chairs.

This is how I know our space together
means something to them.

Yo! I might be the teacher
but 6th graders bring the coolest lesson:

They teach me
how to live outside the lines
because they still haven’t learned how to see the box
how to ask the unthinkable and
never think twice about it.

How to laugh at poop
because in 6th grade poop is still funny
it’s not yet turned into the B.S.
you can’t get past.

Sometimes the past isn’t funny
so you can’t get past it,
but if you learn to be present
like a 6th grader
you just might learn
to laugh at poop again.

6th graders teach me how to see grown people
for who they really are
on the inside
uncoordinated uncomfortable poop laughing prepubescent tweens
trapped in uptight coffin-like adult bodies
too many of us are dying to live
but we can’t figure how to resurrect
through all the B.S.

6th graders will remind you what truly matters
like the kid in my class who can’t sit still for five minutes
but somehow knows everything I’ve ever said and
will always correct me when I am wrong, Rio,
the kid who twirls around yet knows everything.

The first day he sits through my class
does not move
does not speak
does not correct me
I wonder what is wrong
I miss him.

When his mother tells me
“Rio is now medicated
he will sit still through your entire class
isn’t that great?”

I mourn.
I wish he was still the kid who twirls around.
I realize what truly matters is having space enough to be yourself.

The moment when Rio starts twirling around again
I savor his freedom and
it doesn’t matter that he isn’t sitting in his chair.

I realize that most of us spend too much time
sitting on the sidelines of our lives
when we should be dancing
shaking our gangly armed crooked leg bodies
like we just don’t care everyone is in fact watching.

Everyday 6th graders teach me to see beyond the B.S.
to understand that poop is really just fertilizer
to help us bloom into the person we’ve always wanted to be.

6th graders remind me of who I’ve always wanted to be
they keep me grounded in hope
believing that if we can make it through 6th grade
then we can make it through anything.


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Nikkita Oliver is a Seattle-based creative, teaching artist/mentor, and organizer. She was recently admitted to the WA State Bar Association to practice law and is completing a Masters of Education at the University of Washington. She is the 2014 Seattle Poetry Slam Grand Slam Champion. Her writing has been included in the South Seattle Emerald and the Christena Cleveland blog.

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