It may take a village to raise a child. To get a classroom into poetry, it takes artists.
P.S 279 is named for Captain Manuel Rivera, Jr.. Rivera's parents moved from Puerto Rico to New York City, and settled in the Bronx. Manuel Rivera, Jr. was the first serviceman of Puerto Rican descent to die in Operation Desert Shield during the Gulf War. Halls and stairwells are thick with posters advocating tolerance, showcasing educational resources, and reminding students that everyone has a right to go to college.
Given its cross-cultural history and activist stance, P.S. 279 is an apt setting for Community-Word Project's work.
With T. Scott Lilly and Katie Rainey, it kicks off with a trip to Edgar Allan Poe's cottage. Proximity establishes a connection past and present, poet and student. Poe lived where the students live. A week later, in the classroom, Rainey and Lilly make 19th Century poetry immediate and engaging – even fun – for 21st Century students.
Rainey and Lilly have two questions for the students: “Who likes Poe?” Hands up, all around the classroom. The students are still excited about having seen Poe's Bronx home.
“Who likes Goosebumps?” Hands and jitters and squeals. This is a popular question. Although the children can't see it, a connection between Edgar Allan Poe and beloved books (R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series) has just been paved.
Before diving into Poe-etry, the students get some coaching. Lilly will deliver the poem. Rainey will tap. All of the students will chime in one one word: Nevermore.
Rainey and Lilly ask for a volunteer, who will be in a closed closet until … something happens. As Rainey and the volunteer student whisper beside the closet, Lilly steals the class's attention back with an animated, gleefully scenery-chewing performance of “The Raven”. Lilly is off-book and ebullient, and the kids are captivated.
When the raven appears in the poem, the volunteer comes out of the closet and trots to the front of the class. She's the raven! Helped by Lilly, she takes a perch on a stool, where she delivers a shy and spooky “Nevermore.”
Rainey continues the creepy theme with a reading from Goosebumps. The students are armed with Poe, Stine, new notebooks, and a mandatory word – ominous – and given time to write. The silence is as thick as the heartbeat before “Nevermore”.
Writers are being born, engendered by TAP teachers' talents and enthusiasm – and students' discovery that learning is a delight. Lilly's favorite reader of “The Raven” is the inimitable James Earl Jones. Ask the students of Manuel Rivera, Jr.'s eponymous school, and they'll take Rainey and Lilly's properly portentous, deceptively easy teaching, every fun and focused time.