Poetry to show how we feel, the person we truly are

To read on The Washington Post website:

Using poetry to give young adults with disabilities a voice


June 12, 2016

The first day of poetry class, the young man had only one word to say to his new instructor Laurie Gilkenson: “Pizza.”

What’s your name? “Pizza”

What’s your favorite color? “Pizza.”

When Gilkenson started teaching the class for Arlington County’s Program for Employment Preparedness, which works with young adults who have mild to moderate intellectual and emotional disabilities that can include autism and Down syndrome, she knew there would be challenges. What she didn’t count on as much were the goosebumps. They crawled up her arms that first day of class in April when she handed that 20-year-old student a pen and paper and, with help, he wrote two poems. And there they were again on Friday as she watched him and his classmates stand on a stage at the Arlington Career Center and recite their works.

“If I were a butterfly,” the young man said in a whisper as a teacher assistant repeated his words louder for the audience to hear, “I would fly to Guatemala. I would eat pupusas. Oh my, oh my!”

Of the employment preparedness program’s 42 students, 13 stood on the stage, encouraged by an audience filled with their peers, parents and educators. They also had support from the nation’s top poet.

U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera sent an email that was printed in the program. “I am so honored to hear that you are creating poetry!” he wrote. “This is the best news I have heard today!” He signed it, “Sending you poetry hugs.”

Arlington Career Center Principal Margaret Chung said the poetry class, which was a first for the program this year, is important because it empowers students who are trying to learn to become their own advocates. It gives them a voice, she said.

“It’s a voice we don’t often hear,” Chung said. “It’s a voice we often misinterpret.”


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