Student writers find their voices

November 29, 2008 

"Go forth and write, write!" teacher and project director Ocean Jones called after a departing student at the Valley Voices Writers Club meeting on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

The remaining students sat quietly, sipping juice from purple plastic Halloween glasses that appeared to have skeletal hands in place of stems. The meeting was scheduled to last from 3:15 until 5 p.m., and there was a lot on the agenda.

Several students had just returned back home from a weekend trip to Yosemite with other Valley Voices clubs in the Merced Union High School District. Photos from the trip circulated the room, fresh from Jones' printer.

The group's Poetry and Blues Coffeehouse event featuring author and musician Brandon Cesmat was coming up fast. On top of that, the club's members were working on blues poems themselves, and several had writing to share.

It was all in a day's work for the Valley Voices Writers Club, which is now in its 10th year in the high school district. The club's mission is "to foster, encourage and promote creative and thoughtful multilingual and multicultural writing through observation, process, reading and study."

The emphasis on multicultural and multilingual writing is no nominal statement: the club's annual book of collected poems includes work in French, Spanish, and Hmong in addition to English and other languages. Many members come from multilingual backgrounds as well.

Senior Gabriela Torres, who serves as the club's president, recalled, "I never wrote any kind of poetry in Mexico. Seventh grade was the first time I wrote anything and it made the teacher cry."

Jones said that Torres' experience was similar to others'. "Poetry is a gift," she said, "it's a talent, but like anything else, they need an opportunity."

For many of the club's members, Valley Voices is just the opportunity they need. Part of the group's vision is "to provide a venue to publish and perform student work," and the group goes out of its way to make this a reality.

A major emphasis is placed on sharing writing, not just within the club, but also with others outside the club's walls.

"There's this really cool bonding thing that happens," Jones said, "you can see it when they're holding hands out in nature, but then in the dressing room when they're getting ready to perform, it's even more. You can feel the energy when you enter the room and it's magic. It's the coolest thing to see that moment when it happens."

Valley Voices began as a way to share poetry with students across the district -- and to allow them to share their own work. "Students were disconnected," Jones said, "that sense of not fitting in reminded me of myself in high school. Poetry saved my life, even though I didn't show my work to anyone."

As part of her master's thesis, Jones, who is herself a published poet, built on the focus on poetry she had already developed in her classroom.

She then moved beyond it to establish a curriculum that would share poetry with even more students -- and then she went to the district to see who else might be interested.

Golden Valley teacher Marilynne Pereira was interested, and the club now boasts membership at Atwater, Livingston, Turlock, Hilmar and Clovis West in addition to Golden Valley and Merced High Schools. A new club has recently formed at Central Catholic in Modesto.

Pereira has seen the club's development firsthand.

"It changes year to year," she said, naming the author visits as a highlight of most years. "Having them come in and having students interact is great," she said, "the end product is amazing."

The list of authors is long -- and prestigious. This year, the club plans to meet with David Mas Masumoto, Jean Janzen, John Peterson, Lillian Vallee, Shelton Johnson, Bonnie Giesel, and Michael Elsohn Ross, in addition to Brandon Cesmat.

A shining part of the program is its ability to attract top writers to work with the students, both in and out of school hours.

According to the club's "Statement of Participation and Productivity," "writers must regularly participate in a variety of activities: meetings, workshops, author visits, field studies, performances, competitions and publications."

Opportunities, happily, are multitude. The group focuses often on environmental poetry, as part of its standing participation with the River of Words competition, and, to this end, has planned trips this year alone to the Merced River, Yosemite and the Merced Wildlife Refuge, often alongside guest authors.

The student members take this lofty goal at face value, and many of them have been members of the club for years, citing it as a valuable aspect of their education.

"The main reason I joined was to express myself and see how far I could go with poetry," said senior member Alejandro Yanez, whose award-winning poetry is featured in the club's published book, "I'm glad I made that choice."

Yanez said that the field studies are his favorite part. During these trips, students often travel to Yosemite or the Bay Area, and spend time meeting with other young poets and working on their own poetry -- all while taking in a new environment.

Member Janet Xu agreed.

"Going to Berkeley and Heyday Books was a good experience," she said.

Bay Area publisher Heyday Books has been a frequent contributor and aid to the program, publishing the annual collection of poems from across the school district.

Xu said that though she joined to spend time with a friend, she stayed in part because "it had more commitment and activity than other clubs."

Most members also see the club as a way to gain skills that will help them as they move ahead in their academic and personal lives.

Member Kong Vang said, "I want poetry to be my everyday life," and also mentioned that being in the club "made me more able to talk in front of other people."

Member Phuc Cao agreed.

"I joined because at first I found it to be interesting," she said, "I met a lot of people too, and can have conversations and sit down and talk to everyone."

Cao remembered that during a performance at Merced County Courthouse Museum, "people were so stressed out, and kept making mistakes when practicing the Group Poem."

It all came together in the end, though, and its success can be a metaphor for the success of the group itself.

Though the student members come from all different backgrounds, they have formed an intense bond that helps them to understand each other.

Jones said that one particularly rewarding aspect of her involvement with the club is her ability to watch these connections take shape.

"One part I like is hearing students having intense conversations about how to say things in different languages," she said, "there's the challenge of making it mean what you want using different words."

Several students have experimented with their own translations, for instance working to adapt their poetry into English from other languages, and vice versa.

"Part of Valley Voices, the strength of it, is the fusion of language and nature, the sense of place, which all of us Valley people have," says a quote from organic farmer, author and Valley Voices participant David Mas Masumoto in the Valley Voices River of Words Environmental Poetry collection from April 2008, "we often forget it, or ignore it, or take it for granted. It's part of who we are. It's embedded in our families and identities too."

"People don't know that about education," Jones said, "they don't see that. Amazing stuff happens and we just set the stage and open the door and whoever chooses to come in... they just take off. We're stunned at what comes out of their mouths."

Valley Voices will host many different events, including the annual Poet Tree at the Merced County Courthouse Museum; the California State University, Fresno, Young Writers Conference in March; the Merced County Office of Education Writing Contest on March 6; and the Valley Voices Poetry Festival on April 24.

Jones can be reached at ojones@muhsd.k12.ca.us or (209) 723-9600 for more information. The Valley Voices Writers' Club project is made possible by grants from GATE grants and the James Irvine Foundation.

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