National Writing Project

Louisiana Students’ Award-Winning Poems Form a River of Words

By: Art Peterson
Date: June 18, 2009

Summary: Teacher-consultant Connie McDonald knew the River of Words poetry contest was one that her students—familiar with coulees, bayous, and rivers—should get involved in. Now NWP of Acadiana students regularly win awards.


Watershed is a word generally used by agronomists rather than literary types, yet it's this term that provides the bedrock for the world's largest children's poetry competition, River of Words.

The inspiration of Robert Hass, who served as United State Poet Laureate between 1995 and 1997, River of Words has provided special motivation for teachers at Louisiana's National Writing Project of Acadiana (NWPA), whose students have played havoc with the law of averages, placing as winners or finalists dozens of times in this 13-year-old competition that draws thousands of entries each year.

The contest is an annual affair, sponsored by River of Words in affiliation with The Library of Congress Center for The Book. Winners are chosen from four categories: kindergarten-grade 2; grades 3-6; grades 7-9; and grades 10-12. In addition to the poetry competition, River of Words also sponsors a contest that allows young artists to explore watershed themes.

Watersheds as Inspiration

Why watersheds? Because, as the River of Words website explains, everyone lives in a watershed; everywhere streams and slopes are carrying water to larger bodies of water. These watersheds provide both a common link and a source of diversity.

Watersheds affect who we are and how we live our lives, and also the kind of art, music and literature we create.

According to the website, "Watersheds affect who we are and how we live our lives, and also the kind of art, music and literature we create. Desert people, for example, sing different songs than forest people, draw different pictures and often use different materials to create their artwork. The connection between landscape and the human imagination is reciprocal."

That's the connection that attracted NWPA teacher-consultant Connie McDonald, who along with her writing project colleague Harriet Maher had been involving students in writing contests for 20 years.

"I knew that River of Words was a contest Louisiana students should get involved in," McDonald says. "Many of the students we teach grow up in coulees and bayous; they play in rivers and woods near their homes; they help out in their papas' gardens and crawfish ponds."

McDonald, who was named the River of Words Teacher of the Year in 2006, let her writing project colleagues know about River of Words, and many of them shared her enthusiasm.

"Our students know lakes and swamps," says teacher-consultant Mary Caroline Ancelet. "A rainstorm here is serious. Yards fill with water. The heat is intense. It's easy to use these elements to foster poetry."

Beyond Inspiration: The Dead (of Winter) Poets Society

But the Acadiana teachers also know that an environment that inspires poetry does not necessarily a poem make. That's where NWPA's invitational student writing retreat, The Dead (of Winter) Poets Society, comes in. Student poets and teacher poets come together to make serious preparation for River of Words.

The disproportionate number of winners from Acadiana can be attributed to National Writing Project teachers.

"We wanted a chunk of time away from TV, computers, video games, cell phones, CD players, and headsets in a setting rich with palmettos, live oaks, murky water, and wood ducks," says Maher.

Into this mix the Acadiana teachers invite living poets such as Darrell Bourque, Louisiana's Poet Laureate, and McDonald's daughter Bonny McDonald, who attended Acadiana summer writing camps for many years and is now a very accomplished spoken word poet active in Big Buddy/WordPlay of Baton Rouge.

The poets act as modelers, instructors, and cheerleaders. When Bourque confronts the young writers with his belief that we all have a poetry gene, that "poetry is a part of who we naturally are," that "our poems are not foreign texts," student confidence emerges and writing blocks begin to crumble.

But in addition to inspiration, the poets and teachers offer many practical activities. As students write there is an emphasis on specificity. "We have on hand a library of books on Louisiana wild life, plants, trees, flowers, birds, and animals," says Ancelet, who directs the Dead of Winter program.

Teachers Teaching Teachers—Again

A big benefit of the retreat for the teachers is the accumulation of countless poetry writing prompts they are able to take back to their classrooms. Indeed, according to McDonald, the success of Acadiana in River of Words probably has something to do with the "swap shop" environment that allows teachers to "develop the ideas we've borrowed, stolen, and 'thunk up' ourselves."

McDonald and Maher have put this accumulated knowledge together in a teacher's guide , available on the River of Words website. Here students and teachers get help creating list poems and "shout-outs." They learn about "jump starts" that use the first line of an existing poem, and persona poems that ask the writer to become anything from a crocodile to a paper weight.

In 2000 Maher decided to try out one of her lessons (now included in the teacher's guide) on her 12-year-old son Kevin. The lesson "In Flow—Writing About Watersheds," uses as a mentor text the Robert Hass poem "Spring Rain" and asks students to "choose a place—a stream, lake, river, ocean, pool . . . . Think about an experience you've had there. Write a little about where and when that was."

The guiding questions that Maher provides allow students—like Kevin—to expand on their experience and summon the details: the sounds, the smells, the plants and animals that inhabit this scene. Here is Kevin's poem, which turned out to be a grand prize winner in the grade 7-9 category for the year 2000.

Rockefeller Wildlife Preserve: Mid-August

The air is moist
The water bittersweet
A southern Gulf breeze sighs
Laughing gulls call
And cicadas click their
Luminous song
I smell the death scent
Of beached gars
And see the dreamy haze
Of oil on water
Nearby an alligator stares
With tabby eyes
A great heron startles
From its marsh bed
Standing on the rip-rap,
I peer at the water
And slowly hoist
The turkey neck on string
A blue-point crab
Grips the bait
I slyly dip the net
A good two feet away
And scoop up the crustacean
Without warning
And drop it into a bucket
To meet many friends,
Gifts of the Mississippi,
The day has reached its climax
Animals sleep through the heat,
Hiding in the wax myrtles
A snowy egret,
White plumage glistening,
Glides into the Roseau cane.

The Tips of Students' Wings

Lessons developed by Acadiana teachers continue to guide the work of the region's River of Words Poets. This year's grand prize winner in the grades 10-12 category was Skyler Pham, a student at the Magnet Academy of Arts in Opelousas, Louisiana.

His teacher, teacher-consultant Holly Schullo, had familiarized Skyler with the concept of "persona." Thus he begins his winning poem "Sisyphean" as a seagull.

There was a time in my life
When I was the seagull, swallowing
Skin shed from all the flightless nights,
Sleepless nights. And everything
Seemed to resonate on the tips of my wings.

Schullo and other NWPA teachers will be back to River of Words next year. And their continuing interest is not derived only from the prize-winning ways of their students. It's also the attentive way student work is treated by River of Words. Each entrant receives an attractive certificate, and poetry and art winners and finalists are published in a beautiful chapbook as well as online.

After attending the award ceremony in Washington, DC, Maher says, "I saw the respect with which Robert Hass treated each poem. He read from each winner's work, commenting on craft and nudging students to speak about their writing. After Hass's attention to their work, students seemed to see themselves and their writing in a more serious light. The transformation was visible as Hass spoke. I became a missionary."

Maher's respect for River of Words is, not surprisingly, reciprocated. River of Words director and poet Pamela Michael makes clear her admiration for the teachers and students of Acadiana: "The disproportionate number of winners from Acadiana can be attributed to a large degree to teachers who are affiliated with the National Writing Project. It's writing project teachers who organize the Dead of Winter Poet's Society that immerses students in the language and the poetry of the region. I see these teachers as promoting in their students' writing a rich sense of 'place' and local culture that exceeds that of most contributions we receive from anywhere else."

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