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Giving students a lesson in empathy through poetry

Julia Showalter teaches English and creative writing at Franklin High School. But to her, lessons are more than just assigning exercises and essays. She works to teach her students not just the fundamentals of the written word, but important life lessons, as well.

That's why when she heard about the work being done at Paul's Place, an outreach program in Washington Village — Pigtown for impoverished and homeless individuals, she knew she could use it to create a learning opportunity for her students. The assignment she created: find a way to bring the stories of those receiving services at Paul's Place to life through poetry.

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Paul's Place, which has been operating for 32 years, offers a range of services to people with limited or no financial means, from a hot meal and a place to do laundry, to job readiness programs and computer literacy classes.

"We serve a hot meal every day to between 250 and 450 people," said Jayna Powell, Paul's Place volunteer coordinator. "We have a marketplace where people can get free clothing — they're all donated, everything's donated — we have shower, laundry, people can bring two loads of laundry a week … we have GED classes; we have a computer lab and we teach computer skills; we have a job readiness coach; we have a case manager to help people find shelter; we help with BGE and evictions. If people run out of food and need emergency food we have emergency food for them; we have an after school program for 80 children."

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In Washington Village, 25 percent of the residents live under the poverty line, Powell said. She estimated that about 40 percent of the guests at Paul's Place are homeless.

Showalter got the idea for the project during an adult Sunday school class of which she and Showalter were both a part. During the class, Powell described the work of Paul's Place and showed everyone the book "Faces of Hope," written by her son, Micah, that was based on a college senior project he had done about the organization.

"We were discussing social justice and it was like a series every Sunday somebody presented and she was talking about Paul's Place as an organization for social justice and she shared this book and talked about how art can be a vehicle to promote social justice," Showalter said.

Through the senior project, Micah took a series of portraits of individuals receiving services at Paul's Place and accompanied them with written versions of their life stories. Powell was so taken by the work that she asked him to make it into a book.

"The way it happened was he did a photo exhibit as his senior project at McDaniel College and this photo exhibit ended up being a great thing for us [at Paul's Place] … and we asked him to put it in book form," Powell said.

When Showalter saw the book and heard about the work being done at Paul's Place, she was so moved that she immediately asked Powell if she could base a project around it, a request to which the Powell eagerly agreed.

"I thought [the idea] was amazing," Powell said. "I was very moved by her being moved. I know the stories of those people and I am with them every day, and I know how amazing they are, and I know how much it meant to them to have that book written because when Micah wrote that book I went to each of them and read them their story to make sure Micah had gotten it right and every single one of them cried when I read them the story. When I said to them, 'It's your story, why are you crying?' they all said 'I've never seen it in writing; I've never seen somebody care enough to write [my story]' … so when she said 'I want to use this in my class, I want to have my children write poems,' I just thought it was brilliant. I was so excited that it was going to have a second life and so I said, 'Do whatever you need to do, take the book.' "

The teacher quickly designed an assignment through which her students would write poems based on the lives of the individuals described in the book. Students were told to bring their chosen person's experiences to life through their poetry.

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"They had to use some creative and artistic license; they had to retell the story that was in prose in the book in a poem," she said. "[They were also allowed to] re-imagine and use their imagination and empathy to bring [the people's] voices to life and make them even more emotional."

In March, her students chose from the ten individuals in the book and wrote poems about their lives. The work they presented was more than Showalter could have expected.

"The results were unbelievable," she said. "They really got it and it was just interesting the way we were able to show the powerlessness and helplessness [of the people]."

Showalter gave the finished poems to Powell to be read to the individuals represented, most of whom had become volunteers or ambassadors for Paul's Place since their days using the organization's services.

"Jayna's still in touch with them and lot of them are still volunteers at Paul's Place, and she got them together and she told them what had happened and she had the poems … and they all were together and they were flipping through reading them, and they were crying and they just loved it, and they said they liked themselves better the way the students had written them and they felt more hopeful," Showalter said.

One such "alumna" and current Paul's Place ambassador is Dolly Miller, who was homeless for ten years and struggled with substance abuse for thirty years before becoming clean and utilizing the services of Paul's Place in 2008. Miller said she was so moved by the students' poetry that she framed each work.

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"These young kids read the book … they wrote poems which was very touching to me," Miller said. "To find such compassion in young people is rare today. I have them framed on my wall. I read them often; they give me a shot of hope that there is compassion out there, that the world is not the terrible place I thought it was when I was using and I isolated myself from it because I didn't think anybody cared."

Showalter gave her new students the same assignment in October. She plans to give the poems to Powell once again so they can be shared with Paul's Place alumni and volunteers as they were in March. She also intends to continue giving her students this assignment each semester. To her, the project serves to teach them not just how to craft a poem, but how to empathize and sympathize with a fellow human being.

"First of all, I thought it was neat that they heard stories about people in Baltimore," she said. "They got out of Franklin for a little bit and were thinking about the larger community, so I liked that. And then the empathy that was amazing and something that they mentioned, they admitted that they judge people who end up in these situations — addiction, homelessness, depression — but they said that reading these stories, they said they can understand it's just a more extreme situation of what they feel in their own lives"

When asked what the poems have meant and continue to mean to Paul's Place alumni, Powell struggled to hold back her emotions.

"Well, I'll tell you what it means for the people they wrote the poems about: It means they were worthy of having somebody write a poem about them, which is huge," she said. "When you have lived your life at the bottom and everyone treats you terribly and no one knows your name and you're a number and you're just processed and your life hasn't amounted to much ... when a high school student says, 'I'm going to write a poem about you' … it's huge. It means there's a group of high school students that now understand that you can't use the term 'those people' — because they're not 'those people' — they're individuals with faces and names and hopes and dreams and stories that are worthy of having a poem written about them, and that's pretty special ... So I guess obviously from my emotions that's what it means to me as well as what it means to them, that there's a group of high school kids out there that really understand that people have had hard lives and they're doing their best."

Reach Times Staff Writer Elaina Clarke at 410-857-3316 or via email at elaina.clarke@communitytimes.com.


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