Sustainable Missoula: Children need writing to express hopes, fears for future

Writer and musician Caroline Keys encourages a student at a year-end poetry reading outside Woodman School. (Courtesy photo)

Missoula children love to be outside. We know this because when the Missoula Writing Collaborative collected 500 place poems from every fourth-grader in Missoula to put into a digital story map, students overwhelmingly wrote about outdoor landscapes: rivers, gullies, trails, parks, sledding hills and tree forts. We also know that Missoula children love to write about their joys, fears, hopes and dreams.

Creative writing connects these inside, interior landscapes with the exterior landscapes they describe when they write place poems, odes and poems about memories. Poetry provides children a safe place to express who they are and helps them become attentive to how they fit into their place, their community and their larger world. 

Unfortunately, creative writing is endangered in the classroom. Core curriculums, state standards and an emphasis on STEM has put pressure on schools to cut creative writing from curriculums. Schools don’t feel like they have time for a professional writer to come in once a week for 12 weeks. Instead of writing poems on the qualities of silence or imagining what it would be like to be a tree riding out a storm, far more time is spent on book reports and 5-paragraph essays. 

However, creative writing in schools only complements standards and supports other subjects. Writing poems and reading them out loud not only helps students to be more creative in their writing, but translates to creativity in solving problems, proficiency in critical thinking, and confidence in public speaking, all skills that meet current state standards and are essential for success in almost any professional pursuit. 

The Missoula Writing Collaborative prides itself on teaching children to love writing. By removing obstacles and showing them the possibilities of writing, students learn how they each have something valuable to say. Each year, the Missoula Writing Collaborative visits 31 schools in western Montana, teaching students from Missoula north to Seeley Lake, from Ronan south to Darby.

Each year, we help more than 2,125 students in 85 classrooms that range from kindergarten to twelfth grade find and express the stories within themselves in poetry, stories about jingle dresses, hunting trips, violins, bears, and rivers. That’s approximately 25,000 poems that students write about themselves and their places each year.

We like to think of writing poems as building concentric circles of awareness within the children we teach. As students write an “I Am From” poem they become more aware of who they are, and where they come from. As they write an “I Remember” poem they become aware of how they have experiences in common with their peers: losing a grandparent or a beloved pet; breaking a bone; welcoming their sibling home for the first time.

As they write place poems they become aware of their exterior landscapes: the crinkle of leaves talking to them underfoot as they walk through Moose Can Gully on a crisp fall day; the sun warming and reddening the backs of their necks as they dig their hands into moist garden soil in Grandma’s garden. As they connect their external surroundings with their internal feelings, Missoula students are becoming attuned to the sensibilities of place.

Knowing a place only leads to caring about it, and protecting it into the future. That sense of caring needs to be something we can count on in our children as they grow and make their way into the community.

As the Missoula Writing Collaborative’s founder and artistic director Sheryl Noethe has said over and over, “Poetry saves lives.” It provides a safe space in the classroom for students to express themselves and be heard. In addition to saving individual lives, poetry also saves our community, especially the future of our community.

Creative expression through writing not only builds literacy in children, but enables them to have confidence in their voices, encourages them to have empathy for others’ thoughts and emotions, and allows them to become more attentive to their surroundings.

Missoula needs more renewable energy, less waste going into its landfills and more carbon-free transportation for a sustainable future, but it also needs young citizens who can articulate what they care about in their community and have the confidence to make a difference. Poetry can help them make that difference.

Nick Littman is Programs Director and Caroline Patterson is Executive Director of the Missoula Writing Collaborative.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events

Saturday, October 19. Pumpkin Run — This Run Wild Missoula 5k will benefit UM’s Revolving Energy Loan Fund which funds energy and resource conservation projects on the UM campus. Registration is $15.

Sunday, October 20. Missoula Tweed Ride (Fundraiser for Free Cycles) – 1 pm: soup & libations at 732 S First St, Msla; 2 pm: Leisurely cycle ride to afternoon tea; 3 pm: ‘Best of’ prizes in Greenough Park . Live music, silent auction, and many folks spiffily dressed.

Friday, October 25 – Sunday, October 27. AERO EXPO – Cultivating Community Resilience. MSU Bozeman.