About Emily Southerton

Emily Southerton (Delta '10) is a teacher and poet who created and runs The Poet Warriors Project. Emily is currently traveling across the country teaching poetry writing in low-income public middle schools and collecting original student poems for publication. In doing so, she hopes to empower students as community and self-advocates and highlight student voices in the American dialogue of change. Emily is a native of Mifflinburg, a small farming town in central PA, and a poet herself. She graduated as Class Poet from Villanova University in '10 and went on to teach English and Music in Jackson, MS, where the poems, songs, and powerful voices of Rowan middle-schoolers were so compelling, she had to create a project through which to publish them.

What It Means To Teach: Get Your Students Heard

“Can I be

The girl to change the world

With just one piece of writing?”

–excerpt from “Who Am I?” by Nassara Jean (teacher: Anna Katter’s classroom (Miami ’11)

I hated poetry until I was a junior in college and met Daisy Fried.

Day one of her writing workshop, this wild-haired poet stood in front of the room glowing, and asked the poets in the room to raise their hands. I definitely kept mine in my lap along with about half the room, to which she smiled and replied, “Well starting today, we’re all poets.”

Though I didn’t believe it then, by the end of her course, I was a dedicated, purposeful, and published poet, along with many others who kept their hands down that first day. Daisy pushed her students to use their voices in the world in a real and affecting way, and made simple the tools that would help us get there. A year later, despite my Middle East Politics major, I’d graduate “Class Poet,” and read my work as last parting words to my graduating class. Because I had a teacher whose passion and confidence in her students was ridiculously contagious, I had the honor of sharing my thoughts with thousands, when otherwise I’d have remained quiet.

It’s corny to say this, but Daisy gave me my own powerful voice. I’m pretty sure THAT’s what teaching is all about.

Daisy’s infectious passion and confidence in her students’ abilities is what I’ve been trying to emulate as a music and ELA teacher (Delta ’10), specifically in my poetry instruction for the last three years. For the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to drive across the country teaching week-long poetry writing workshops heavily influenced by Daisy’s methods to over 1,200 students in fifteen TFA regions. The result was over 6,000 original student poems aimed at creating change in the world. Students like Nassara became Poet Warriors and explored their own identity and purpose, explored the life-lessons they’ve learned and have to teach, looked at their families, communities, and place, and then boldly spoke out for themselves, and poetically told their stories for others to hear and understand. They were pushed to ask big questions of themselves and then in turn, asked them of us.

This year, I’ve seen poetry become not just a subject to tackle, but I’ve seen it become for students a life-changer, a driving force, a relief, or a freedom to be passed on:

“Poetry is like a person seeing the sun for the first time”

–Genesis Carreon, Denver, CO (teacher: Hannah Wright, Colorado ’11)

“It’s me running in a dark hall, and I’m running with tigers,”

–Anaya Seeley, Detroit, MI (teacher: Taylor Staffort, Detroit, ’11)

“Poetry is forgiveness,”

–Mason K. Loa, Kailua-Kona, HI (teacher: Lia-Lucine Cary, Hawaii ’11)

“Poetry is freedom. Poetry is a song. A song to sing out loud.”

–Nette Young, Crownpoint NM (teacher: Sophie Rane, New Mexico ’12)

Thanks to digital self-publishing at the Poet Warriors Project tumblr, “Poetry Is,” and Studio One’s video series, this past year our students’ stories and poems were able to reach thousands of readers in all 50 states across the country and around the world as far as India and the Republic of Georgia, Argentina and France. As magazines, blogs, and public radio began to pick up and publish our students’ poems, as Obama’s inauguration poet Richard Blanco and publications like Poetry Magazine (the largest, oldest poetry magazine in the US) started following the project and sharing our students’ poems, our students continued to speak louder understanding the importance and breadth of their voices.

This coming year, with your help, I’m hoping our students will be heard more loudly, more clearly than ever before. I’d like to invite you to participate in the Poet Warriors Project in your own classroom this year.

If you’d be interested in hearing more about how to get involved, send me an e-mail at poetwarriorsproject@gmail.com by October 25th just saying you’re interested, and more info will be sent your way.

From Reluctant Writer, to Poet Warrior

Crownpoint, NM (Photo: Emily Southerton)

Crownpoint, NM (Photo: Emily Southerton)

As I left the Navajo Reservation in Crownpoint, New Mexico and headed north toward Denver, Colorado, my 4th stop on the Poet Warriors Project, I was reflecting on Adam Perry, and several students like him who I have encountered on my travels.

Adam, like others, was at first reluctant to become a poet, both because he lacked confidence and desire to write poems. Yet, the week after I left, Adam turned the incredibly bold and insightful poem, “Seeing My Father In Me,” into Ms. Rane as part of his final piece for the Poet Warriors Project.

So why was Adam, a bright and capable student so reluctant to write throughout much of the week?

National Poetry Month: Let Your Students Astound You

(Photo: Emily Southerton)

(Photo: Emily Southerton)

When we read the lines, “Between Walls/the back wings/of the/hospital where/nothing/will grow lie/cinders/in which shine/the broken/pieces of a green/bottle,” on the last day of my poetry unit, I ask my middle schoolers to discuss in groups what it means to them.

“Even when others are negative around us, we can stand out and be different,”

“Even if we are dealing with something hard in life, we can smile,”

“Even if we come from a bad area/family/school, even if we are broken, we can be successful; we can shine.”

Across the country, I hear this kind of acute analysis from the 11-14 year olds I teach through the Poet Warriors Project. I am a traveling poetry teacher. I teach students to write about themselves and their communities, then work to publish their writing to empower students, help them self-advocate and become advocates for their communities.

First Rule of Poetry: Learn the Rules to Break Them

The New Mexico night sky. (Photo: Emily Southerton)

The New Mexico night sky. (Photo: Emily Southerton)

I’m in western New Mexico and it’s snowing on Navajo Nation. Outside, fields of grasses stretch far as the eye can see, swaying under a nearly full moon, and the flat tops of red mesas grow taller with the piling white flakes. There’s a two-hour delay called tomorrow morning already, so the students of Crownpoint Middle School don’t have to drive the 30 miles to school on roads that will not be salted or plowed.

Because it’s illegal for many corps members to live on Navajo land, I’m hunkered down in the “teacherage,” a small fenced-in group of houses adjacent to school, on property owned by the U.S. government. Being snowed in frees me up to re-read through some of the poems I’ve collected so far in Spencer, Oklahoma, and now, Crownpoint, New Mexico and do some reflecting.

Every time I arrive at a new school, the students know I am there to teach poetry. Based on their preconceptions of poetry, they’ve already decided whether or not they’re going to enjoy the week, or drag their feet through it.

So, I like to begin by getting all those presumptions out in the open. “What is poetry?” I ask, and without missing a beat, the students inevitably reply, “It rhymes,” “It’s about your feelings,” “It’s short,” aka, restrictive and not for everyone.  After we all go through that together, I like to let Emily Dickenson blow their minds:

“If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it.  Is there any other way?”

Taking a cue from Dickenson, I let students know the poems they write in the coming week don’t have to rhyme, or be about feelings, or even use traditional writing rules.  I let them know that we will learn about literary devices poets commonly use—and we’ll learn to use them as well—but that we as poets choose whether or not to use them in our writing. In this moment, I have the privilege of helping students become effective writers and powerful people.

One Alum Turns Students Into Poet Warriors

A Poet Warrior in Ms. Detroit class.

A Poet Warrior in Ms. Stafford’s Detroit ELA class. (Photo: Emily Southerton)

“When my dad left, I was full of waterfalls,” Sierra wrote.

Sierra is a 6th grader in one of Ms. Taylor Stafford’s (Detroit, ’11) ELA classes. Her middle school sits off 7-mile road in northern Detroit, and was the first of fourteen stops on my cross-country trek to teach kids how to be Poet Warriors.

Detroit was thick with smoke and ice when I pulled in late last weekend, and Dan Rather’s words describing Detroit’s public schools as “a national disgrace” hung heavy in my mind as I arrived.

However, when I worked with Sierra in the week following, like so many of her classmates, I found her writing to be sharp and her insights powerful. I quickly found that Sierra was a natural storyteller (and a master of the metaphor). As expected, they all were.

I am a TFA alum (Delta ’10), and this spring I have the privilege of teaching a week-long poetry unit in TFA schools across the country. I teach students poetry reading and writing skills, and encourage them to write about what they know—themselves, their families, and their communities. Then I work to share their poems with others, (http://poetwarriorsproject.tumblr.com), to highlight student voices in the national dialogue, and enable them to speak for themselves, and become self-advocates, teachers, and empowered Poet Warriors.