Peter Markus convinced his young students in the Detroit Public Schools that there is magic inside his pencil. He proves it in his newest book Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in the Detroit Public Schools (Dzanc Books, March 2017), a collection of bright and inspiring essays about teaching creative writing to kids.
A strong believer in the value of public education, Markus says, “What I’ve been watching these past 20 years is the shrinking public school system here in Detroit. There’s about a hundred schools left, and all these schools on the list to be closed unless they raise their test scores. Data is everything in the eyes of some people who never walk into these schools. But there’s a kind of intelligence that I’m trying to address, and that I hope this book will highlight, that can’t be measured.”
Markus brims with stories about inner city kids who come to his class beaten down by the hardships of their young lives, thinking they have nothing left to offer. But they often find their voice, and healing, through creative writing. Markus had a student who spoke with a stutter but read his poetry aloud without missing a beat.
“Talking to these students and listening to these students speak about their experience and the things that they write about and find joy in, and even write their way through experiences that for many are very difficult - to me that is more the North Star that I think we should be looking at rather than these standardized tests,” says Markus.
Just like many students, Markus says too many good teachers burn out when forced to use rigid curriculums that are barren of creativity and unmoved by individual pace.
“I watch more and more really gifted teachers leave the vocation because, basically, they are just forced out,” he says. “There are so many amazing teachers who get so tired by the whole process by which they are judged that they just say, ‘I’m done.’ And they go find something else to do.”
Markus says he survives the challenges of a confining system by working outside of it, as a guest teacher with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit. He has been a writer-in-residence there since it started in 1995. Markus teaches at all levels, moving from school to school, from elementary grades to universities.
His best advice to working with stressed kids who may on occasion act out in the classroom: be kind. Kindness, he says, goes a long way. Kindness and poetry.
“In a poem, they can find success. And through that success, they find that confidence that is crucial to any of us being successful in the world.”
Peter Markus is also the author of the novel Bob, or Man on Boat, as well as several other books of short fiction, including We Make Mud and The Fish and the Not Fish. He also teaches creative writing at Oakland University.
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