Schools across the country have been dealing with financial pressure by cutting spending on the arts. But since 1995 in Detroit, the InsideOut Literary Arts Project has been sending writers to schools throughout the city. It's now in 30 schools. Over the years it has introduced many thousands of students from kindergarten to high school seniors to the literary arts.
The project was founded by Terry Blackhawk, a teacher who wanted to help students overcome obstacles to self- expression. With her was senior writer Peter Markus. And one of the students in the beginning, Nandi Comer, is today a writer-in-residence, teaching the next generation of students.
Peter Markus says, “Our job, whether or not we are met with resistance, is to get the students to see that they can do what we are asking them to do. We put them into situations where they can see that isn’t quite as daunting to write a poem as they thought it might be. Many of them have never written a poem before.”
The anthology To Light a Fire: 20 Years with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project (Wayne State University Press, Made in Michigan Writers Series, 2015), includes essays from poets and writers like John Rybicki, Jamaal May, Robert Fanning, francine j. harris, Isaac Miller, Nandi Comer, and many others, about their experiences working with students.
InsideOut's success in Detroit has won national attention. It's been feature in a public television program. And it won a recent award from the White House: the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, presented by Michelle Obama.
The First Lady said in her opening remarks at the award ceremony, "Perhaps one of the poets from Detroit's InsideOut Literary Arts Project said it best when he wrote, 'When you ask a child to dream, they will dream.'"
Students who participate in the project consistently get higher scores on achievement tests in writing and reading. Nandi Comer says students who are sometimes seen as “challenging” often become the stars of the program.
“Sometimes a teacher will tell you going into the process (about a student) 'I don’t know if he or she is going to be receptive.' (But) it never fails, that student will be the one who is most productive and the most engaged of any student in the classroom.”
When students get up to share their work at the end of the project each year, Markus says IO teachers will often say they're the ones who never speak up in public. The shy student, the troubled student, the student who stutters — Markus says he's seen all of them and more find their voice participating in the IO project.
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