Saugerties and Ellenville students compose a collaborative poem called Behind the Mask

April was National Poetry Month and to celebrate, students at Saugerties Junior and Senior High School joined with students from Ellenville Junior and Senior High School to compose a collaborative piece called “Behind the Mask.”

Sari Grandstaff has been the Saugerties High School librarian for 13 years and is a poet herself.

“In 2007 I actually founded National Haiku Poetry Day, which is now on April 17 each year under the auspices of The Haiku Foundation,” Grandstaff said. “And I have brought students to High School Student Day at the biennial Dodge Poetry Festival in 2014, 2016 and 2018, and plan to again in 2022. So I’m usually trying to infuse poetry into the school library and April being National Poetry Month give me a perfect excuse.”

Through the Ulster County BOCES School Library System, Grandstaff’s passion for poetry found its way to Ellenville Jr. and Sr. High Librarian Asha Golliher, who reached out at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year to ask for some advice. From there a collaborative project was born.

“I think it was during a more mundane discussion we were having about library inventory procedures,” Grandstaff said. “We were just getting back to in-person learning after all the various iterations of remote learning, hybrid learning, etc…that started in March 2020. Inspired by Kwame Alexander’s crowd-sourced poems on National Public Radio, I suggested we do something similar .”

Grandstaff discussed the idea with Jamie Rabideau, faculty adviser to the SHS Poetry Club, and Veronica Voerg, SHS Jr. High Literacy Lab teacher, who came up with the idea of ​​“Behind the Mask” as a writing prompt.

“I see poetry as a creative way to process our experiences,” Grandstaff said. “The school community has a lot to process with these unprecedented pandemic experiences, and we are still going through it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted connection for students not only within schools, but beyond as well.

“Saugerties, in the northeast corner of Ulster County, and Ellenville, in the southwest corner of the county, are 40 miles apart,” Grandstaff said. “All the ways the pandemic disrupted our opportunities for connection had us wanting to create a community connection through poetry between the two schools. We have an active Poetry Club here at Saugerties and a popular Creative Writing class. One thing I observe with our student writers is their desire to share their emotions through their writing as a means to forge connections with their peers.”

In all, 24 of Voerg’s Literacy Lab students and seven Poetry Club students participated on Saugerties’ end participated in the project, along with 38 students from Ellenville. In Saugerties, students were given the following address from Grandstaff:

“I wanted to share an example of a collaborative poem. These poems are also called crowd-sourced poems or community poems. This (“This is Our Dream”) is one from last year where Kwame Alexander asked for poetry that starts with the words ‘I dream a world.’ He takes lines from the submitted poems to create a community poem. We will be combining the two communities of Saugerties and Ellenville to create our poem. You will see at the end the list of poets whose submissions were used to create the poem. I notice there’s someone from here in Ulster County as well as someone from Columbia County across the river.”

After the deadline, Grandstaff and Golliher began to remotely assemble the lines into a larger piece like a thematic puzzle.

“I started taking the lines and sort of thematically arranging them on slides,” Grandstaff said. “Asha didn’t realize we were doing a visual poem at first, but I thought it would be the way to go since the students are digital natives anyway. Instagram and TikTok is often where they get their poetry fix, although they do enjoy taking out poetry books.”

Grandstaff used to attend BookExpo in New York City and brought back numerous books of poetry from Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur, rh Sin, and Amanda Lovelace, many of whom are familiar to young poetry fans who find a connection through their smartphones.

Other than removing the words “Behind the mask” from some submissions to avoid repetition, Grandstaff and Golliher left the students’ words intact. And since publication last month, both in print and as a visual collage, the poem has been a success.

“The response has been positive when I shared it out with faculty, staff and administrators,” said Grandstaff. “There were positive responses to the poem on the school district (Facebook) page. It will be online in Chronogram’s Poetry section starting May 1, 2022.”

Voerg, also a Response to Intervention teacher, also enjoyed the completed poem.

“I am so pleased with the way our two librarians brought these lines all together in the visual presentation,” Voerg said. “We were all waiting to see the final product as we were unsure of what to expect. They did not disappoint. I couldn’t be prouder of all who took part in this effort.”

“This project to me was primarily regarding unity,” said Matthew Lewellyn, SHS Poetry Club president. “Throughout the pandemic, wearing masks was a way to hide from others, but this felt like I wasn’t hiding anymore. I was excited to see so many contributions. Again, the feeling of unity amongst students who have all lost similar experiences to the ‘Unprecedented Times’ was only enforced as I saw the final piece.”

“To me this project was a really creative way for students from different schools to explore and creatively reflect on the shared experience of having to wear masks in school and ensure the challenges presented to us during the pandemic, said SHS 12th grade student Hannah Mills. “When I saw the finished poem, I was really amazed at the length. Furthermore, I think that the length speaks volumes about how shared the experience of being a high school student during the pandemic is and also emphasizes the creative expression that writing provides for many students.”

“It was cool to see everyone’s project put together,” said SHS 8th grade student Victoria Phelan. “It was awesome. A little sad but awesome.”

“This project shows how beautiful cooperation works,” said SHS 7th grade student Sarah Ann VonAhnen. “It felt awesome!”

The poem in a slideshow can be viewed at: