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Sheila O’Connor on why teaching poetry matters

Sheila O’Connor makes the case that teaching poetry teaches kids to be decent human beings. And perhaps we could use a few more decent people.

Sheila O’Connor makes the case that teaching poetry teaches kids to be decent human beings.

Maybe you think poetry is one of those things that we can stop teaching now, because it’s culturally irrelevant, because it’s not going to lead to a viable career path or higher test scores, or because it’s just for fun and there’s no shortage of fun things in the world. But as a writer-in-the-schools for more than 20 years, Sheila O’Connor makes the case that teaching poetry teaches kids to be decent human beings. And perhaps we could use a few more decent people.

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“Stories unite us, and show us the ways in which we are connected,” said O’Connor, who estimates she worked with more than 10,000 schoolchildren as a poet in the schools with COMPAS and other regional arts organizations.

“When children are telling their stories and listening to their classmates’ stories, they learn so much about each other, and all this natural empathy starts to develop in the classroom.,” she said in an interview. “You can’t not care about someone who’s writing about putting their dog down, even if you hated them at recess for a year.

“I remember one boy who was kind of rough, but every day he wrote beautiful love poems about a girl he met at camp, and about his family. And one day a classmate raised her hand and said, ‘I look at him and I can’t believe that he is the person who wrote those poems.’ So we launched into a conversation about, ‘isn’t it funny about how little we really know about anybody?’ You can talk about empathy, but empathy has to be experienced. Writing makes that possible.”

One question O’Connor faced over and over from her students was the matter of her own writing — and why they couldn’t read it. Her books, “Tokens of Grace” and “Where No Gods Came” were written for adults, and feature adult topics, even though children (and O’Connor’s own childhood memories) are central to the stories.

“When I retired from my work teaching in the schools [to become a full-time writing professor at Hamline University] I decided to write a book for kids, as a gift to all those young writers I knew,” she said. That book, “Sparrow Road,” follows a young girl as she explores family secrets, the power of quiet places, and finds her own voice during a strange summer away from home.

The book was written for “tween” readers, but it, along with her new children’s book, “Keeping Safe the Stars,” about three orphaned siblings, has attracted a large number of adult readers, in part because O’Connor doesn’t write down to young readers. The language is rich, complex, and descriptive, and the tone is contemplative and exploratory. The books can be intense because of their charged emotional content, but O’Connor says young readers rise to the occasion.

“Kids are very much moved by the story of the orphans. They are drawn into the complexity of the absent parent and it brings up how much we think about someone who is missing from our lives. Loss was one of the most common things that kids wrote about when I was in the schools. Missing grandparents, siblings that they were estranged from, fathers that they hadn’t heard from, missing objects, missing pets. Loss is a huge thing in so many kids’ lives, I knew they would respond to that in the story.”

O’Connor plans to write more books for young readers, and she is finishing a book of short stories for adults as well. A backlog of unwritten books is waiting for her in the writing shed she works from in her Minneapolis backyard, including poetry and creative non-fiction, and another novel for adults. But first, a couple more books for kids.

“I can say with certainty that of all the work I’ve done in my life, the writing in the schools work had the most immediate positive effect. Every child benefits from it in some way. Having confidence and a voice is useful for everyone. And everybody writes, no matter what they grow up to do.”


Feb. 8, 7:30 p.m. Reading at Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts, Fridley