Socially distant service
Kwame Kennedy usually likes to volunteer in clinics or hospitals in preparation for medical school. But the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of those volunteer opportunities.
So instead, the University of South Carolina chemistry and creative writing student spent this fall on a more social-distanced kind of service: writing poems and creating poetry lessons for elementary school students in Georgia.
Kennedy, a junior from Irmo, South Carolina, is taking Creative Writing and Community from English professor Ed Madden. Kennedy and his classmates have been working on service projects here in Columbia or father away.
“I really enjoy writing creatively and working with other creatives in the field,” Kennedy says. “I enjoy classes like this because it gives me more opportunities."
Projects like this remind us to not get too self-absorbed. There are still other people out there we can communicate with. There still is a community, even though we can't see them as much. It helps me reconnect with the beautiful society around me.”
― Kwame Kennedy
Collaboration during COVID
Madden has incorporated service into several of his classes before, and, as the poet laureate of Columbia, he likes to see those projects revolve around public art.
He had just decided to add a service component to Creative Writing and Community when the pandemic imposed new restrictions on social contact and gathering. “I had to reimagine [the class] in terms of how we make service-learning work in this kind of environment,” Madden says.
He wrote a Facebook post asking friends to suggest projects his students could do while observing social distance guidelines. One of his former students had an idea.
Emily Boyle, who earned a Master of Arts in Teaching at UofSC, says Madden inspired the way she teaches writing at the College of Coastal Georgia.
“His lessons are still the foundation of my courses,” Boyle says.
Boyle's first-year English class has involved service for several years, and all the projects revolve around building community with art. In Spring 2020, her class began working with St. Mary’s Elementary School, a Georgia school which was planning a community garden and wanted to include an artistic element. She proposed that Madden’s class team up with hers this fall to continue the project.
The college students are writing poems about art created by the elementary school students. They are also making some videos to teach the younger students how to write poetry.
Josie Davis, a management major from Greenville, South Carolina, says the video lessons start with a student reading a poem aloud. Next, another student explains how to use that poem as a template. It’s a method taught in All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth, a book that Boyle purchased for St. Mary’s with a grant.
“It's so important to integrate these different elements, but also show them that it matters that you’re doing it with other people,” Davis says. “They're getting to see older college students care about their artwork and write a small, meaningful poem about it.”
When you see the way [art] interacts with community, you realize how it’s so important. It’s cool to see the way that you can still do that in the social-distanced world.
― Josie Davis
Hope to inspire
Susan Grayson, the visual arts teacher for St. Mary’s, says the project is opening her students to new ideas.
"We hope that by reaching beyond our school walls we can learn from others’ work,” she says. “Poetry and art can be a great resource of comfort during difficult times. It gives students a real audience for their work and motivates them to keep trying.”
Davis and Kennedy both hope that the project will show the younger students that their creativity matters.
“I hope it inspires them to continue to be creative and expressive,” Kennedy says. “I hope they will take inspiration from it and make more art.”
While several of Madden’s students in the class are working on the St. Mary’s project, others are gathering poems about dogs that they can place in a dog park. Two students are assisting Madden with an interactive digital map with poems about Columbia ― a project funded by the Academy of American Poets. Some are writing for the Jasper Project, an arts organization.
“Art is wonderful when it's communal and together,” Davis says. “When you see the way it interacts with community, you realize how it's so important. It’s cool to see the way that you can still do that in the social-distanced world.”
“It helps us understand what's going on in everyone else’s lives so we're not so isolated," Kennedy says. “It reminds us that we're still all here.
“The thing about this pandemic, we're supposed to be socially distanced. We're more isolated than ever before. Projects like this remind us to not get too self-absorbed. There are still other people out there we can communicate with. There still is a community, even though we can't see them as much. It helps me reconnect with the beautiful society around me.”