In Service of Spirit

Students discover writing courses unlock deeper lessons

  |  Cover photo by Caleb Roenigk/Flickr Creative Commons

Lia Purpura was teaching Writing Poetry.

Andrea Leary was teaching Art of the Argument and Civic Literacy.

One day when the two instructors fell into a conversation about the comments their students were sharing about their learning experiences, they made an astonishing realization. Despite their courses’ dissimilar surface objectives, their students were sharing surprisingly consonant sentiments on the power they were discovering in words.

“In a poetry class, I have the luxury of teaching people who already like words,” said Purpura, writer-in-residence and author of three collections of poetry and two books of essays. She is a Pushcart Prize winner and National Book Critics’ Circle Award finalist. “But this past semester, I wanted to know why poetry mattered to my class, why they were willing to spend time shaping and perfecting, reading and critiquing poems.”

As Purpura learned more about the students in her Introduction to Poetry class, she realized she was teaching a diverse group. “My eclectic students included a competitive diver; folks going off to study in China and England; people preparing to accept Army commissions and join Teach for America,” she said.

Even with their different interests and backgrounds—and varying interests in writing—the students were making similar personal discoveries to those of students in Leary’s courses.

An affiliate assistant professor of writing, Leary teaches courses in which students utilize writing skills and projects to engage with and support the Arc of Maryland, which serves individuals with developmental disabilities; the Students Sharing Coalition, which works with inner-city youth; and other non-profit organizations. Their projects included writing editorials, crafting advocacy letters to elected officials, producing YouTube videos highlighting related issues, and creating a handbook to educate urban youth about self-advocacy.

“My courses ask students to immerse themselves in service-learning,” said Leary, who has taught at Loyola since 1994. “They read and learn about arguments and about literacy, but they are also called to expand their definition of justice and re-examine the world through the lens of service-learning. Although their writing tasks might at first seem opposite to those of the poet, these students are deeply aware of the place cura personalis has in their work.”

Leary and Purpura invited their students to articulate their experiences in writing and selected some of the highlights to share here:

“When one begins to study poetry sincerely and enthusiastically, poetry literally transforms from being something ‘said on the page’ to a full-blown way of thinking and living.”—John Cappiello, ’11

“I never thought my love of writing could be used as a tool, a weapon even. The idea of attempting to aid a family directly is not only something I thought I never would be doing, it is something I never thought I could be doing.”—Courtney McNamara, ’10

“Trying to explain the goodness and health benefits of poetry isn’t easy. First of all there are many people who do not believe in poetry anymore. Words are just words to them, things used for the purpose of getting a point across, but with words, communication can fail. Poetry refuses to ‘fail’ in communicating. A finished poem is worth the wait.” —Elaine Jimenez, ’11

“In abidance with ‘care of the whole person,’ I feel as though the process of writing the handbook has impacted me in the same way that reading the handbook will influence the children [who will read it as an advocacy guide].”—Jenna Burnbaum, ’10

“I think we can classify poetry as a tool for revelations. When one begins to study poetry sincerely and enthusiastically, poetry literally transforms from being something “said on the page” to a full-blown way of thinking and living. As I have practiced poetry over this past semester I have noticed immeasurable differences in the ways I address and interact with the world around me. If I could put this transformation into a few choice words, I might say that in life now, I maintain and practice reflective, internal pauses, through which I find language to celebrate, examine or distinguish a moment. One who practices poetry grows on their soul a pair of eyes through which to observe and remember. Poetry is not about “making a living” but it is, indeed about living well and fully. In my quest for finding the truth, for finding the ordinary amongst the strange, I will have my education as my guide, God as my crutch and poetry as my lens.”—John Cappiello, ’11

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