How to create just the right wind conditions for a porch-watching-worthy storm of youth voice.

InsideOut is up and running in 25 schools in Detroit and the surrounding area! All this magic was kicked off at orientation in October where 19 Writers-in-Residence gathered for a day of icebreakers and writing experiences that put them in the world of the youth they would serve in the weeks to come. The goal was to model for the Writers what a classroom might feel like, how a poem might unfold, how a stifled pencil might be directed to dance unabashed, and how they could make the time with InsideOut an oasis in the school day for students.

As we time traveled back into our younger selves, I began reflecting on my experience as a student and as a teaching artist. Two years ago, while working with 5th graders at Schulze Academy, a lovely elementary school on Detroit’s West side, not far off from my childhood stomping grounds, I remember being surrounded by a vibrant tornado of little hands thrusting lined pages scribed with poems into my fingers. Their wind was a swoosh of voices demanding, “Read my poem! No, read my poem first!”

Child reading poem as part of InsideOut Literary Arts
Shawntai at the Schulze year-end celebration

All of their voices full of eagerness, awaiting the echo of their thoughts through the voice of their Writer-in-Residence; awaiting the validation that helps to breed confidence. As the students swirled around me, their papers waving, I imagined the classroom teacher, Ms. Wallace, might have been holding her breath, attempting to keep behind pursed lips the need to demand order back to the room. But, when I turned to see her, she was smiling. Nearly every single one of her students had written something; something they were enthusiastically proud of. Something they wanted others to hear.

This was my favorite kind of storm to be caught in. I had been one of these students: fountain pen racing across the page at the 30-second warning that sharing time would begin. In high school, I was a participant in InsideOut’s Writer-in-Residence and Citywide Poets program at Cass Technical High School. I remember Writer Kevin Rashid asking the circle of my fellow poets if anyone wanted to share, and how our hands shot up like dog ears to the sound of the request. How I wanted to be first so I could get it out and so, relieved of my poem having been uncaged from the page, I could hear what words the other poets had painted our teen experiences into.

Schools Coordinator Shawntai Brown reading her poetry in high school.
Shawntai reading her poetry in high school.

Now, as the Schools Coordinator, I spend many mornings thinking about how to best match a Writer-in-Residence to a school. How to create just the right wind conditions for a porch-watching-worthy storm of youth voice. I spend my weeks with teaching artists, curating books and poems and lessons to match the identities, temperaments and interests of the youth we serve this year. And when I visit the schools, I get to see the tornado from alongside the classroom teacher, and the teacher whispers to me, “That boy never writes anything.” And yet there he is with his lead-dusted paper in hand, hoping to be called on to read.

Inside Out Poetry Program Poet Leaders

Shawntai Brown
Schools Coordinator