An Ode To Keiki Creativity

A poet-in-residency program at Palolo Elementary School awakens young minds

Who is an alien?
Your best friend? Y
our Mom, your Dad?
Or even your pet?
Do their eyes sparkle
like moonlight?
Or is their skin blue?
No offense,
but could it be you?

— Cheyanne Grimball,
fourth grade

The grassy hills of Palolo Elementary School bustle with more excitement than usual as fourth- and fifth-graders flood toward the library.

“Mom, hurry, the party’s starting, and I need to read my poem,” urges one little girl.

It’s the finale of a poet-inresidency program, in which decorated author and university teacher Laurel Nakanishi has been nurturing seeds of creativity in students, that bloom into poems like the above, Who is an Alien?

From Hawaii, schooled in Missoula, living in Miami and having taught in Japan and in an ongoing program throughout Nicaragua (through a Fulbright scholarship), Nakanishi loves coming home, where her passion is sharing her knowledge with thirsty, neophyte minds.

Does the equation add up: Poetry plus 9- and 10-yearolds? Nakanishi says yes — they’re often more receptive than high school or college students.

“The younger they are,” she says, “the more open they are to playing creatively with language. To having fun with words, ideas and possibilities. It’s a joy to teach them because they’re so willing to use their unique point of view on the world to create these poems.”


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Nhi Nguyen and Laurel Nakinishi Nathalie Walkwer Photo

Nakanishi belongs to a program called Writers in Schools, run by Pacific Writers’ Connection. Dr. Takiora Ingram, founder and executive director of PWC, has been hosting the program for the past eight years, and also has placed poets in Likelike Elementary, and Halau Lokahi and Halau Ku Mana Hawaiian charter schools. As to how the Writers in Schools Program came about, says Ingram:

“We (PWC) were focusing on adults because we run adult writing workshops, and we do book launches as well. I noticed that not many of the books coming through were written by local people, so I said, ‘We’ve got to start with the kids.’”

One of her program directors was familiar with a Writers in Schools Program in Missoula, so they invited members from Montana to come to Hawaii to help set up the program. Over the course of events, the Montana folks mentioned that they knew a Hawaii woman who had just received her MFA from the University of Montana and had the perfect skill set — fluency in poetry and in teaching keiki. Thus Nakanishi came on board, and after taking on 60 Palolo students last year, she expanded to 80 this year. Many of this year’s fifth-graders had studied with Nakanishi in fourth grade. On her return, she says, they greeted her excitedly, inquiring about her time in Nicaragua, where Nakanishi teaches in Spanish.

Nakanishi has created somewhat of a cultural exchange, bringing videos of her Nicaraguan students to Hawaii, and now that this year’s Hawaii poetry residency has come to an end, she’s heading back to Nicaragua and bringing her students there postcards from the Palolo kids.

During her six-week program at Palolo, Nakanishi taught twice a week, turning four different classes into realms of unchecked imagination and self-expression. On the final day, students lined up at the mic to proudly recite their poems to a room packed with teachers, parents and fellow class members. Some students’ delivery was precocious, others stumbled to get their words out. Some let their embarrassed gaze fall on the floor, but by the end of their poems, they were beaming, glancing up with the broadest of smiles at the cheering crowd. Right before our eyes, they went from shy and withdrawn to enjoying confidence in their writing, reading and recitation.

Some poems elicited laughs, others, with their surprising maturity, caught onlookers by the throat, like New Orleans, by Jahna Littlejohn:

I’m in New Orleans.
I hear jazz music
playing all around.
I see people ready
to dance. I see
my uncle laying dead.
He got shot.
It was sad.
My mom had to fly
there and take care of him.
Poor uncle, I miss him bad.

To get their ink flowing, Nakanishi would introduce a topic or poetry form, and she’d share examples from professional poets, but particularly appreciated by the children were examples from fellow children across the globe.

“I introduced them to a lot of local poets,” she says. “I depended on local voices to really show them role models right on their own islands.”

Most of the classroom time was spent writing. By the end of the workshop, the children from each grade had compiled an anthology. Themes provided to the children include “Journeys,” “Questions Without Answers,” and the ever-popular “Monster Pet,” among others.

From “Questions Without Answers,” Brandon Lukas asked, How Fast Can I Spin?, a bubbly ode to the bundles of energy that inhabit elementary school classrooms:

How fast can I spin?
until I hit the ground
How fast can I spin?
until I get dizzy
How fast can I spin?
until I make a sound
How fast can I spin?
until I feel crazy

In the theme of “Journeys,” Eric Jeto delivers Sad Ways, a poignant tribute to his mom, as equally a piquant inner journey as a physical one:

I can see my mom
saying she was crying
and, I tell my mom:
as long as we are here,
we still love each other
And we were at the beach
seeing the sun, sunset.

Side by side, the next two offerings commemorate the past with the theme of “I Remember …”. The first, Pancakes by Kaleb Jackson, appeals to the senses, a sort of junior version of Proust and the madeleines that sent him into instant and vivid sensory immersion in a bygone moment:

I remember the first time I ate pancakes
with chocolate oozing out of it.
I was so clumsy, I got chocolate in my hair.
All the time when I go to my Papa’s house,
I wake up and say, “I smell pancakes.”

The second, Birds Flying, by Jeniva Kapiriel finds a surprising mathematical connection in a graceful moment in nature:

I remember when I saw birds flying
into the shape of a triangle.
I saw a right angle in that triangle.

Under “Metaphors,” Kevin Phan gives us insight into a child’s mind as he sits and waits anxiously, in Testing:

Waiting in the test room
I check as the clock ticks.
The room was a giant glass box.
Later, I yawn and yawn more.
Sitting in my chair
as if a giant rock is on me.
Waiting for something to happen.
As I wait, I look at the clock ticking.

These young voices demonstrate candid contemplations, and Nakanishi says she hopes their new skills will guide them, whether in elation or when the going gets tough.

“I hope they keep on being open to this way of seeing the world,” she says. “So much of the time, we are asking students to have one right answer. But in poetry, there are so many different right answers. The most original and most creative will be rewarded the most.

“I’m hoping they keep an openness to problem solving and apply it to their school and home life. That they can think outside the box when they’re encountering any kind of problem. Some of these kids live kind of rough lives, so if they can have poetry and writing as a way to deal with whatever they’re dealing with — especially fifth-graders going to middle school and becoming teenagers pretty soon — here’s a tool. They can walk into difficult situations with this tool. On the page, they can be whoever they want to be, they can express themselves and deal with whatever they’re dealing with. I’m hoping they have that as they go forward.”

While Palolo teachers have been particularly receptive to the program, PWC hopes to spread the program to more schools, while making new partnerships with teachers, and tapping into more grants to fund the program’s expansion. The parent Writers in Schools Program in Montana is so established that writers gravitate toward it, notes Nakanishi. She hopes to similarly grow Hawaii’s program, so more of our keiki can explore rightbrain problem-solving and soar on creative wings, while simultaneously fulfilling core curriculum requirements in writing fluency.

Meanwhile, here and now, 80 children, their eyes sparkling with future promise, elatedly line up to hug “Miss Nakanishi” and get her autograph in their newly compiled book of poetry. And there’s a poem inside, proudly bearing each child’s name. Among them, no doubt, a few budding authors have just experienced their first published work.

For more information, or to support the program, visit