WARREN, NJ - Watchung Hills Regional High School (WHRHS) English Teacher Jana Battiloro and her students discovered the use of a different kind of chalk board and a “Poetry Inspiration Challenge” during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

The exercise helped students explore one way to harness the power of their own inner poet while reaching out with words of inspiration for their neighbors and themselves.

The WHRHS Educational Community had decided to observe the regularly scheduled “Spring Break,” April 6-10, even though school had been technically “out” already three weeks because of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Not really out, of course, because school was still “in session” through Distance Learning. The thinking was that everyone – students, teachers and parents – could benefit from injecting a little normalcy – the Spring Break. The thinking was this year, more than ever, Spring Break could act as a counterbalance to the otherwise potentially unbalancing stress of Distance Learning.

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Challenging Her Students

Prior to their going out on “Spring Break,” Battioro gave her students a light assignment to complete during their one-week off from Distance Learning.

“The Tuesday before Spring Break, I left a ‘challenge’ for them on Google Classroom,”Battiloro explained. 

“Good Morning! I wrote,” she said. “I hope this Tuesday is a good one for all of you! I, personally, am seriously sick of the rain. I need some sunbeams! Tomorrow begins National Poetry Month. I am challenging all of you to try something for this.”

She said she offered this as a challenge to all my classes.  She teaches five different classes:  English 4CP, English 4A, English 3A, English 3AP, and Journalism.  She has 121 students, some chose to not participate, she said. However, many students from each of her five classes answered the challenge and  they continue to share poems and words of encouragement, every day. 

How’s It Going?

When Battoloro was asked the genesis of the idea of offering the challenge, Battiloro started by sharing some of her feelings so far about Distance learning. She was asked, “How’s it going?”

“Distance Learning is so much harder than being a teacher in the classroom.  I don't think any single teacher signed on to be in education to sit in front of a computer all day.”

She explained, “I would SO much prefer to be in my classroom, talking and laughing and interacting with my kids.  I miss things like rushed lunches, loud study halls, morning coffee at my desk while I prepare my copies for the day and very loud, rambunctious classes on any given day.  I miss the energy in the room when I have a class full of kids who are learning and laughing and engaging with our work.  

She added, “I believe one of our greatest challenges is keeping the students motivated and engaged....especially our students who are seniors.  That's where this challenge came from.”

Battiloro explained, “I found myself turning to poems each day when I started my day, trying to find some inspiration and some peace.  Then, my daughter started to leave messages on our sidewalk and walkway each day, encouraging our neighbors. That's how the idea was born: That I could merge these two forms of encouragement and that this is needed, but especially for my precious students who are feeling lost and unmotivated and missing their own lives.  So, I offered them a poem of encouragement by Mary Oliver, and told them to take the ideas out to others in the form of sidewalk chalk or even post on paper on a tree!

“I am so very proud of my students - all of them.  Each day I try to share with them another poem or lyrics from a song - still trying to keep them connected to me and the school and to education.”

Battiloro added that she had seen variations of this all over her home town, too.

“My challenge for YOU is to not only begin our celebration of National Poetry Month,” she instructed her students, “but also to spread some love. So here is the challenge:

“Find a poem - any poem (even a verse of a poem) and write it on your sidewalk, driveway, window, front door ANYWHERE you can to show it to the rest of the world.

“The poem should somehow spread a message of positivity, optimism, hope, encouragement, or love. THEN post a picture here so we can see what you did!”

Battiloro also shared with the students, an example, to inspire them to do the same:

“I'm leaving you with the one we are writing on our driveway (as soon as the rain stops). This is by one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver (1935-1919), a contemporary American Poet. She is a National Book Award winner, and has won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. I hope you enjoy it.”

The poem is titled, "Don't Hesitate:”

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate./ Give in to it./ There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be./ We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed./ Still, life has some possibility left./ Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world./ It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins./ Anyway, that’s often the case./ Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty./ Joy is not made to be a crumb.”  

Overwhelming Student Response

Battiloro said the student reaction was overwhelming, but she added, also, it was in line with what she and others have come to expect from WHRHS students.

“So, as Watchung Hills students always do,’ she said, “they rose to the challenge and have been leaving messages on roads and driveways and sidewalks everywhere, since that day.”

In an e-mail to WHRHS English Department Supervisor James Aquavia, with copies to WHRHS Principal William Librera and WHRHS Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett, Battiloro said she shared a few of the selections her students shared with her.

“I hope you don't mind me sharing with you,” she said. “I am just so proud of them and all of our students. Be well and stay safe.”

Student Sidewalk Chalk Poetry

Some of the selections the students shared included some written by other poets, and some written by them. They included:

“Life is not about seeking for/ A blessing; it is about/ Being a blessing to others’/ Lives” 

“It’s all I have/ To bring today/ By Emily Dickinson/ 

It’s all I have to bring today/ This, and my heart beside/ This, and my heart, and all the fields/ And all the meadows wide/ Be sure you count – should I forget/ Someone the sum could tell/ This, and my heart, and all the bees/ Which in the clover dwell”

(Emily Dickinson lived from 1830 to 1886 in Amherst, Mass. Her poems were published posthumously starting in 1890 and regarded by many as among the best by an American Poet.)

Other student sidewalk chalkboard verses and verse fragments include:

“Believe that/ There’s a light/ At the end/ Of The Tunnel”

“I don’t pay attention /To the world ending/ It has happened many/ Times and began again/ In the morning.”

Silence/ By Rudy Francisco/

“I’m learning/ That I don’t always/ Have to make noise/ To be seen/ That even my silence/ Has spine, a rumble/ And says ‘I’m here’/ In its native tongue

(Rudy Francisco (1982- ) was born in San Diego, Calif., and has written four books of poetry, most notably, “Helium.”)

“I have no expectations/Only control over how I feel/ So no matter what happens/ Tomorrow I will have a great time.”