Christopher had an idea. Shifting his weight from side to side in his desk, the third grader raised his hand, begging to answer a question.
Upon being called on, Christopher stood up in his seat.
“A good writer never stops writing,” he proclaimed.
University alum Peter Markus looked around at the students who sat in his class to gauge their reactions to Christopher’s statement. Most students giddily squirmed at their desks, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to add to Christopher’s response.
“They also not only never stop looking at the world, but also listening to it,” Markus added as he launched into the day’s lesson plan, which examined how a writer should describe sound with metaphors and similes.
This lesson is only one of hundreds Markus has taught over the course of 20 years. Having taught at several schools across Detroit, Markus has found his niche in the InsideOut Literary Arts Project. Throughout his career, he has found that students are not shy about sharing their work, but rather prideful, eliciting an exciting, almost chaotic atmosphere in his third grade class.
Founded in 1995, InsideOut has expanded from one to 27 schools across the Detroit area, reaching over 5,000 students. Established writers and poets work with K-12 students over a period of 25 weeks to explore various aspects of poetry, writing and thinking beyond the obvious.
While Markus just started teaching at Mann Elementary School — a 30-minute drive from the University — he maintained the same goal for each school he encountered.
“We encourage students to create broadly, create bravely and experiment in how they see the world,” Markus said. “We want them to learn to express themselves and engage with each other in a deeper, more complicated way.”
A new approach
During Markus’ lesson, one student sat in the back of the room on a laptop. This student had to finish the process of taking the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test — a mandatory exam taken by all public school students in the state.
The MEAP exam measures proficiency in several areas, including reading, writing and mathematics, among other categories. According to Mann Elementary School’s 2013 report released Feb. 28, the percent of students at least proficient in writing increased from 23.6 percent to 25.6 percent from the 2012 to 2013 year to the 2013 to 2014 year.
While the increase has established a promising trend, Markus said standardized testing is not how students should learn how to write. During his classes, Markus tailors his lesson plan individually to each student, allowing them to explore according to their individual needs.
One of his students, Mark, often jumps from his seat whenever given the opportunity. With his built up energy — typical of an eight-year-old boy — Mark has difficulty paying attention in class. To keep Mark engaged, Markus encourages him to perform what he is thinking in front of the class to release his energy.
“If you can invite the kids to go slightly outside of their bubble, they love it,” Markus said. “That’s how you can keep kids engaged — is to offer them alternatives to sitting in their chair, just numbing out, because all they do is take tests and prepare to take tests.”
The nonprofit organization, founded by poet Terry Blackhawk, has not only produced future writers, but also has garnered several highly regarded awards. In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama presented InsideOut with the Coming Up Taller award in a ceremony at the White House. In 2011, students and InsideOut representatives participated in the White House’s Youth Poetry Conference.
As the nonprofit approaches its 20th year, Alise Alousi, InsideOut’s associate director, said there are plans for expansion — not externally, but internally. In several high schools already, InsideOut has already launched new after-school programs and individual mentoring sessions.
In October, the program traveled to Washington, D.C. again, but this time, virtually. In partnership with the Capitol’s Young Playwrights Theater, the two programs participate in a new class that allows them to virally communicate every day.
While the program expands, its mission remains an interminable, constant entity.
“That’s what the great beauty of our program is — we’re sending writers who have a sense of their craft into a classroom to really engage students and give them an opportunity to explore that knowledge,” Alousi said. “The way students see themselves academically and creatively is really a wonderful piece of what we do. I think we do have an impact on their test scores, grades and attendance.”
Underappreciated, yet revolutionary
Detroit is no stranger to national attention. Reports of the city entering the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history and suffering a population decline from 1.86 million residents to 700,000 over the past 60 years continue to plague Detroit’s image.
InsideOut hopes to help those affected by this ongoing criticism.
Of all students in the state of Michigan, 83.1 percent are proficient in reading. In Detroit’s public schools, however, only 67.4 percent are. At Mann Elementary, is only about 63.6 percent.
In writing, the numbers are worse. Just 22.6 percent of Detroit Public School Students are proficient in writing — marking down to less than half of all students in the state, of whom 57.5 are deemed proficient.
At Mann Elementary, 289 of the 491 students are deemed “economically disadvantaged.”
Despite not meeting state standards according to this test, these young students in Detroit are already published writers.
One of InsideOut’s most unique qualities is its effort to publish poems by each student at the end of every year.
Every student in the program has a folder labeled with their name, containing every piece of writing they produced — ranging from exercises to final drafts of their poems.
“It’s a huge undertaking we’ve never stopped believing in,” Markus said. “It’s something we really continue to value; students deserve recognition for their classroom work.”
In spring 2013, students from Mann Elementary School had their work published in a collaborative book titled “Here, There and Everywhere.” In the book, every student from the program ranging from third to fifth grade explored topics ranging from their desire to own a pet monster, to their favorite place in the world.
Each student receives a copy of the book as a memento of his or her work with InsideOut from the year. Just as screenwriters often carry around their manuscripts for films, Markus said he hopes students will do the same with their published pieces.
“Every student deserves to be heard,” Markus said. “They all have unique voices that are open, full of ideas and creatively showcased. It’s really an empowering moment when you hand a student a book that they will preserve for years.”
From college to elementary school
LSA junior Leela Denver grew up in Ann Arbor, but rarely ventured to Detroit. Sure, she attended a concert in the city every once in a while, but her visits, as she described, were “artificial.”
As the spring 2013 semester approached, Denver was looking into study abroad opportunities when Semester In Detroit came to her attention. The program, which aspires to engage University students with the city’s community and culture, caught her eye. While she lived 40 miles away from Detroit her whole life, Denver considered the city as destination ready for exploration, topping the list of her study abroad aspirations.
“I chose Semester In Detroit instead,” Denver said. “I was going abroad, but to a place with more meaning; it’s my state and my country. Everyone should have that kind of experience.”
Once she was accepted to the program, Denver chose to intern with InsideOut. As an English major, Denver was drawn to the program for its focus on creative writing and literary expression. However, what made the program unique to her was the city it was based in.
“Detroit shaped the whole thing,” she said. “The whole experience was about learning about the city I’ve always been so close to and not known much about. It gave me a way to interact with people of the community that wasn’t so artificial.”
Denver worked with Markus at Marcus Garvey Academy, a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade public school in Detroit. During her internship, she taught one of Markus’ classes a lesson on her own, as well as helped students around the classroom during Markus’ lessons.
“Their imaginations were really outstanding,” Denver said. “Getting in the mind of the kids was something I’ve never experienced before.”
Denver is one of several University students who have worked with the InsideOut program over the past four years. The nonprofit is one of many organizations open to accepting interns from the University during a student’s Semester In Detroit experience.
Additionally, as part of the University’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, the Civitas Fellowship awards a small group of Master in Fine Arts students funding to work with InsideOut for 10 hours a week for 30 weeks.
Alousi said this program allows MFA students to expand their knowledge of teaching beyond a college environment, which she deemed as much easier to manage than an elementary school one.
“They have to deal with issues,” Alousi said. “The kids want to be playing, and these students have to learn how to accommodate their lesson plans for the needs of the kids.”
A lasting impact
Christopher sat down in his chair after he answered Markus’ question. Though his energy was still palpable, so were the wheels churning in his mind. His eyes shifted from the board, to Markus, to his fellow students, back to Markus for the rest of the class.
A few minutes later, Markus played sounds for the students to listen to. He then instructed them to announce what they believed each sound was — as descriptively as possible. The first noise began and a clacking, rhythmic noise filled the classroom.
Christopher sat up in his seat and positioned a pencil in front of his nose, fixing his eyes on the eraser that hovered one inch from him. He gazed into what Markus described as a “dream pencil” — a mechanism that allows students to explore the depths of their mind, allowing fantasies to become realities on paper.
“It sounds like a knight running toward a woman trying to save her from the bad guy,” Christopher announced moments later during a flurry of students raising their hands to share what they heard.
Much to the classroom’s disappointment, Markus did not reveal the true action behind the sound; he left that up to the students’ imaginations.
“We’re teaching them how to see more than what others see and feel more than others feel,” Markus said. “The whole human being needs to be developed and needs to be innovative.”