On the second floor of Sacred Heart School in Chicago, a group of fourth grade boys and girls sit in a circle. They have one assignment to complete: they must write a poem that captures the essence of the winter season.
A girl in a plaid jumper enthusiastically raises her hand, suggesting a line in the poem about a snowball fight outside. A boy, whose yarmulke keeps sliding off his head, enthusiastically agrees. Another boy, wearing a red shirt with a crescent moon and star, wants to mention hot cocoa. The kids banter back and forth, trying to transform ideas into witty lines that rhyme.
This is what happens during a session of the Poetry Pals program. The program unites elementary school students of different faiths, and gives students an opportunity to create poetry together. A poet-educator facilitates the creative process within each group of students, encouraging them to express themselves and get to know each other, as individuals and as members of a different faith.
Each Poetry Pals session is held at one of the participating schools, so that students can also see different places of worship. This year's partner schools are Solomon Schechter Day School, Muslim Community Center Fulltime School, Islamic Community Center of Illinois and Sacred Heart School.
Poetry Pals was founded in the fall of 2007 by Donna Yates, a former educator from Philadelphia. Inspired by an interfaith poetry program called We the Poets, Yates decided to start a similar program in the Windy City. "The inspiration came from the fact that as a Jew I felt isolated from other faith traditions and saw my children and grandchildren self-segregating," she said. "Especially after 9/11, it became clear to me that we need to reach out and get to know others."
Poetry Pals has evolved greatly since it began five years ago. This is the first year that Muslim, Jewish and Catholic students are interacting together (a previous partnership existed only between a Muslim and Catholic school.) What began as a poetry program has expanded to include different forms of artistic expression, including juggling and drumming. "It's basically gone from a focus on poetry and art to a full-fledged creativity program," said Adam Shames, program and creative director of Poetry Pals. Shames is constantly working to creative innovative programs that further the four goals of Poetry Pals: to unite individuals that wouldn't ordinarily meet or socialize together, allow them to share their own faith and learn from each other's, help them learn how to communicate and express themselves better through art, and most importantly, have fun together.
According to Shames, fourth and fifth graders are the ideal participants for an interfaith program like Poetry Pals. "They're at a perfect age in which they don't have prejudices but know a lot about their religion and love to share it," he said. "They're able to make those connections that are harder for adults to make." Uniting people at a young age makes it less likely that they'll create mental barriers against "others" later on in life, according to Shames, who speaks from experience. "Having grown up in Evanston, I was exposed to a lot of different kids from a young age," he said. "It equipped and informed me to help navigate the world of America better."
Poetry Pals give students the chance to meet someone seemingly different and learn that they aren't so different at all, which creates a sense of interconnectedness, according to Mary Ann Ligon, head of Sacred Heart's Lower School. "I think that the children connect easily with one another and recognize that they have much in common," she said. "I believe that it is important to provide experiences like this at a young age so that there is a foundation for them to build a sense of community and an understanding of peace and justice in our world."
Zeenat Umar, a teacher at Muslim Community Center Fulltime School in Morton Grove, agrees. "We would like to inspire the other children to learn about, and have respect for, other cultures and faiths, and clear up misunderstandings that they may have," she said. "We also want to inspire the children from other schools to understand that although there may be differences between people, the similarities may outweigh the differences and help overcome barriers in order to form strong friendships or bonds, which can help create a stronger community."
Like the other teachers, Solomon Schechter Day School teacher Anita Grobart believes the experience has been immensely valuable for her students. "The overall impact of Poetry Pals on my students has been amazing," she said. "They talked about the new children they met. They were excited to share their observations of each religions "holy place" … they were intrigued by the similarities of holidays and how they are celebrated. The experience that my students had could never have been accomplished by sitting in a classroom and reading books about the different religions."
Poetry Pal's year ended its year with the Interfaith Community Evening on Feb. 21 at Solomon Schechter Day School in Skokie, which brought Muslim, Catholic and Jewish students and parents together. In the future, Shames would love to expand Poetry Pals to bring in more communities, both religious and cultural. Says Shames, "We want to reflect panorama of faiths that exists in America."