What color is your middle-schooler?


Let’s continue our convo about the power of poetry in the everyday lives of your kiddos, grandkiddos, students, or your pubescent self. I’ve been thinking a lot about the delicate age group of middle schoolers. The word on the street from a few nonprofit friends is that this age set is falling through the cracks. (Apparently, grant funders and donors like the young, cute, cuddly kids, or they’re trying to fix a problem before they graduate high school.) So, our poetry and collaborative arts nonprofit is working with a very special lady to develop a middle-school-aged curriculum. (More info to come, so make sure you’re keeping up with TulsaKids for updates!)

Do you remember how awkward this phase was?

Imagine your body feeling out of control. (It took about 25 years for my face to grow into my nose, and I’m probably still trudging through some PTSD caused by constant bullying.) Can you remember your constant embarrassment? Are we still dealing with the affects insecurity and instability? Are we still in a state of perpetual angst? (No, we have yoga and wine, so we’re coping, right? Speaking of coping….)

True geniuses of poetry know how to capture more than a feeling or phrase, their poems tell us something about how it feels to be human. Poems, the patterns in poems, show us not just what somebody thought or what someone did or what happened, but what it was like to be a person like that, to be so anxious, so lonely, so inquisitive, so goofy, so preposterous, so brave. That’s why poems can seem at once so durable, so personal, and so ephemeral, like something inside and outside you at once.


As middle-school aged students are developing their sense of self, they often use comparative analysis, which can lead to a polarized “me vs. you” mentality. This leads to bullying in droves, which is why MUSED. (Tulsa’s poetry and collaborative arts nonprofit) is partnering with Prevent Bullying Tulsa to get students writing about this topic.

Per the National Association of School Psychologists, bullying is the most common form of violence in our society; between 15% and 30% of students are bullies or victims. These statistics are staggering.

Run by one of Tulsa’s most fantastic servants, Steve Hahn, Prevent Bullying Tulsa is a collaboration of Tulsa area mental health and advocacy agencies including Parent Child Center of Tulsa, Family & Children’s Services, Mental Health Association in Tulsa, and more. Together they provide the community with educational, counseling and advocacy services regarding children and bullying.

During Prevent Bullying Tulsa events, we ask students to answer two questions by typing one line of poetry on our vintage typewriters. The questions are:

  1. How does it feel when someone bullies you.
  2. How does it feel when you catch yourself bullying someone else.

The end product is a collaborative poem, where all students’ experiences are woven into the same tapestry, the same story. In this way, they see how connected they are to each other. It’s funny to watch the kids take selfies with our giant poem, but it’s stirring to watch them mull over their own bullying mistakes as much as the injustices done to them.

Working creatively with sentence structures helps improve writing skills and creative thinking, which can get us out of sticky situations before we stick ourselves to them completely. The next time your anxious-bundle-of-joy is getting hassled/hassling someone else, you might encourage them to write a letter or a poem to the other person. Employing a bit of empathy goes a long way – and even they don’t give the culprit the message, the author’s frustration leaves their mind just as quickly as the words leave their pen.

One for you, several for them:

Here’s a poem for you by Nimrod award winner, poet, and teacher, Chelsea Wagenaar.

I love how the teacher becomes the student in this poem, which is what a teacher always is, right? Adaptive, curious, open-minded and -hearted. In honor of the teachers in Oklahoma who marched, stood, and spoke up against our unsupportive government during the teachers walkout over the last two weeks, thank you. Your impact is stupendous.

Poem in Which Elephants Are Stupendous 

After his parents moved to the U.S.
three years ago, Nathan, who is now eight,
began coming to tutoring. For help with English,
his mother said, glancing away, the blue
current of Texas sky rushing away
through the windows behind her. Now, Nathan hands me
his homework—a sentence for each vocabulary word.
It is humble to play with Legos,
he has written, and I do not know how to correct him,
because yes, one of the definitions is simple,
and he’s right. He doesn’t understand why
tremor isn’t a verb, or why he can’t say I am
tremoring at the tornado, though I know
exactly what he means, and I am, too.
Because that is what fear does—it shakes
all our nouns into verbs so that we seism,
we twister, we cyclone. Have you ever had
kimchi, he asks, when he is supposed to be
reading about sinking cities, his hair untamed,
his thick lenses full of his eyes.
I help him pronounce the names of the cities
and he says Baton Rouge exactly the way
it is spelled, a beautiful woman with ruby cheeks
tossing a flame-lit baton in the air.
I have never had kimchi. He writes garlic
for me in Korean, though he can’t remember
cabbage or ginger anymore. For the rest
of the hour we fit words into sentences
like Legos into buildings. This one here. No, here.
Elephants are stupendous, he has written,
and I realize all my life I have used stupendous wrong
because it is not just causing astonishment;
it means causing astonishment due to size or greatness,
so fingers are not stupendous, and neither
are hummingbirds. But language is. And before it
Nathan and I tremor, and I am humble to help him,
because it is not humble at all.

— Chelsea Wagenaar

Also, here’s a great curated list of kid-friendly poems to read including:

Dream Variations” by Langston Hughes
Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll
maggie and milly and molly and may” by E. E. Cummings
and more!

These are great choices for the box-of-poems you created last week!

This week’s challenge:

Here’s a fun, spring-like exercise for you to play with your lovely middle school kids or students. Visual artists who have been productive over long stretches of time often develop certain periods of work with shared characteristics, such as similar color palettes. Paul Cezanne & Henri Matisse both had dark periods, Picasso had his blue and rose periods, and Victor Vasarely had a black-and-white period. Choose your favorite artist and print off a few samples of their work.

Talk to your student or son/daughter about the year’s transition from winter to spring. Notice the seasonal changes in light, sound, and texture. Together, write a series of short poems inspired by the forthcoming season. Paint a picture using vocabulary: notice the pastel colors, meditative moods, and scenery that is slowly emerging. Write a “green” collection this week; a “pink” collection the next; and so on.

Ask your kids to pay attention to the colors as they change during the day, and come home for a discussion about experience through imagery. What color are their emotions today? What colors their experience? You might get more empathetic stories and help them feel included in the season’s transition – this awkwardness will pass just as quickly as the trees grow new strong, green, leaves.

I promise, I never think about my nose anymore.

** Photos for this week’s blog were taken by John Regur, MUSED. cofounder, during Prevent Bullying Tulsa’s Rally on Guthrie Green and the Anti-Bullying Annual Conference at Greenwood Cultural Center.

Victoria McArtor holds an MFA from Oklahoma State University, is a former adjunct professor for the University of Tulsa, and is co-founder of a poetry and collaborative arts nonprofit, MUSED. Her work can be found in over a dozen literary journals and magazines including World Literature Today, The Cincinnati Review, and the Denver Quarterly. Her book, Reverse Selfie, has inspired a critical-and-creative writing workshops held in high-risk and alternative high schools. 

Categories: Guest Blog