September 27, 2010

For Ben Samuels-Kalow, simple ideas have a way of escalating into great ones.

Samuels-Kalow, Class of 2012, works for the Neighborhood Schools Program serving economically and educationally disadvantaged students. He began assistant teaching the Senior International Baccalaureate English class at Hyde Park Academy last year. A conversation with a student about William Shakespeare revealed that many of his students were unaware that Shakespeare wrote sonnets. Some didn’t know what a sonnet was.

“I went to my partner teacher and I said, ‘Can I take a couple of days and go through some poems?’” said Samuels-Kalow. A couple of days turned into a couple of weeks as reviewing poems developed into writing them.

Writing for tomorrow

Last spring, Samuels-Kalow’s idea of printing his students’ poems for them transformed into publishing their work in a book. With the help of two student editors and funding from the Chicago Studies Program as well as an anonymous donor, Samuels-Kalow published Statistics Can’t Write Poetry: Voices from the South Side, a collection of his students’ poetry and artwork. All of the 23 students have been accepted into four-year colleges, and the profits from the book will go directly to funding their college educations.

Although the artwork was contributed by students after the decision to publish the book, all of the poems result from the original assignment: write a poem for tomorrow.

“I wanted it to be raw,” said Samuels-Kalow. “These poems are what these students were feeling that week and that is what’s so powerful about them. There are 28 poets in that class and no one knew they were there. What connects these poems is that this is the first time these poets were asked to contribute their voice.” Consequently, the poems range in content. Subject matter includes lighthearted topics, such as teasing Samuels-Kalow about his karate injuries or expressing boredom, as well as more serious issues of poverty and feeling overlooked.

Seeing is believing

“For a lot of them, in particular the really sad ones, the ones that are really hard to read, there’s this sense of, ‘My god, someone is hearing me,’” said Samuels-Kalow. “But they’re not pleas for help, just, ‘Here I am. Here’s what I am.’”

In addition to earning funds for their college educations, the students benefit from the act of publishing itself. Originally, Samuels-Kalow simply wanted his students to have a nice copy of their work. He felt strongly that seeing it in a book—not just printed on a few sheets of paper and stapled together—would show them just how much they could accomplish.

“The first time you see your work in a book, you will never forget it,” he told his students. “That feeling of validation is connected subconsciously to so much you do as a student. You guys spent the last four years reading great authors and famous people and you’ve come to this idea—consciously or unconsciously—that there are the people who have written books and then there’s us, the people who write about their books. The only difference between people who have been published and you guys is that they were published first.” For Samuels-Kalow, the biggest reward is the opportunity to teach itself. “I love to teach. I discovered that I want a job where I can see that what I’m doing is making something better. Teaching is the job in which the results are the clearest—you can make a huge difference in the classroom.” Whether or not publishing his students’ work becomes an annual fundraiser, Samuels-Kalow will continue to have a significant impact on his students’ education each time he steps into a classroom.

By Jessen O’Brien, Class of 2012