COVID-19 Response

The Power of Poetry

Professor creates free-verse poem with students' narratives

Laptop, paper, and pen on table with cup of tea

Student Success

icon of a calendarMay 8, 2020

icon of a pencilBy Kristina Lindberg

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To Associate Professor S. Rebecca Leigh, poetry is the ideal genre for sharing multiple stories as one powerful voice. In two of her undergrad classes at the School of Education and Human Services, Leigh put that belief into action. Inspired by her students’ assigned COVID-19 narratives, she lifted phrases from their writings and created a free-verse poem about their collective journey titled “Humans of OU: Lifted Lines From Your COVID-19 Story.”

Her students in teaching language arts and teaching writing in the elementary/secondary school classes wrote about their personal experiences with the global health crisis during the first week of lockdown in March.

“Their stories were so compelling,” says Leigh, adding that students’ reactions to the pandemic ranged from disbelief to relief, from fear to joy. “It was a range of ‘I thought this was just a joke’ to ‘I am a bit of a recluse anyway, so this works for me.’ Others were grateful to be home with their family and grateful for the pause,” says Leigh.

As a way of giving feedback to writers in her class, Leigh often captures a powerful phrase from each of the assignments. These phrases serve as an incentive to dive deeper into a topic. “After I lifted a line from everybody’s mini essay, I thought ‘Wait a minute, these are really profound things students are saying,’” Leigh describes as the moment she decided to create a free-verse poem.

“It created a community of writers. Everybody’s voice is represented,” she says.

Leigh often finds and modifies writing prompts for her class from things she reads or hears on the news, blogs and other media. She based this writing assignment on a narrative by Brandon Stanton, a blogger and author of “Humans of New York.” After reading Stanton’s narrative about the impending coronavirus pandemic, Leigh was reminded of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, Leigh was teaching high school French. School administrators directed teachers not to discuss the events in terms of politics with their students. “And by the fifth period, students had a lot of questions,” she says. “A lot of the seniors were saying ‘I don’t understand — why can’t anyone talk to us?’ I’ve always remembered that.”

Leigh knows that her OU students are preparing to be teachers themselves and might be approached by their own pupils one day to talk about the coronavirus pandemic. Writing about their own experiences in class and having these experiences create a collective story can help internalize and take in a profound moment, she says. “I really do believe that story massages the moment. Poetry can massage the moment. It can help you slow down. It’s the genre where every word counts.”

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