Rhyme and Reason

Inside/Out tries to teach kids the power of writing

On a late November Monday at the Tucson Public Library downtown, Madeline Kiser posed this question to a class of students: "Why should we care about water?"

No one looked prepared to answer. Then, a male student, slouched in his seat, his hair in braids, raised his hand and responded, "'Cuz you gotta live off it." The apathetic but correct answer was a perfect example of the challenges and successes Kiser has seen during her tenure as director of the Inside/Out program.

Inside/Out is a program that teaches youths at the alternative high school Pima Vocational (the outside group) and the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center (the inside group) to discuss and write--poetry, mostly--about issues that concern them, their community and their world. This semester is focused on water rights and the current shortages Arizona is facing; past semesters have looked at poetry in politics and poetry in the Middle East.

The official title of this semester's course is "The Death and Life of Two Rivers," with a great deal of attention focused on the Santa Cruz and San Pedro rivers. But the kids' stories can be just as interesting and involved as the issues facing the rivers.

"Most of the kids in here are incredibly creative, and I think for different reasons, maybe they just haven't clicked with different schools," Kiser said. "Sometimes they just get tired of it, but in every class, there's usually one or two young teen parents or kids that are working multiple jobs. I think it's important to understand the challenges a lot of these kids face in their daily lives to get an education."

Another big problem affecting these kids, Kiser notes, is the 20 percent dropout rate plaguing alternative high schools in Arizona. (Kiser never asks about the background of the girls she works with who are in the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center, but their backgrounds can include problems ranging from truancy to drug use and worse.)

While many others gave up on these kids, Kiser saw potential and started Inside/Out with the support and funds of the Tucson Pima Public Library, the Friends of the Tucson Pima Public Library, the Women's Foundation of Southern Arizona, Art in Reality (an art program jointly sponsored by Tucson Parks and Recreation and Pima County Youth Services) and the Writers Project.

Now in its fourth semester, Inside/Out is getting youths who were previously unmotivated or unconcerned with the world outside themselves to think and write about global and local issues, and--perhaps most importantly--correspond with each other. As a realist, Kiser understands that not all the kids will respond to her program, but she sets the achievable (and often surpassed) goal of reaching just one or two kids a semester.

"One of my favorite stories is, last year, I had a girl in the outside section who was a young mom, and she always said, 'I hate to write, I hate to write,' and kind of just went through (the motions)," Kiser said. "On the inside, there was a young woman who thought she was pregnant and was writing about that ... this young woman on the outside, who had a son who was 3, started writing about her experience, which in turn opened up the woman on the inside, who in turn started writing back."

Success stories like this help motivate Kiser, who said that although the inside and outside groups rarely meet (it's happened only once), they do get to know each other and interact via their written words. Although Kiser hopes to get her students writing poetry about water, she stresses it is more important to get these kids writing about anything.

"The whole idea is to question, 'What are ways to make writing seem intimate? What are ways to approaching literacy?'" Kiser said. "They're handwritten. Not to de-emphasize spelling, but in an age of testing, we're trying to say, 'What literacy and reading and writing are really about is being in the world and questioning widely and living deeply.' Also, it's about feeling connected to other people."

As an added bonus, most of the students in the program are provided with opportunities and experiences that many youths are not. Those in the outside group have gone on field trips to both the Santa Cruz and San Pedro rivers (complete with guest speakers and science experiments), while those in the inside group have had guest speakers like Mike Quigley, the wilderness campaign coordinator for Sky Island Alliance, and Amalia Reyes, coordinator of the Language Development Department for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

A recent Pima Vocational session at the Tucson Public Library downtown demonstrated the difficulties Inside/Out faces. Apparently, Pima Vocational had changed quarters that day, leaving Kiser with an almost entirely new class of students to teach concepts she had been working on with other students for weeks.

Nevertheless, with the assistance of the volunteering library sciences graduate student, Deborah Sandler, Kiser was able to get the kids--including the aforementioned boy--talking about water in no time. Students who initially displayed a hesitancy towards writing--particularly poetry--began opening up and filling up the once-blank pages in front of them, although many needed chiding or the assurance that they did not have to adhere to any specific formula, or directly cover the topic of water rights, in their writing. Particularly telling was the way some of the students were able to make topics, like the murder of their friends and departures of family members, relevant to water issues, like shortage and drainage.

Sandler noted how frequently the students' trepidation toward writing often leads to an outpouring of material.

"This happened last semester, too, especially with the boys on the outside," Sandler said. "You'll see a kid who will not talk in class at all, and you can't even tell if they're paying attention, and then their writing is right on. They're really expressing themselves that way."

Young filmmakers/brothers Adam and Abraham Cooper have been documenting the Inside/Out Program and will premiere their film about this semester at the Art in Reality end-of-the-year celebration happening at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 12, at the Armory Senior Center, 220 S. Fifth Ave., at 13th Street; it is free and open to the public.

With the continued support from its sponsors and Kiser's careful guidance, Kiser hopes Inside/Out will stay afloat for years. As Kiser notes, once the kids acclimate themselves to the program, they find the final reward is worth their investment.

"I think eventually (the students) see writing as an act of service we do not just to further our own ambitions," Kiser said, "but to be instructive or comfort or counsel to someone else."