Poetry News

Lisa M. O'Neill's Powerful Teaching of Creative Writing to Youth in Detention

By Harriet Staff

For the University of Arizona Poetry Center, writer and teacher Lisa M. O'Neill discusses her teaching of creative writing to students in juvenile detention—through the Writing the Community program—and to minors in state prison. "I think: There is power in naming things. There is power in telling the truth. Words give permission. Crafting language is a form of freedom. Writing has the power to aerate this space," writes O'Neill. More from this eloquent piece:

It is risky to write about youth who are often invisible in our communities. Because in attempting to offer a window into my experience with my students, I risk rendering them wrong. I will inevitably render them incomplete. You can’t possibly see the entirety of who they are since I am nowhere close to knowing this, our time together so brief. 

Over the holidays, I went to see a movie at a local theater. In the parking lot, I saw, in my peripheral vision, that a teenage boy was looking at me quizzically. Then, he called out: “Miss, you were in juvie, weren’t you?” He had been in my fall class. I stopped to talk to him, asked how he was, told him I was so happy to see him on the outside. When I was waiting on concessions inside, he tapped me on the shoulder—he had brought yet another former student to see me. That student had been resistant to writing but created intricate illustrations. After the film was over, when I went outside, I saw two more students I hadn’t yet seen. They told me the four of them were staying in the same housing and rehabilitation program. We had just watched the movie Elf and they were giddy. My heart swelled to see them together, to see them enjoying themselves, like the kids they are. 

When I came back to teach the following semester, I found three of those four students were back inside. It is one thing to read statistics about youth recidivism and it is quite another thing to watch teenagers you have grown to care about back in detention. When I was twenty-five, I worked at a large social service agency in San Francisco. This was my first experience seeing so many people suffering from poverty, mental illness, and addiction. Every time I saw someone who had graduated our rehabilitation program come back, my heart broke a little. “You have to treat it like it’s no big deal,” one program manager who had worked there close to twenty years told me. “You smile and tell them it’s good to see them, welcome back.” 

I handed my students loose-leaf and pencils, and we wrote. 

What I see in my young students’ work is the same thing I see in all writers’ work...

Find the full essay, "Writing Has the Power to Aerate This Space," here.

Originally Published: June 13th, 2018