East Side fifth-grade students become published poets

Cover art courtesy of Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute • Fifth-grade students from John A. Johnson Elementary are now published authors after spending the school year writing and editing poems. Their work is appearing in an anthology called “The Bold, Untold North,” through the help of creative writing and tutoring nonprofit the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute.

Anyone can be a writer and everyone’s voice matters is a lesson that John A. Johnson Elementary school students have been learning throughout the school year. 

The fifth-graders at the school have been writing and editing poems since fall and will have them published in a professional anthology, which will be released to the public later this month.

The anthology, called “The Bold, Untold North,” includes nonfiction poems about species and biomes in Minnesota. Community release parties will be held at John A. Johnson and Caydence Records and Coffee.  

Part of the anthology project included two workshops with nationally-acclaimed local poet Danez Smith. 

Smith, a Central High School graduate, grew up in St. Paul and has had work published in a number of national publications, including The New Yorker magazine, and released a new book of poetry last fall. 

“Take these poems in and let them break something wild open in you,” Smith said in a press release announcing the students’ anthology release. 


Fishing up great writers

The book comes out of the Young Authors’ Book Project, a part of the programming from creative writing and tutoring nonprofit the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, which is located on University Avenue in St. Paul. 

The Institute works with schools where 50 percent or more of the student body is on free or reduced lunch, and also looks for schools where there may not be a specific creative writing program. 

“Essentially, we are helping create an opportunity to work on creative writing that they don’t normally have,” said program director K. Cross.

When the nonprofit reaches out to a school, it works with teachers to find out how creative writing could be used in conjunction with its curriculum. 

For John A. Johnson specifically, teachers wanted to be able to incorporate social studies and STEM principles — science, technology, engineering and math — with literacy. While students worked on their poems, they were also learning how to do research to find out more about Minnesota’s biomes and species. 

“Working with MOI gave us the opportunity to create a project that our students were invested in throughout much of our school year,” said Katie Lemke, a fifth-grade teacher at John A. Johnson. “The students were able to research, craft, and produce work that was then published — giving value to their voices and ideas.”

Cross said many of the schools they have worked with on this project have high populations of students who are either immigrants or come from immigrant or refugee families. 

“Many have compelling stories to tell, but not many opportunities to do so,” Cross said. That is why the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute’s main goal throughout the project is to make sure students know their voices are valued and to give them the skills to get their voices heard.


What’s with the name?

While the Institute’s name may seem quizzical, especially in a midwestern state about as far from any ocean as you can get, Cross said the whimsical name is aimed to take away the often stigmatized feel students may have if they say they’re seeing a tutor or going to a learning center. “That doesn’t feel good to most kids,” Cross said. 

Instead, they said when they come to the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, they can “tell their friends they’re going to a weird ocean place.”

The center is also made to feel like a “third” safe place, Cross said, a place that isn’t quite home and isn’t quite school. The center is decorated in bright colors and visual puns to aide in creativity to “open possibilities.”

Cross added that the whimsical nature of the center is also aimed to destigmatize access for tutoring volunteers, as well. They said many volunteers feel like they can’t volunteer because they may have forgotten long division or other skills from school.

But, Cross said, “If you made it through third grade, you can tutor a third grader. We don’t need professionally trained volunteers.”

“We’re tricking grown-ups to come in,” Cross said with a laugh.


Cheerleading students

Frederique Schmidt is volunteering with the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute and the Young Authors’ Book Project for the first time this year. She was so eager to do so she took a sabbatical from her independent educator position at Breck School in Golden Valley.

She said she found out about Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute years ago and was inspired by its methods. Schmidt is also interested in equitable access to education and is using her sabbatical and time at Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute to study and better understand the topic. 

Schmidt’s work with the Young Authors Book Project includes one-on-one coaching with students, “cheerleading,” and helping students play with language. 

She described it as getting students to think about word choices and doing writing exercises, such as having them describe their socks in creative ways. 

However, the most important part for her is encouraging the young writers. 

“I want the kids to feel heard and validated,” Schmidt said. 

“I honestly believe these kids are amazing and future change-makers,” Schmidt said, adding that while she believes the whole process is great, her favorite part is getting the book and having it autographed by all the students. 

She said you never know — one of the students may be the future governor and she’d love to be able to say she helped teach that person as a kid, whose autograph is in her book. 


The reward of hard work

Both Cross and Lemke said the best part of the program is watching the students when they see the book for the first time and see their own words on the page. Cross said watching the students realize they created a great product and having them excited to share their work is great. 

“The students are ecstatic about their poems and the published work,” Lemke said. “They have had voice and choice throughout this whole process: their poem style and topic, their published format, their collaboration with an illustrator, writing their student biographies, voting on cover art, and poet reading nights.”

“The students created a real piece of art that is valued and will continue to be both at our school, in their homes, and in the community for years to come,” she said.

This is the third year of the Young Authors program. In the past, the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute has worked with students at the Farnsworth Lower Campus school on the East Side and with students from Como Park High School. 

One difference this year, compared to past years, is that the final product will include a section with teaching materials so that anyone — teachers or parents — can use the book to help other students hone their creative writing skills. 

The young authors will have two public release parties and readings. The first will take place on Thursday, May 17, at 5 p.m. at John A. Johnson Elementary, 740 York Ave., during the school’s academic showcase and open house. The Minnesota Raptor Center will also be there to showcase some of Minnesota’s native bird species that are featured in the book. 

The second release celebration will take place on Thursday, May 31, from 5 to 7 p.m,  at Caydence Records and Coffee, 900 Payne Ave. Both events are free and open to the public.

For more information about the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute and its tutoring and writing programs, go to www.moi-msp.org.


– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com

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