The Sunroom: A Place For Young Miami Poets

May 3, 2017

Elementary students from three Liberty City schools spent the last two months meeting once a week to write poetry, and some of it has ended up in some unusual places. Like gas stations. And buses. 

“Poetry asks kids to come up with innovative ideas. It encourages them to think outside the box instead of asking them to zero in on a definition or answer to a test question,” said Laurel Nakanishi, teacher and coordinator of the program that added poetry to the kids’ curriculum.

The Sunroom Poetry program started at Orchard Villa Elementary in Liberty City. It is now part of the curriculum for a little more than 100 third and fourth graders in the neighborhood.

Nine-year-old Otis Guyton became a first-time poetry student this spring.

Poems written by third graders from Poinciana Park Elementary School.
Credit Priscila Serrano / WLRN

“My favorite part of the class is when we get to write the [poems] and talk about our feelings and talk about the things we like about our neighborhood,” said Guyton.

Guyton attends Poinciana Park Elementary. He and nine other third graders recently learned how to write poetry using similes and metaphors.

But Nakanishi says poetry is more than just learning how to write for the students.

“Having a venue to express their emotions--I feel like that’s not always available to them, and so through poetry they really have a chance to feel heard and to articulate what they’re actually feeling,” she said.

Nakanishi, a native of Hawaii, received her master’s in fine arts from the University of Montana. She has taught poetry to children in Montana, Nicaragua and Hawaii.  She made South Florida one of her teaching destinations two and a half years ago. 

When Nakanishi arrived in Miami, she proposed the kids’ program to the directors of the O, Miami Poetry Festival, who didn’t hesitate to move forward.

“It was so sort of natural for us to fund a project working with Laurel,” said Melody Santiago Cummings, the operations director of O, Miami.

A transit bus covered with poems from elementary school kids.
Credit Jessica Kassin / O, Miami

[Disclaimer: WLRN has been partnering with the O, Miami Poetry Festival as part of the Poetry Month Festivities for the last 7 years. You can read about this year's initiative, Edible Odes, here.

The program, Santiago Cummings says, took the name of “sunroom” because of the Florida sun. Contributions from the Children’s Trust and the Knight  Foundation helped make it possible. 

For Scott Cunningham, director of O, Miami, the program also serves as a channel to show some people a side of Miami they may not know about.

“We give this sort of 'other' public voice to people in this city--especially kids,” said Cunningham. “It shows people both in Miami and outside Miami another side of this place, in a more complex picture of who lives here.”

Anthony Chambers, 9, read his poem about where he’s from during one of his classes at Poinciana Park Elementary:

“I am from a place where it is noisy and loud from screaming kids,

I am from a place with rough texture on all apartments,

I am from a place that smells like musty kids.”

In her eight years of teaching poetry, Nakanishi has noticed a difference on what her students from Liberty City write about.

"Often it bubbles up in their poetry talking about guns and violence, fighting in schools,” she said. “It’s important to not just boil these kids down to children from a violent neighborhood writing poems of grief. They’re so much more than that.”

A poem displayed on a pump at a Tom Thumb gas station.
Credit Gesi Schilling / O, Miami

The kids’ poems--in English, Spanish and Creole--are displayed on the pumps at Tom Thumb gas stations around the county and at  check-out lanes of the Sabor Tropical grocery stores in Miami’s Mimo District.

Last month,  Miami-Dade Transit also unveiled a yellow city bus covered with the kids’ poems.

The program concluded last week with a poetry reading. The student poets will meet again next year in time for National Poetry month.