Our First Bookby Vikki Crystal, East High School, Class of 2010
(This essay was written about the creation of our first volume of poetry, Our Hearts Are Woven Into Words.)

I met Mr. Steve Replogle, whom I lovingly call Mr. R, in second grade when he joined the Bromwell staff as the school librarian. Then, two years later he became one of the fourth grade teachers and I was lucky enough to be in his class. Mr. R has a passion for reading and writing that was apparent from the moment I set foot in his classroom. He encouraged me, and all of his students, to read and write and to share this passion.

That is why, years later, when he asked me to work with him on a poetry anthology for all Denver's elementary students, I jumped at the idea. I helped him contact some of his former students who might also be interested in the project. I wasn't sure what to expect, but after the first meeting, I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of.

At that first meeting we learned that over several months, Mr. R had contacted every elementary school in the Denver Public School system. He proposed a new literacy project: a district-wide poetry anthology. One of his appeals reads, "We work in a diverse school district, and life isn't always fair for many of our students. Test scores don't always reflect their true achievements during the school year. Poetry can reach beyond any limits that are imposed on our lives - the limits of age or race, of economics or culture. A kindergartner can write a poem that will move us to laughter. A fourth or fifth grade writer can bring us to tears."

Most of the schools liked this idea, and Mr. R showed us several large stacks of poems to prove it. Some schools sent only one poem, while others sent thirty. Mr. R wanted our help in choosing the poems and shaping them into a book. He also needed our help in typing them up, as many poems were submitted in manuscript form.

The first thing we had to do was decide how many poems we wanted in the book. One or two poems from each school didn't seem like enough, while four or five seemed like too many. We decided to select each school's three best poems. We did this carefully and gave each poem close attention. Choosing one poem over another was very difficult. They all deserved to be in the book, but, obviously, it wasn't possible to include them all. Although the decision to include a poem was usually based on how much someone liked it, it was never left to only one person to make that decision.

We usually worked in pairs as we read the poems, and we switched partners with each session. Sometimes, we literally sat in a circle and voted whether or not to include a poem, while other times we e-mailed our opinions to Mr. R, who used them to make the final decision. We wanted to make sure all ages and grades were represented in the book. If the poems we had initially selected from one school were all written by fourth and fifth graders, we would replace one or two of them with poems written by kindergartners and first graders. It was equally important to make sure we had a diverse selection of poetry. We looked for different styles and for different genres of poetry. We tried to find connections between poems, but we also tried to ensure that the poems weren't all about one subject.

After our first round of choosing the poems, we reviewed our work. We sorted the poems back into piles by school, spreading them out over most of Mr. R's dining room and living room floor, and went through them again. Once we were satisfied with the poems we'd selected, it was necessary to organize the poems into chapters. We identified several topics that we thought were common for children to write about or that we'd seen in the poems. Then, we gathered them up and put them in piles according to these topics. During this process, many other "topic piles" were formed. These piles became the book's chapters.

After forming the chapters and typing the poems, we focused on each individual chapter and developed the order of the poems within it. We wanted the poems in each chapter to flow smoothly into one another and to tell a unique story. Each chapter also needed a name. We named them by choosing a line of poetry from that chapter that stood out and that we thought would make a meaningful title. This was a difficult task, not because there wasn't a great selection of poetry, but because we needed a single evocative phrase that could effectively sum up each chapter's theme. In the end, we found twelve great chapter titles.

Our next task was to order the chapters so that they, too, told a story. After several changes, we decided on a final order. Mr. R says, "It is meant to present the interests and activities of children as they grow. The chapters move from early family and school experiences toward reflections on the meaning of life."

After the chapters had been named, we needed to select a name for the entire book. Mr. R suggested four possible titles, again based on lines from the poems themselves, and asked for opinions from the group. Top contenders, along with the selected title, were "The Wind Sings a Song Just For Me," from a poem by Riley, a student at Samuels, and "My Poems Play Hide and Seek" from Emma at Traylor. After taking everyone's responses into consideration, he picked the title, from "Poetry" by Ella from Southmoor. Then, we read through each poem yet again, looking for typos and reviewing everything we'd done. Mr. R did this the most, reading the poems several times a day. He also found a picture for the book's cover, which had been painted by a student from Bradley Elementary School and was submitted with the school's poems.

There was one difficulty that we encountered during our editing process, how to work with the poems written in Spanish. It was difficult for us to compare poems written in Spanish to poems written in English, or even to other Spanish poems, and determine which one should be in the book. Some of us, myself included, had taken Spanish classes in school, but we weren't fluent enough to make that important decision. We waited to make a decision about the Spanish poems until we had an English translation to compare.

While Mr. R was collecting the poems from all of the schools, he made a list of all the teachers who had contacted him about the project. He sent out an email, asking if any of them would be willing to translate the poems. He ended up using five translators, Ingrid Yardenay, a teacher from Munroe; Travis Bruner, a SFPC Liason from Stedman; Adriana Santacaloma, an assistant principal from Fairmont; Sharon Winter, a teacher at Valdez; and my dad's cousin, Rick Land, who lived in Mexico for a year and spoke fluent Spanish. Mr. R received some very different translations from them. He looked through these, and, using some translation websites tried to come up with the best translation possible. Mr. R says: "Most often I combined what I thought were the best aspects of the different translations, according to my literary taste, and that was a bit removed from the more literal or concrete aspects of translation." He then sent the newly compiled translation of each poem to its author's teacher. If the teacher responded with changes to the translation, Mr. R incorporated them. After all of these corrections, and revisions, the Spanish poems were ready for publishing.

The last thing to do is to secure the finances needed to publish the book. Mr. R and I have both contacted foundations looking for grants. The goal was to print enough books for each school library to get two copies as well as a copy for each student published in the book. We hope that the proceeds from the book sales can go either to purchasing books for students who can't afford them or to funding next year's book so that this can, to quote Mr. R, "become a self-sustaining project."

I cannot even begin to describe how much I have enjoyed working on this project. It was a new experience for me; I had never worked on anything quite like it. It gave me a new respect for poetry, especially poetry by young authors. It also gave me a new respect for all the work needed to publish a book. Working with Mr. R has also been a lot of fun. I hope that the readers can take away as much from reading the book as I did in helping create it.


More About Making Our Booksby Steve Replogle
Vikki Crystal's charming essay, above, tells most of the story of the first DPS elementary poetry anthology, Our Hearts Are Woven Into Words. It does leave out an important element: the editorial credits, which were of course published elsewhere in the same volume as her essay. The student editors (along with Vikki herself) were Emma Cruise, Nora Brown, Annie Want, Jack Forbes, and Tim Peck (like Vikki, all from East High School) and Ellen Mueller, Kaitlyn Kraybill-Voth, and Laura Levinson (of the Denver School of the Arts).

The second volume, The Place Where Poetry Begins, was created by most of the same editorial team, with a few new members: Nora Brown, Ben Clemens, Vikki Crystal, Emma Cruise, and Morgan Smith (East High School) and Kaitlyn Kraybill-Voth and Laura Levinson (DSA). In our first volume, Ellen Mueller and Annie Want collaborated on an introduction that balanced Vikki's essay, which was presented as the Afterword. In this second volume, I again looked for high school "bookends." Kaitlyn wrote a poem as the introduction (featured here) and Vikki and Laura each wrote separate Afterwords. I asked them to reflect upon their experiences with writing as elementary students. "We all need to find the poems in our hearts," wrote Vikki in her Afterword, and Laura wrote "Let language have a life of its own," in her AfterAfterword. The book ended with two indexes. There was an index of "Poetic Forms and Techniques," which many teachers told me was quite useful, and a "School Index," which the children preferred, so that they could easily find the poems published by their classmates.

Like the first book, the second volume was organized thematically. Poems were grouped by mood or subject and then those groupings helped us create our chapters. The second book began with a chapter about feelings, and then explored childhood experiences related to weather, animals, playing, and family. It ended with poems about wishes and dreams.

Our third volume, The World Is Made Of Thoughts, was my own solo project. Most of my student editors, although not all, had moved on to college. I had become, furthermore, determined to cast a wider net for student editors. I hoped to enlist students from North High School and West High School, from Thomas Jefferson High School and George Washington High School. Unfortunately, my classroom responsibilities overtook the time I needed to bring such a plan into action. I found myself beginning summer vacation with no helpers at all. Still, the book came along nicely. I wrote both the Introduction and Afterword and included a School Index, as before. The volume was still organized thematically. There were poems about adventures, about loss, and about the wind and sky. The book concluded with poems about that happiest of events, universally anticipated by students young and old – summer vacation!

For the fourth volume, Dreams and Directions, I departed from thematic organization and created chapters that were arranged by geography. In this book, for the first time, all the poems from each school were featured together. The design of the book was also a departure. The covers and chapter-headings were illustrated with pictures taken by the accomplished photographer Jennifer Koskinen. In this volume, all the interior artwork was from the students in the art program at the CEC Middle College. These differences made for an exciting new approach. The introduction was contributed by Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit of the popular Denver hip-hop band, The Flobots. They are both former DPS students, and were happy to help. This is the only volume, by the way, that doesn't take its title from one of the poems inside the book.

The fifth volume of poetry, A Poem Knows, presented another change. This time, the poems were arranged by grade level. All the Kindergartners from across the city, then all the first graders, and so on. This book also returned to the practice of using illustrations by elementary students, and the volume was book-ended with short thematic chapters (About Poems at the beginning and About Books at the end). The introduction was provided by DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg, who has strongly supported this project during his tenure.

After a long hiatus, our sixth volume was published - Everyone is a Masterpiece. Chapters were organized alphabetically by school, with the concluding chapter, Path to Poetry, arranged thematically with poems from various schools. Colorado's Poet Laureate, Joseph Hutchison, graciously agreed to write an introduction and the result was inspiring. Three former students of mine pitched in and helped me with the editing at a crucial time - in fact, it was when I was quite busy preparing my own students for state-wide testing. They were Kristin Kryabill-Voth (form George Washington High School), Aurelia Tittmann (DSA), and Saskia Getahun-Dimberg (Morey).

Looking back over this history, I have to admit that there have been some small disappointments. I have never managed to gather high-school student editors from all over the district, as I had hoped. I had also hoped that the editorship could be passed around between teachers, too, and thereby become more representative of our district. Some of my colleagues have shown interest, but the schedule is always complicated, and that's usually the deal-breaker. As a classroom teacher, I completely understand!

Another disappointment? Well, the books have enjoyed great support from teachers and parents, and have sold reasonably well for our friends at The Tattered Cover and The Bookies, but the program has never become economically self-sufficient. It has always depended upon grant funding from DPS, even though all the editorial work and much of the publishing work has been done by volunteers.

On the other hand, there have been unexpected successes, too, such as hearing and seeing our young poets on Colorado Public Radio and Channel 9NEWS (more about that here). I believe, furthermore, that every DPS elementary school has been present in at least one volume, and some have been in all six.

Best of all, the series has published poems and artwork from about 1,800 students. That's a lot of children! Once upon a time, they were happy to find themselves as published poets, applauded at our receptions and celebrated by their communities. Now, many of those students are in high school, or even in college. It may not be long until they begin to publish books of their own.