When poet and educator Katie Naoum Rogers relocated from New York City to Marblehead, it also marked a move away from the classroom.
After several years as a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at South Bronx Preparatory School, Rogers’ professional life took a turn towards curriculum development.
But during the pandemic, Rogers realized she was missing being with students.
“And I really started to miss my own writing practice,” said the busy mom of two preschoolers, one who will start kindergarten in the fall.
A friend suggested that perhaps her void could be filled by leading workshops, the kind Rogers wished had been available to her when she started to write around the age of 13.
Rogers made a trial run at the Salem Public Library in the spring of 2022 then found her way to the Salem Athenaeum, which she calls “one of the most beautiful spaces on the North Shore.”
The staff of the private library was eager to expand its offerings to a more youthful audience and opened up the space especially for Rogers and her young scribes for a week of creativity and collaboration last summer.
There was just one problem: Rogers had to charge tuition to offset the cost of running the program, which she realized might put it out of reach financially for some families. While not looking to get rich off running the workshops, Rogers also knew her time and effort was valuable.
Enter the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Through another friend, Rogers learned of the MCC’s COVID recovery grant program. Rogers discovered the criteria for the unrestricted $5,000 grant seemed to be open-ended. Creative people who were “setting a path for growth” were invited to apply.
Still skeptical of her chances, Rogers submitted her application and was pleasantly surprised to have it accepted for funding. That has allowed her to offer her writing workshops, including a recently concluded weeklong intensive program, tuition free.
Rogers says she is open to working with students through seniors in high school but has found that her “sweet spot” is working with ages 10 to 13, or maybe a little older.
“They just have such an excited energy and are so willing to share and be vulnerable with each other, which starts to shut down a little bit as they get higher up into the high school years,” Rogers says.
To further foster that willingness to share, Rogers has kept the groups small, 10 students or so — a welcome change from when she might have 30 faces or more staring back at her in her New York classroom.
For the first workshop of the week, Rogers picks the topic. But after that, she hands control over to the students to pick the themes. In the past, they have landed on everything from “monsters,” to “friendship,” to “the beach” or even “revolution.”
Rogers then takes the topic and finds five to 10 poems of “microfiction” stories, which the group reads together and discusses. On the first pass, Rogers does the reading aloud so that the students hear what a fluent reader sounds like. Then members of the group read the pieces aloud, a process based on Rogers’ study of the research around the science of reading.
“I’m hiding some ‘vegetables’ in there for struggling readers,” she says.
Rogers then provides writing prompts, one of which might be to write in the style of one of the authors or poets they had just heard.
In one game this summer, students passed around cookbooks that they would open to a random page and then spend a minute responding in some way to the recipe they landed on. A similar exercise involved looking at the image on a postcard and filling the reverse side with words about that image.
The purpose of the exercise is to explore different ways to get inspiration to write.
“You don’t always have to read a poem to write a poem,” Rogers says. “You could read a recipe. You could look out the window. Any of these things work.”
Throughout the workshops, students are left to decide how much of their work to share. It might be an entire piece, one line or nothing at all.
“My philosophy around education in general is that educational spaces should be communities, and they should be communities that are based on respect and care,” Rogers says.
Part of the joy of the workshops is that, initially, it may only be one or two students who choose to read their work. But as trust grows and relationships are formed, by the end of the week, everyone feels comfortable sharing their creations.
Rogers says it has also been a pleasure to watch families wander in and marvel over the hidden gem that is the Athenaeum, located at 337 Essex St. in Salem’s McIntire Historic District. The private library houses an impressive rare book collection and well-tended gardens.
“As a book nerd and as a person who’s worked in libraries in the past, to have people find a new library that they didn’t know existed that is so beautiful and so close by — it’s been really lovely,” Rogers says, adding with a laugh that that is not a paid endorsement.
Rogers says her plans for the fall are still coming together, but anyone interested in being added to her mailing list for workshop updates can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.