The Well of Words: The Poetry Workshop as a Place of Social-Emotional Learning for Adults

By Libby Mislan 

SEL is constantly discussed in the context of young people, but rarely is it seen as a life-long skill-set that requires honing for adults as much as adolescents. To cultivate self-awareness, to be with challenging emotions, to be tuned into others’ needs, to make wise decisions— these are all critical skills for healthy adulthood, and they are skills that can be cultivated through writing poetry in community. 

I remember what first made me fall in love with creative writing during a summer writing camp at the age of 10.  It wasn’t just the writing.  It was the culture and community built around self-expression. It was the way my quality of presence changed as I began to pay close attention to my experiences, knowing that I would soon be reflecting on them in my journal, bringing them to life through my sensory renderings. It was the jittery excitement of being heard, of getting my journal back and seeing that a counselor had underlined a phrase I’d written and commented, “I love this.” When sharing our work aloud, I fell in love with the nerves that gave way to that feeling of warmth that flooded me — the feeling of being heard. To capture my perspective, to be heard, to be affirmed — these were my yearnings. These are yearnings that all humans share.  

The experiences I have just described are some of the gifts of a community grounded in strong practice around what educators now call “Social and Emotional Learning” (SEL). Social and Emotional Learning is officially defined by CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” It is defined by five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, social awareness, and responsible decision-making. SEL is constantly discussed in the context of young people, but it is also a lifelong skill set that requires honing for adults as much as adolescents. To cultivate self-awareness, to be with challenging emotions, to be tuned into others’ needs, to make wise decisions — these are all critical skills for healthy adulthood, and they are skills that can be cultivated through writing poetry in community. 

This summer I led “Poetry for Processing,” a five week course for adults through Teachers & Writers Collaborative. I defined it as a class that would use poetry as a critical tool in helping us to find grounding, process emotions, and integrate the experiences in our lives. I wanted to make this distinction from poetry workshops that are centered around critique and polishing work for publication. Instead, I wanted to lean into the social and emotional benefits of poetry during a time of personal and collective upheaval. 

In designing the class, I drew upon experience from two practices that I often incorporate into my writing workshops: InterPlay, an improvisational storytelling, movement, and voice technique focused on unlocking the wisdom of the body, and Focusing-Oriented Arts Therapy (FOAT), an expressive arts practice centered in mindfulness. Those of us who teach poetry know firsthand how much social and emotional ground we can tread in a poetry workshop — yet often it is a felt sense, a feeling of interconnectivity and transformation amongst participants that we can struggle to articulate with words. I wanted to challenge myself to really capture the ways in which poetry workshops grounded in creating connection align with SEL skills.  

One of the first and most simple practices that I think is crucial to SEL is allowing ample time for check-ins at the beginning of a workshop. At times check-ins may be seen as small talk or as eating up valuable workshop time, but I believe they are a way of orienting and grounding, setting the tone for being in a relational space. We began each class with a check-in to share the seemingly mundane details of our lives, using frameworks like “rose/rosebud/thorn” (rose being a delightful moment, rosebud something to look forward to in the future, and thorn a recent unpleasant experience), or “an experience of ease and an experience of stress.” With just 7 participants in my summer class, we had plenty of time to ground in each week and cultivate both self-awareness and social-awareness through the act of checking in. Knowing small facts about other participants can go a long way. For example, one participant in our summer class shared during a check-in that sparrows were making a nest in the roofing of her home. We got to check in with her week after week to track their progress — something simple that built up a feeling of familiarity over time.         

When designing the weekly writing prompts for my summer class, I was very intentional about allowing material to come from participants’ own self-awareness, rather than dictating thematic material to the group (an example of the latter: “today we’re going to write about ____”). CASEL defines self-awareness as “recognizing one’s emotions and values, as well as one’s strengths and challenges.” By beginning with a “wide view” and then engaging in exercises that helped participants hone in on what felt alive for them on that given day, their writing came from unique and deeply personal spaces. 

One InterPlay exercise we used to narrow our focus is “I could talk about___,” an improvisational practice where we spent 3-4 minutes taking turns filling in the blank of this single sentence. Participants’ responses could range from something as mundane as “I could talk about last night’s macaroni and cheese dinner” to something as emotionally charged as “I could talk about my mom being on life support at the moment.” Rather than actually talk in depth about these things, the exercise allowed participants to gather up a broad portrait of their present experience, and then decide “what was asking to be further explored” through their writing. Other times I would intentionally push the “I could talk about” exercise to another layer of depth by asking to participants to talk about something that had been on their heart, or alter the prompt to “I could talk about feeling____.” Because the exercise is improvisational and done quickly, it allows for less self-censoring and more authenticity to emerge when brainstorming poetic subject matter.    

Another set of warm-up exercises we practiced during my summer class to cultivate self-awareness and explore what felt alive for us came from Focusing-Oriented Art Therapy (FOAT). In a two part self-inquiry exercise, “clearing a space and working on an issue,” I asked participants to imagine an “all-fine place” where they felt totally at peace, and then create a list of whatever was getting in the way of being in that place right now. From that list, participants picked one stressor to do a deeper inquiry into, responding to a series of questions such as, “What is the crux of it? What would it feel like if it was all resolved? What’s in the way of the resolution? What’s needed for resolution? What’s one small step in the right direction?” For each question, participants could choose to respond with a word/phrase, image, gesture or sound that came from their “felt,” intuitive sense. From there, we moved directly into writing time. A warm-up like this steered participants’ poetic explorations in the direction of self-awareness. (These exercises can be read about in depth in Laury Rappaport’s excellent book Focusing-Oriented Art Therapy: Accessing the Body’s Wisdom and Creative Intelligence.)

There are myriad benefits to our well-being that we can experience by cultivating self-awareness through writing poetry. In an article by SEL trainer Wendy Turner, “Social and Emotional Learning: Not Just for Kids,” Turner writes, “another big part of self-awareness is cultivating a positive outlook. I use reframing thoughts as a way to find something positive or good in whatever is difficult.” This can happen unconsciously through the process of writing a poem, and I witnessed this in several of the poems written during Poetry for Processing. One poet in my class, Michele Gilliam, wrote a portrait of New York City devastated by COVID-19. 

I come home to Me,
in a building now more full
concrete still pale,
more stale.
Life empties out in the distance.
Tattered masks drift like tumbleweed
in streets that once
blasted jazz. An improvised racket
of spillover from too
small quarters.
Screeching sirens will become cymbals and
Screeching sirens will become cymbals and
chords, alternating in precision and tone.
crashing together the party
Chatter, no more
We will rejoice a new reckoning,
the pavement, the crescendo of feet- will reject.
Our tedium relieved, only to be replaced with
bellowing uproar.
We will dance again.

The poem begins with a sober undertone, and but ends with a message of hope. I noticed throughout my class this ability of poets to use the medium of poetry to practice re-framing their thoughts and searching for the good. A participant, Amber Beigay, who had been working on the frontline of the pandemic with elderly COVID-positive populations, wrote this “Coronavirus” acrostic:    

Coming to terms with everything exposed
Open eyes and glasses un-rosed
Reaching for purpose and praying for meaning
Open heart now, peek inside, its bleeding
No separating from the swirling chaos outside
All together we will ache so that all together we will survive
Venturing alone brings us to lonely places
Intimate conversations anchor us to common spaces
Radical pain is making way for radical change
Underneath the layers of loss we will find truths
Skyline hopeful, a city’s hard lines kissed softly by pink hues

Writing poetry is also a form of self-management, one of the tenets of SEL defined as “managing emotions and behaviors to achieve one’s goals.” Emotional management is undoubtably happening behind the scenes of these poems, as the poets shape their psychological outlook through their words. Another participant, Laurie Bennett, displayed emotional self-management in her poem that confronted long-standing insecurities, aging, and high blood pressure. An excerpt reads:

I used to be accomplished
I used to be — well, I never thought that any of it was enough
Even when I had
Youth and cuteness
And a svelte shape
And vitality
And humor
And flashes of brilliance
And a professional reputation
I didn’t feel that any of it was enough.
And now I sit here.
In front of the window pane,
With my clunky reflection in the foreground
And the graceful trees beyond,
Sits a box
And in it is a blood pressure monitor
Which I ought to be using every day
Because, among my other imperfections
My BP is too high.
And I have done this to myself
I have let myself go
Poor diet, no exercise, lack of discipline, minimal self-control
And the monitor sits in the box, unused
And I sit at the window, bemused
I want to put the box
On the rocks
And have the tide come in
And go out.

By giving voice to her inner critic and creating a physical space in the last stanza between herself and that which causes her stress she is opening room for new emotional possibilities. Self-management can lead to a third tenet of SEL, “responsible decision-making.” Defined as “making ethical, constructive choices about personal and social behavior,” I believe responsible decision-making can be a result of the self-awareness and self-management that the writing process allows for. Laurie was also processing that she had left New York City for Maine during the pandemic, leading to a feeling of escapism from the protests against police brutality and systemic racism that were happening in cities nationwide. Part of that poem reads,   

I’ve been hiding under my blanket
A lot
My world has disappeared
In a blur
In a fog
Will the world return?
What will I do with it
When it comes back?
(If it comes back)
Can I stay up here forever?
Escape the sickness
The violence
The hatred
The cruelty
The lack of humanity
Right now?
Avoid truths
By not seeing them?
By eating lobster
And breathing in the salt air?
Fog is comforting.
Cool on the skin.

I believe that processing feelings of avoidance will allow this poet to make more ethical decisions in the future about how to engage with the “harsh realities of America.” The poem allows her to ask questions that reveal her conscience, a first step in getting in alignment with her values.

When it comes to the tenets of SEL that are more centered on how we interact with others— “social awareness” and “relationship skills”— I want to share how essential it is to Social and Emotional Learning to make time to share our writing within a poetry workshop. Not only does this time give participants a chance to be heard, but it gives the group a chance to practice empathic listening. “Resonating” is a technique I learned from Relational Uprising, an organization that provides tools to people within social movements to increase trust and deepen relationships. It’s a simple yet profound way of responding to storytelling that I adapted for responding to poetry. “Resonating” asks that after listening to a work, participants repeat back phrases within the poem that made them feel something in their body. Rather than elaborating on the specific literary devices used, a metaphor one did or didn’t understand, a critique of the piece, or the way one can personally relate to the piece, resonating asks us to simply mirror back a line that made us feel something inside. Social awareness is defined as “showing empathy and understanding towards others,” and resonating allows for our responses to each others’ work to reveal our deep listening. As writers, we learn it is safe to share and be vulnerable— that we will be met with support. From there, we naturally cultivate a sense of relationship and connection between one other.      

In a culture that values tangible products, the work of both Social and Emotional Learning and the arts have been deeply undervalued. Furthermore, within the poetry world, more craft-focused poetry workshop settings that lean towards critique over connection are often seen as more “serious” than workshops that value process. Yet I argue that regardless of the intention behind the poetry workshop one is teaching, there is always room to cultivate more humanity and social and emotional growth. 

SEL trainer Wendy Turner refers to Social and Emotional Learning as “the ground floor of learning,” meaning that students cannot learn effectively without cultivating these practices. I would even take it a step further and say that Social and Emotional Learning is the “ground floor of being,” a way of relating with self and others that is foundation for healthy relationships, communities, and societies. We have a lot of work to do when it comes to restoring social and emotional wellness in our culture at large. Poetry is one of the tools we can use to get there.   

Libby Mislan is a poet and teaching artist based in Queens, New York. Inspired by the intersections between poetry, music, dance and visual art, she’s collaborated extensively with dancers, musicians, visual and video artists to create multidisciplinary works. She is proud to be a teaching artist in New York City Public Schools through Community Word Project, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and CityLore. To check out more of her work, visit www.libbymislan.com.



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