Iowa State, Iowa School for the Deaf collaborate for ‘Poetry in Motion’

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Poetry has linked Iowa State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with the Iowa School for the Deaf through a video project.

A group of Iowa State students, along with high school students from the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs, have collaborated to create "Poetry in Motion," a video project that shows deaf students’ interpretations of poems through movement. Through their movements, language barriers are broken, and communication between those who can hear and those who cannot becomes clear.

"We took a look at the art of poetry on a different sensory level," said Mary Swander, Poet Laureate of the State of Iowa, English professor, and Distinguished Professor in Liberal Arts and Sciences. "Nobody talks about poetry in terms of movement, so I thought it was a really fantastic thing to explore."

Mary Swander, Poet Laureate of the State of Iowa, English professor, and Distinguished Professor in Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Each year, Swander organizes a project for graduate students in the English department’s MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program in Creative Writing and Environment. The projects, which have ranged from documentaries to theater, aim to connect students with Iowa’s environment. This year Swander’s project also raised awareness about disabilities and, she added, students had to learn to communicate in a different way.

Students at the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs. (Photo by ISU photojournalism student Zhenru Zhang.)

Swander was inspired to start the project after attending the 2012 Poetry Out Loud poetry reading competition at the State Historical Building in Des Moines. There, she watched deaf students interpret poems through movement and "was in awe." After the competition, she met the students who competed, as well as Susan Trucano, their teacher at the Iowa School for the Deaf. Together, they began planning the "Poetry in Motion" project.

An ‘authentic’ collaboration Swander’s video project was a true collaborative effort that not only linked several students, faculty and departments within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, it served a bigger purpose by exposing each participant to a new perspective.

"There is ineffective collaboration, which happens frequently," said Jonathan Webb, Department of World Languages and Cultures lecturer and an interpreter for ISU’s Student Disability Resources. "And then there is introspective collaboration, which is when people are able to come together and learn about each other’s worlds, stand in each other’s shoes and see what the world looks like from a different vantage point. That’s a real, authentic collaboration."

Webb bridged the communication gap at the School for the Deaf by interpreting the performances. He also brought a few of his students from his Introduction to American Sign Language Course to the readings.

Swander’s MFA graduate students wrote poems specifically for the deaf students. She had asked that the poems connect with the environment and be suitable for interpretation through movement.

"I asked that the poems be easy to interpret, which is not easy in poetry," she said.

Students at the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs. (Photo by ISU photojournalism student Zhenru Zhang.)

Teaching in disability classrooms "Mary’s mission is really to expose and create a tension within the disabilities community," said Xavier Cavazos, a third-year MFA student who played a large role in "Poetry in Motion." "These projects help us think about how to teach reading and writing in disability classrooms, and about the pedagogical approaches we can take to make the process successful."

Xavier Cavazos, a third year MFA student, helped write poems for the high school students at the Iowa School for the Deaf.

Last spring Cavazos, along with his classmates, Swander and ISU photojournalism student Zhenru Zhang, visited the Iowa School for the Deaf, which serves about 300 students aged preschool to 21 in both Iowa and Nebraska. There, they joined Trucano’s high school English class and watched as the students interpreted the poems they had written for them.

"We wrote nature poetry for them to internalize, interpret and perform," said Cavazos, who used a visit to the Black Hills as fodder for his poems.

"When you’re that far away from the rest of the world, you can really hear the Earth speaking to you. I thought that material would speak specifically to the ASL students since the language was not mine, but it was still something they could understand. When they interpreted it, it took on a whole new meaning."

Capturing the experience Zhang, now a senior in ISU’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, filmed the deaf students’ interviews and performances at the School for the Deaf. He also filmed interviews with the MFA students, capturing their reactions to the performances, as well as Swander’s direction and thoughts about the project.

ISU photojournalism student Zhenru Zhang took photos, as well as filmed and edited the video project.

"When I first learned what the project was about, I didn’t give a lot of deep thought about what it meant until I really got hands-on with it," he said. "I was able to see how they lived their real lives. It’s really not a silent world. It’s actually quite lively."

Zhang said he decided to shoot the film in black and white because it "rendered the atmosphere more than color would." He paired the black and white film with lively music, which shows optimism. Zhang said when he first started the project he thought the students struggled with their disability. "These are fully capable students who don’t need any extra attention or help," he said.

During the project, ISU students and faculty were able to meet Dakota "DJ" Meyer, a junior at the Iowa School for the Deaf who became a state champion in the 2013 Poetry Out Loud contest last month. Meyer is the first deaf student in Iowa to win the state competition (and the second deaf student in the nation, after a deaf Oregon state champion in 2009), and will compete in the Poetry Out Loud National Finals in Washington D.C., at the end of April.

Cavazos has been coaching Meyer to prepare him for the competition, which awards $20,000 for first place.

"It’s really an amazing story," Cavazos said of "Poetry in Motion." "And it’s amazing that we were able to capture it all – their grace, their interaction on a real, organic level, and our ability to have a robust conversation on the changing dynamics of poetry itself."

Watch the video.


About Liberal Arts and Sciences The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is a world-class learning and research community. Iowa State’s most academically diverse college, LAS educates students to become global citizens, providing rigorous academic programs in the sciences, humanities and social sciences within a supportive personalized learning environment. College faculty design new materials, unravel biological structures, care for the environment, and explore social and behavioral issues. From fundamental research to technology transfer and artistic expression, the college supports people in Iowa and around the world.

NEWS RELEASE College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Iowa State University

Contacts: Mary Swander, English, (515) 294-3373, Xavier Cavazos, English, (515-294-3625, Jess Knight, Liberal Arts & Sciences Communication, (515) 294-9906,