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Get Lit — Words Ignite Grounds Students in Poetry

August 28, 2018
4 min read time

Like most teenagers, Diane Luby Lane felt disconnected while learning and reading poetry at school.

It wasn’t until she was 20 years old, watching actress Viveca Lindfors perform a poem by Walt Whitman that her view on poetry transformed, ultimately changing her life and eventually, the lives of 50,000 youth per year through her organization, Get Lit — Words Ignite.

“So often in schools, poetry is being asked, ‘what does this mean?’ rather than exploring your feelings,” Luby Lane said.

“When I worked with Viveca, I could see all that poetry could be.”

What she learned from her experience so many years ago — her “aha! moment” — became the program, which she founded in 2006. Get Lit — Words Ignite uses poetry to help young people explore their voices; establishing a community and safe place to express, feel and connect with one another.

The unique poetry-based curriculum has expanded to more than 100 schools since its inception, with requests coming from as far as Mexico and New Zealand.

“We go into a classroom with 100 poems and we say, ‘claim your poems, claim your life,’” Luby Lane said, jokingly calling poetry a “gateway drug to literacy.”

“For whatever reason, that poem is calling to them. It’s an area that they need to explore. Young people should be given the time during the day to ask, what is my soul craving? … [They] get to choose their own North Star. They get to connect with themselves.”

That poetry is short and shared out loud gives it power, according to Luby Lane. She describes stories as a way for people to share how they feel. The community aspect of storytelling is vital, she says, and during the digital age especially. By making it the foundation of class time, everyone — including students whose first language is not English — can participate and overcome challenges in the process.

In 2019, 10,000 kids are expected to graduate from Get Lit — Words Ignite. Statistics show the program not only improves youth literacy, but gives impoverished youth confidence and connection that they may not have in their personal lives.

“If you deal with what these kids are dealing with — poverty, parents in jail, siblings on drugs, parents who are sick — it’s heavy. If you don’t have an outlet for that in school and you don’t have anyone to share that with, what do you do with those feelings?” Luby Lane said.

“The program has [helped] kids who have given up on themselves.”

Opioid use and depression among youth in Get Lit — Words Ignite has decreased, according to Luby Lane, who says an outlet for one’s feelings; someone who can understand and listen, can change a life.

“You have someone else in your class who is going through the same, and [students] feel and hear, ‘I see you.’ When we invoke these poems, we are asking the likes of Rumi, Gwendolyn Brooks, our elders, to be in the room with us, and to hold our hands and to lift us from the circumstances we are in,” she said.

“A lot of these kids are alone. They don’t have anyone to connect to and they can connect with these artists and with each other, and not feel so alone.”

Plus, they have an audience beyond the classroom: Get Lit’s young performers are some of the most watched poets online. A number of the program’s graduates are not only performing worldwide, but working as writers, screenwriters and playwrights. Some have been hired by large companies, campaigns and Hollywood. 

The organization has grown so much that Get Lit — Words Ignite now has its own production company, Literary Riot, led by Samuel Curtis.

“We wanted to professionalize our poets and writers because we have been getting so much demand,” Luby Lane said.

“It’s getting bigger than the non-profit.”

Curtis says he saw an opportunity because most of what was being produced for and about Get Lit — Words Ignite was by freelance filmmakers. Literary Riot was developed to empower the next generation of storytellers, filmmakers, and content creators with a poetic influence.

“At first some might think ‘how does poetry and filmmaking really connect?’ Very quickly I realized there are many crossovers that elevate each medium,” Curtis said.

“Some of cinema's great heroes, such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick, and Alejandro Jodorowsky have always been described as ‘poets of cinema’ and I believe it's because their work is rewatched for the same reason we reread certain poems over and over — we find deeper meaning and inspiration in each new reading. This approach to poetic filmmaking is something we wanted to embed in our training.” 

The programs include a two-year independent filmmaking program for youth, as well as a year-long screenwriters’ lab and a creative collective, which focuses on multimedia content.

And — especially during the murky global climate — Luby Lane believes that now more than ever, we need the presence of poetry or at least art in our lives.

“When you listen to someone and hear their story, you love them,” she said.

“We have to have conversations. And art is soft; a safe way to start conversations. These are our personal stories and when we are together in this personal way, you can’t help but love each other. We have different walks of life and ground, but there’s always a lot of art in the room. Art can create these global conversations.”

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