Chalk Poetry Envelops the Hopkins Campus
As a tribute to National Poetry Month this past April, English 10 students have brought poems from inside the classroom to pathways on The Hill.
From Langston Hughes to Li-Young Lee, poems written in bright sidewalk chalk have popped up around Hopkins on stairs, walkways, and the quad. English Teacher Brad Ridky described the origin of this project: “I’ve been doing it for years. The idea was that poetry should be public, and April is poetry month so it seemed to lend itself nicely to being outside, and to putting poetry where it is unexpected: the ground.”
Along with being a fun activity, chalk poems have impacted the students and furthered their understanding of poetry. English Teacher Benjamin Johnson is also participating in chalk poetry with his English 10 class. “Poetry is both a sonic and visual art form. Sidewalk poetry places an emphasis on the visual aspect that often gets lost or overlooked in class discussion. Never mind what it means or may mean; let’s start with how it looks and sounds,” said Johnson. He also emphasized the physical aspect of writing the poetry outside and added, “there’s value in the action of getting down on your hands and knees and chalking out the words and lines. This isn’t how we normally approach poetry.”
Although only sophomores were writing out the chalk poems, these students and their teachers hope that the words impacted the greater Hopkins community. Casey Goldberg ’20, a student in Johnson’s class, said, “The goal was that at least one person would stop to see our poems and think about something else other than a difficult math test for a few moments.” Ridky and Johnson highlighted that with the school year coming to a close, it can be a stressful time for both students and faculty: “We all spend a lot of time up in our heads, thinking about what we have to do next. It’s like, next, next, next. Sidewalk poetry forces people out of the headspace that the school day forces them into,” said Johnson.
With the use of chalk scattered around campus, poetry was able to leave the classroom setting and have a greater impact on those at Hopkins. Johnson and Ridky pointed out that this creative poetry project has done its job if even only a few students notice it. “Most people just walk over it. That’s okay. All it takes is one,” said Johnson. Ridky said, “I think you can catch people a little off guard with it, and I like the notion of the sporadic barrage of poetry when they’re maybe thinking about something else.”
Other students noticed the poems around campus. Ellen Ren ’19 said, “It’s something I wouldn’t expect around campus and I like to stop and read the inspirational words.” Henry Fisher ’20, a student in Ridky’s class, added, “I liked seeing people stop to read my poem because I felt like I was personally informing them.” Julia An ’21 noted the hard work that the sophomores put into the poems: “The chalk poems are nice if you’re just walking to your next class, but then you see a bit of chalk at your feet. By paying a bit more attention to them, you see that they grow into this poem that students willingly wrote and spent time on,” An said.
Besides encouraging people to slow down and think about poetry, chalk poems also honor an underappreciated aspect of Hopkins: sidewalks. Johnson said, “Like parking garages, sidewalks are transitional spaces that we don’t normally pay much attention to. We literally walk over them. So in a weird way, the sidewalk poetry also honors the sidewalks. They are part of our campus, too.”
Some teachers are hoping to expand poetry beyond the sidewalks in other busy but unexpected places on campus. In order to unify this idea and National Poetry Month, Ridky said, “We’re working on selecting poems that could be installed a little more permanently in places other than sidewalks, like the salad bar line or the locker room, where students could experience poetry in a different way.” Johnson advised that all students should get involved with poetry even in small ways. To keep it simple, Johnson emphasized, “Everyone should read a poem. No, really!”