A Billings poetry program promoting literacy skills for elementary school children through poetry and literature has won a national Library of Congress award.
Young Poets is one of seven organizations nationwide receiving the 2021 Library of Congress State Literacy award in recognition of its contributions in promoting literacy. The award was announced in December and includes a $2,225 prize.
“We are over the moon,” said Tami Haaland, the program director and co-founder, and professor of English at Montana State University Billings. “We knew we had been nominated, but you’re talking about a national award so I don’t think any of us expected we would get it.”
The program was founded in 2012 as part of the organization Arts without Boundaries until 2018. In 2019, the program reformed as Young Poets and returned to schools in 2020.
Now the four-person team operates from the Center for Creative Writing at Montana State University Billings, and works with students to express themselves through poetry.
The 12-week program integrates weekly lessons for elementary school children to enhance literary and public speaking skills through professional writers and volunteers, and is sustained by grants and donations.
The organization also collaborates with Missoula-based Free Verse Project to bring creative writing and literature to high school-aged students across Montana.
For Haaland, the award meant recognition that the program works.
“It creates some enthusiasm in terms of going on and pursing this program through what I hope is the last difficult year of COVID,” she said.
The program has felt the effects of the pandemic, especially while trying to plan for this year’s program, Haaland said.
This year, the program will be conducted virtually in Orchard Elementary and Bench Elementary schools. Details are still to be worked out, Haaland said.
“We’re talking about how to be virtual with kids who are already spending a great deal of time on Zoom,” she said.
The program is typically immersive, with one of the four poets going into a classroom, inviting special guests and workshopping with the school children. Attending virtually will be a different beast, said Dave Caserio, a co-founder and instructor.
“It’s a bit of a step back, but at the same time we still feel really excited about it,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted exactly why the program is needed, Caserio said.
"We turn to language when we need it," he said.
The program helps children, many of whom have been socially isolated during the past year, develop confidence and self-worth.
"It makes a difference in the children’s lives. It gives them an opportunity to express themselves and develop confidence in delivering poetry and speaking to their peers," Haaland said.
Aside from having to rework how this year's program will look, the pandemic has acted as a “holding space” for Young Poets, Caserio said, allowing the team to evaluate their future goals.
Eventually, Caserio would like to see the program expand into more schools in Billings, and “high-need” schools in the region, including rural schools.
“That’s farther out for us, and right now we’re being realistic and staying focused within Billings itself,” he said.
The six other recipients for the Library of Congress’ state literacy award were in Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Washington, Wisconsin and the Everyone Has a Story project in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
"We’re part of that map," Caserio said, adding that nationally, teachers and organizations put in enormous work in schools. "Getting singled out and recognized is lovely."
The Humanities Montana Center for the Book, a state affiliate of the Library of Congress, nominated the program for the national award, Samantha Dywer said. Dwyer is the program officer with Humanities Montana.
Earlier in the year, Humanities Montana also awarded the program with one of its local Montana Center for the Book Prize.
The Young Poets program was chosen to be nominated for the national award because it was a sustainable, flexible program that’s effective in engaging students, Dwyer said.
That closely mirrors the Library of Congress’ selection criteria for the award, which focuses on programs’ innovation, sustainability, replicability, measurable results and evidence-based practices.
“The work they do is amazing,” Dwyer said.
Other organizations in the region have been recognized too.
"Montana has pretty strong literary programs and organizations," Dwyer said. "I don’t think we need more organizations but more support for the organizations that exist."