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    Young voices put poetry in motion

    ''Everyone has poetry within them,'' says a teacher who coaxes it out of students in studies and in a coffeehouse atmosphere.

    By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 1, 2003

    "Everyone has poetry within them," says a teacher who coaxes it out of students in studies and in a coffeehouse atmosphere.

    LARGO -- It's hard to get jazzed about something you just don't understand. So it's not surprising that some youngsters aren't poetry fans.

    But middle school language arts teachers at St. Paul's School have found a way to make poetry come alive.

    They put on a yearly Poetry Coffeehouse, where their students memorize and dramatize poems of their choice. It's a tradition that St. Paul's has practiced for more than a decade.

    "They leave here with a love of poetry rather than a fear of poetry," language arts teacher and poetry enthusiast Melinda Lebowitz said.

    With the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee and mocha-scented candles floating through the air on Thursday, about 200 family members and friends were treated to a plethora of classical, modern and original works in St. Paul's Dimmitt Hall.

    While the young artists did their thing, audience members nibbled on an assortment of goodies provided by the PTA -- grapes, cubed cheddar, popcorn, brownies and meringue kisses, and washed them down with soft drinks and java with an optional splash of vanilla, chocolate or hazelnut syrup.

    Most of the students blossomed in the spotlight.

    Some spiced up their performances with funky costumes and a truckload of props.

    Glistening with lavender glitter and frocked in tutus, sky-blue tiaras and strap-on wings, Caitlyn Hanlon and Jimena Martin-Moreno performed William Makepeace Thackery's Fairy Days.

    Sadie Finkel, who wore a prairie dress, purple cummerbund and red sneakers, tried on everything from a witch's hat to Groucho Marx glasses for her spunky interpretation of Ogden Nash's The Adventures of Isabel.

    In his original poem, The Disadvantage of Being Put on Hold, Justin Leiser played opposite a 3-foot replica of a cell phone to rant about classmates who prefer a cellular connection to a human one.

    Others, like Matt Tucker, who performed his original poem, Alone, used only their voices and bodies to punctuate emotion.

    Eighth-grader Matt is a coffeehouse veteran and said the shows have boosted his confidence and elocution.

    "I'm getting used to it," he said. "Now I'm really comfortable working on expression and being a lot clearer."

    Sixth-grader Ashley DiMare, too, was caught up in the excitement of poetic performance.

    "It's kind of nervous, but once you get up there, you get it. It just comes to you," said DiMare, who confidently belted out Shel Silverstein's Ice Cream Shop and Eighteen Flavors.

    The audience couldn't resist those passionate portrayals and downright adorable renditions of works like Maya Angelou's Phenomenal Woman by pint-sized sixth-graders Whitney Hawkins and Victoria Sennabaum, draped in hot pink feather boas.

    "What we feel is that everyone has poetry within them, and inspiration can come from absolutely anything, from a walk in the park, to an experience you've had as a young child. You find the poetry within you from inspiration around you," said Lebowitz, who prompted her students from a table up near the stage and rewarded them with booming applause.

    The coffeehouse capped off poetry immersion units for sixth- through eighth-graders, who compiled poetry portfolios and performed classroom dramatizations, too. The classroom recitations were mandatory, but the coffeehouse was optional. About 70 kids participated.

    It's an evening that made for proud parents and even prouder teachers.

    "It's great to see kids sort of find themselves through poetry, not just recite it," said language arts teacher Kathy Koenig.

    "For an English teacher, it's the best," Lebowitz said.

    -- Lorri Helfand can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or at .

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