Ali Shapiro (M.F.A. ’12) was nervous.

Shapiro’s teaching partner, Carlus “Max” Henderson (M.F.A. ’12), was ill that day in spring 2011, and she had to teach three different 3rd- and 4th-grade classes at Detroit’s Mann Elementary School alone.

“I was nervous to go in alone because I’d really come to rely on Max as my counterbalance,” says Shapiro. Shapiro was working at Mann Elementary as part of the Helen Zell Writers’ Civitas Fellowship program. Every year Civitas Fellowships provide a small stipend to four M.F.A. students who spend a year teaching creative writing together in schools across Detroit through the InsideOut Literary Arts Project. “I also just think that any class of kids—of any age, really—is sensitive to change.”

All InsideOut instructors work hard to make writing approachable, meaningful, and fun, and Shapiro used those values to guide her lesson plan that day. She played a game with the students, asking them to imagine their absent instructor’s whereabouts. Students wrote poems about Henderson doing important things like visiting President Obama or being on safari. The students loved it, and the lesson reminded Shapiro of things she loved about writing that were very different from the pleasures gained from graduate-level poetry classes.


“It’s so the opposite of workshop,” says Shapiro. “A lot of the things that we think are so great in kids’ poems are sometimes intentional, but are more often accidents. Teaching [for InsideOut] changes your reading eye and keeps you attuned to some of the aspects of writing that are less crafted, too.”

The Inside Story

Founded in 1995, the InsideOut Literary Arts Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to putting professional writers in Detroit public schools where they can share the love and craft of writing with students. In the early 2000s, a PEN/Faulkner program that connected University of Michigan writing faculty with InsideOut ended. Terry Blackhawk, InsideOut’s founder and executive director, then teamed up with LSA’s Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor Nicholas Delbanco to continue to put U-M writers in Detroit schools. The result of their efforts was the Civitas Fellowships program, which launched in fall 2005 and has funded more than 30 M.F.A. students.

Students in the M.F.A program can apply for Civitas as part of their graduate fellowship at the beginning of each year. During the fall term at Michigan, the four selected fellows are paired and placed in classrooms across Detroit. Placements range from elementary-school classrooms to afterschool settings such as InsideOut’s Citywide Poets—a program where students study the art of performance and poetry, developing performance troupes that make local and national appearances each year. To date, the Civitas program has reached more than 1,400 students.

The Buddy System

The word civitas—which means “citizenship”—relates to shared purpose and community, and the Civitas Fellowships allow writers to bring the craft they study in the Zell Writers’ Program to young students who are just beginning to explore the possibilities and mechanics of writing. But for new graduate writing students, teaching for the first time—particularly with young people in a public school setting—can present some real challenges.

Therefore, Civitas Fellowships pair two writers together so they can build a body of lesson plans collaboratively and work through preparation and classroom challenges as a team. The pairs also navigate the city together, which is helpful for Zell students who have moved to Michigan from across the country or from abroad.

Having taught a class by herself, Shapiro is now acutely aware of how valuable it is to have another teacher in the classroom. “I think I felt like Max and I had really figured out how to balance each other and work together and switch back and forth between various teacher/performer roles—if I started explaining a writing prompt and then blanked out when I tried to think of an example, he'd jump in. We often used each other to make the kids laugh, but our jokes were also explanations, attention-getters, and clarifiers.”

Get on Board

From the students’ perspective, having a team of writers visiting their classroom can make writing a lot more fun. Civitas teams adopt themes and sometimes even wear costumes. Poets Darrel Holnes (M.F.A. ’10) and George Ramos (M.F.A. ’10), from Panama and the Philippines, respectively, referred to themselves as “Poetry Pilots” when they visited Edison Elementary. They went so far as to don pilot uniforms and give students passports to “visit” different countries by reading international poetry each week.

Russell Brakefield (M.F.A. ’11)—a poet and banjo player—wrote a song called “Words Are Power,” which he and his teaching partner, Joseph Horton (M.F.A ’11) used to begin class. Their 3rd- and 4th-graders would sing along:

    Reading and writing it’ll take you far.
    It can make you a winner, make you a star.
    Get on board the poetry bus, with Mr. Joe and Mr. Russ.
    ’Cause words are power. Words are power.

Keith Taylor, the A.L. Becker Collegiate Lecturer in English and Civitas Fellowship coordinator, says he can see the difference in students who have participated in Civitas Fellowships because they have been given a chance to practice their “professorial muscle.”

“You have to stand up in front of a group of people, most of whom for one reason or another are interested in what you’re saying, and you’ve got to keep them interested,” says Taylor. “And by keeping them interested, you’re able to teach. The trick of keeping them interested might be different, but the process is the same.”

This article is part of a larger series about the impact of LSA students, faculty, and alumni in Detroit. Read more stories in the series: 


Images courtesy of InsideOut.