Kids embrace annual event at Craig Elementary
By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Down the halls of Craig Elementary School, past bulletin boards full of student artwork and a gym radiating the thumping sound of zumba music from a Continuing Education class, the atmosphere began to change.
Starry hanging lights twinkled, blankets sprawled on the ground, and colorful fall leaves appeared to be drifting down from above.
It wasn’t quite a park, but it was close.
Craig’s annual Poetry in the Park event has been a cherished tradition since it began about a decade ago. During the evening, students sign up to read poetry that they have written or chosen to recite from their favorite authors’ collections. Parents, siblings and friends sit on blankets and volunteers serve cider donuts and juice.
Usually, it takes place in the school’s courtyard. But on Oct. 1, heavy clouds threatened to soak copies of poems and interrupt the audience’s approving finger snaps, so teachers Barbara Peek and Deb Robitaille, who organized the event, transformed the cafeteria into the next best thing. Along with a team of volunteers from around the school, they dressed the stage with a fall backdrop, a grinning pumpkin, and a lamp post trimmed in glittering autumn garland.
“We wanted to make it cozy and dark,” said Peek, with has worked with Robitaille on the event for two years.
“What the children do is they find poems and they practice and submit them,” Peek said. “I think it’s just a chance to show off their talents and to be part of a group that’s so close.”
By that, of course, she means the Craig Elementary School community.
“I think of them as my second family,” Peek said, so she was especially happy to see a large turnout from her second-grade class.
During the evening, Peek and Robitaille sat on either side of the poetry readers, who perched on a small set of stairs. The teachers shone flashlights so the young performers wouldn’t have to strain their eyes in the dim mood lighting.
Standing off to stage right, beating a set of bongo drums lightly for accompaniment, stood music teacher Theresa Fitzmaurice, who has been with the Niskayuna Central School District since 1985. She’s one of the founders of the annual autumn literary celebration, but others have since taken over the logistics; now she attends just to enjoy the show. Between readings, she found time to reminisce.
“I walked into the library one day and was looking out at the courtyard,” she said. “I said, we don’t use the courtyard enough for things.”
That first year, she and some other teachers organized a sort of coffeehouse where students could express themselves any way they liked. Some recited poetry and some sang, with the understanding that songs are also poems of a sort.
“It’s just gone on from there,” Fitzmaurice said.
She said she uses the poetry night in her instruction to teach kids that lyrics are poems, and she’s always proud when one of her students embraces the lesson. It seemed to stick this year. Students advertise the event by reading poems on the morning announcements, and one of her fifth-graders chose the lyrics of a song they had performed in chorus.
“That was just a really great connection,” she said proudly.
Principal William Anders said the magic of the evening’s laid-back setting often brings out the best in otherwise-shy students.
“Kids who might be so quiet in the classroom come out to an event like this and they shine,” he said. “Here, they have a little more control.”
They also have the support of their parents and siblings, in many cases. The event is family-focused, with signs posted in the hallway encouraging parents and kids to stick together while they enjoy the performances.
Fitzmaurice said it’s fun to see the ways her students interact with their families — especially when she’s already familiar with the parents.
“The fun part now is some of the parents were my students,” she said.
Peek said the most valuable part of the event is that it illustrates for students how much support they have from their classmates, friends, parents and teachers.
“It really makes them feel special that they can be a part of that,” Peek said. “I know there was one little girl there that was so shy about doing it, and her mom talked her into it. She got up off the stairs and the look on her face was priceless.”
It’s an event that brings families and the school community together, but it’s also a rite of passage for Craig students that seems something not to be missed. Fifth-grader Ursula Follert read a couple of poems with friends, taking turns with the lines and stanzas.
“It’s my last year here and I’ve never done it,” she said, so she felt she had to make her way to the stage.
They chose poems from a book called “You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You.” It was a fitting title for a literary event that engaged so many.