Schenectady

In time of isolation, Schenectady English teacher’s ‘Walk Poetry’ keeps people connected

Colleen Wygal’s creation began as classroom exercise
Colleen Wygal, left, Schenectady High School teacher and founder of the Walk Poetry Facebook group.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Colleen Wygal, left, Schenectady High School teacher and founder of the Walk Poetry Facebook group.

Categories: Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — During this time of social/physical distancing, people are relying more and more on language to bring each other together. 

That’s part of the reason why Walk Poetry has grown so much in the past few months. The idea of Walk Poetry, where people use chalk to write either their favorite poems or original verses, was popularized locally years ago by Colleen Wygal. 

See more Walk Poetry photos here.

She’s been a Rotterdam resident and an English teacher at Schenectady High School since 2007. In her experience, poetry has the power to immediately connect with students. It’s part of the reason she teaches classes like Hip-Hop as Literature and tries to weave poetry into all her classes.

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While Walk Poetry started as a class exercise, it now reaches well beyond the classroom, with people all across the Northeast joining in and sharing their poems via the Facebook group Walk Poetry. Wygal often celebrates National Poetry Month, which is in April, by using Walk Poetry, and this year is no different. 

Wygal recently spoke with The Gazette about how the idea developed and how it’s bringing people together during this pandemic.

Q: How did you start Walk Poetry?

A: It was really a long time ago that I started doing this. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t see kids on a regular basis, but even the kids who are well-intentioned, sometimes they’re not fully alive. So I just like to break them out of their shell. I [bring] them outside and tell them to create something. It’s this unbelievable, vulnerable experience because you’re putting something down and everyone can see it. It’s worse than a classroom presentation because it’s not going to go away until it rains. It’s something that I typically force some classes to go through — my honors kids especially needed to do this because they lost their creativity so long ago. I didn’t feel good about them graduating without giving them that as well. 

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Now there [are] so many of my former students who still do it a decade later. I’ll just throw out there, “I’m going to be chalking on this date.” Many of them show up and people from the community, especially if we’re on Jay Street, they come out of the restaurants and they join. It’s really beautiful. People love reading it.

I’ve never had any trouble with anybody being inappropriate because their hearts are in it. People who are ignorant of the population [of] Schenectady think that these kids are bad. The kids they think are bad have the biggest hearts sometimes. It’s beautiful to me. 

Q: How many years have you been doing this in your classes?

A: Probably eight years. Kids wait for it, like, “Is she going to take us outside?” It was something exciting for them. 

It used to be this really big community [event] where we would get together and we would do this. Or, I think it was eight years ago, I had one quote and I got the school board in on it, and people all over Schenectady in every neighborhood. I have them all write an Aristotle quote: “Hope is a waking dream.” I had them write that down all over Schenectady that morning. So it was in front of all the elementary schools, Planned Parenthood, all the businesses. It was this great grass-roots thing that nobody knew where it came from. My students got really excited about that. 

I can picture something like this happening right now. It’s really sad to be away from my students. It’s sad to feel so apart. But now if they want chalk, they know I’ll stop by and leave it on their porch for them. They feel less alone. … I just thought the greater Capital Region could probably enjoy it, too. 

Q: Is that why you created the Facebook group?

A: We used to have a group and one of my students ran it. My goal was to have it be this weird, quirky underground thing, but the kids really wanted to put it out there. That’s been up for five years, but I changed it to Walk Poetry instead of Schenectady Walk Poetry. One of my former students, Jayana LaFountaine, she started helping me out. She’s a photographer in Troy.

She’s a lovely human being. I have thousands of favorite students but she was one of them. She offered to bring this to Troy and I said, “Absolutely.” I gave her chalk and her friends are doing it there. 

It’s something that we would like to see grow. I’m partnered with CREATE Community Studios and definitely looking to grow from here because it’s isolating. I’m worried not only about my students but about a lot of people. 

I’ve always gone to my friends’ sidewalks and I’ll write them a little note. I find that’s happening more. I think just the reminders of connection are really important right now. 

 

Q: Do some of your students reach out to you through that group on Facebook?

A: Yeah. A lot of it could just be sharing or asking follow-up questions. It’s really hard being a person, but it’s [especially] hard being a teenager [when] you don’t want to be vulnerable. I think that a lot of my administrators and co-workers would be surprised by the kids who are partaking in this. They want connection, and some of them didn’t even come to school that much but they’re really excited to do this. 

This whole chalk poetry thing would’ve happened anyway because it’s [National] Poetry Month. So I was already gearing up to do it, but I’m happy to share it. A lot of people have contacted me from Buffalo, from Pennsylvania, they’re seeing it.

We want people to participate. We want people to join us. This is not about my students only. I think if my students could see this spread to others so they could see their voice being heard even further, that would be even more powerful. We’re hoping to get everybody in on it. 

Q: Outside of your students, what’s the age range of people who are participating in this?

A: It’s really eclectic. There’s some people who are retired. There’s some moms of special-needs children. There’s men, women, teenagers, some younger tween-aged kids. Right now, a lot of people are stuck at home and now is the time to create something for yourself and connect [with] other people.

Q: Over the years, what have been some of your favorite poems?

A: I’m very serious, I’m very passionate but I like to be silly, so one of my favorite ones, I think it’s actually on the Instagram, [says] “Did you floss your teeth today?” It’s a friendly little reminder. 

My favorite things that people put down are [when they’re] being honest with themselves.

Sometimes it will bring you to tears. I love when people write their own [poems], when they make themselves vulnerable. 

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Yesterday, I posted one from one of my students. She was wearing slippers and it was really beautiful. It was about communication and about how we react, if you react in a certain way than that’s not communication. That was unbelievably powerful [coming] from a 16-year-old in her puppy-dog slippers. 

When we’re in the act of [chalking], you can tell if somebody’s feeling isolated and lonely. At a park, older people or middle-aged people will come over and [say] “Can I try it?” Sometimes they write these unbelievable snippets of what they remember from English class …  which is one of my favorite things. I’m happy to share it. 

Q: Who are some of your favorite poets, outside of your students?

A: That’s such a hard question. When I read [any author], I go to their novels but I always default to their poetry. Their poetry to me is this concentrated form of who they are. Some people just put it off, but I force my students to really read it, because you are allowed to own so much of the emotion when you read poetry. 

See more Walk Poetry photos here.

I really like Ocean Vuong right now. My daughter and I, [because] I’m home-schooling too, we’re reading different poets each day. She right now really likes Margaret Atwood’s poetry, which is beautiful. My son just did a project on Maya Angelou’s poetry. So it’s very much all around us. 

We like a lot of spoken word, too, but I like the written word because you can own more of it in your own recitation. 

For information about the group, visit Walk Poetry on Facebook.

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