A poetry student next to two teachers in front of an orange banner

Poetry Trail Brings Culture to Halls of Valley High School

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Language arts teacher Cameron Gale, senior honors student Jessica Brown, and language arts teacher Karen Downing with one of the poetry banners.

One Valley senior is not only looking to the future, but wants to leave something behind at the school. Honors student Jessica Brown found a project that fit her personality and interests, thanks to two Valley teachers and a poetry trail at Gray’s Lake.

A poetry trail consists of poems made into physical markers and placed along a path people can follow, experiencing the poetry as they go. Language arts teachers Karen Downing and Cameron Gale had heard about the poetry trail at Gray’s Lake, and both felt Valley could benefit from a similar installation.They wanted to involve a student representative before moving forward with the project. Brown’s honors project had joined poetry and art, and Downing recognized her potential to be a champion for the installation. A junior at the time, Brown started working with Downing and Gale to write an application for a Kimm Grant, requesting $500 for the printing and hanging of the poetry banners.

The goal of the project was to bring culture to the halls of Valley. Once the funding was granted, Brown, Downing and Gale put together a committee to help them choose poems for the banners. The committee consisted of John Mitchell, former English teacher; Phyllis Staplin, former WDMCS curriculum coordinator; and Heather Derr-Smith, poet and West Des Moines parent. Potential poems were shared in an online folder. It was decided that banners would be hung in the art, athletics, auditorium, cafeteria, counseling, English Language Learners, English, library, math, music, science, technology education, and world language areas of the school. Each department chair saw the poem for their area in advance and could offer feedback.

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A poetry banner outside the Counseling Center featuring “The Journey” by Mary Oliver.

Designing the banners was another challenge. Brown worked with Valley art teacher Tom Murphy and his students on the banner design. Originally, they considered putting student artwork with each poem, but decided to keep things uniform.

“We went with a more simplistic design that would fit with Valley culture,” Brown said.

Brown also had to pitch the poetry trail idea to Valley principal Tim Miller. Miller was so enthused and supportive of the project that he ended up overseeing the installation process, eliminating the need for banner-hanging funds. The Kimm Grant funds were all put toward printing the banners, which was handled by the Heartland Area Education Agency. The banners are orange with black Vs, and dominated by the text of the poem. The diverse poems are all tailored to the areas they reside in. The math department’s banner shows “Flash Cards” by Rita Dove, while athletics hosts “Slam, Dunk, and Hook” by Yusef Komunyakaa, and the auditorium features “All the Hemispheres” by Hafiz.

Teachers had been told about the poetry trail so they could offer input, but it had been kept secret from students. To them, it seemed like the poetry had sprung out of the walls overnight. Brown said the student response was overwhelmingly positive. She, Downing, and Gale wrote a second Kimm Grant application this year, hoping to spread the poetry trail to Valley’s outdoors. They are now gathering poems that can be placed in spaces like the prairie and the parking lot. Brown, who will be attending the University of Iowa to study computer engineering next year, said she was pleased with the outcome and hopes the poetry banners are something people with remember.

“Hopefully these will last for a while,” she said. “I’m a senior, so I’m graduating next year, but it’s nice to know that I left a legacy behind. I hope people will keep coming back to them and noticing something new every time.”

Full list of Poetry Trail banner locations:

  1. Art—”Art Sanctuary” by Nikki Giovanni
  2. Athletics—”Slam, Dunk, and Hook” by Yusef Komunyakaa
  3. Auditorium—”All the Hemispheres” by Hafiz
  4. Cafeteria—”Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo
  5. Counseling Center—”The Journey” by Mary Oliver
  6. ELL—”Refugee Ship” by Lorna Dee Cervantes
  7. Language Arts—”Advice to Writers” by Billy Collins
  8. Library—”The First Book” by Rita Dove
  9. Math—”Flash Cards” by Rita Dove
  10. Music—”Listening to Her Practice: My Middle Daughter, on the Edge of Adolescence, Learns to Play the Saxophone” by Barbara Crooker
  11. Science—”A Scientist’s Acrostic” by Jennifer Gresham
  12. Tech. Ed.—”The Box” by Mark Turpin
  13. World Languages—”Languages” by Carl Sandburg