Spotlight on interfaith creativity project: Poetry Pals — by Adam Shames

December 9, 2011

I wanted to share some about Poetry Palsan interfaith non-profit creativity program building bridges between diverse communities, that I am directing here in Chicago.  We are experimenting with different ways to teach, engage, improve self-expression and have cross-cultural dialogue with kids–8-12 years old–through creativity.  We work on writing and performing poetry, and we also include a music portion.  We have some confines to work with, as the Muslim schools prefer no melodic instruments or overt dancing, but we have a theme song, lots of group voice play and two professional percussionists in the mix.

This article and pictures come from our first fall session (written by Tami Warshawsky of our Jewish school partner, Solomon Schechter). Adam

Building Bridges Through Poetry Among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Students

group 4 

We are green, red, and dark blue.

We are mocha fudge ice cream, hot chicken tenders, and pizza.

We are soccer, hockey, and basketball.

We are Poland and Russia, Germany, and the USA.

We are Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim.

We are Jeremy, Noah, and Mustafa.

Jeremy, Noah, and Mustafa are three of the 110 fourth graders from Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago, Sacred Heart Schools in Chicago, and MCC Full-time School in Morton Grove, who attended an extraordinary program called Poetry Pals on Wednesday. Poetry Pals unites students from different faith traditions to further their appreciation of their own and each other’s faiths, and to begin to form bonds of understanding and friendship through the art of poetry.

warm up

Adam Shames, Program and Creative Director (above), is the dynamic and spirited facilitator of Poetry Pals. “We have several goals today,” he explained to the group of students and teachers who gathered in the gym at Solomon Schechter Day School’s Skokie Campus. “Our first goal is to get together as friends and get to know a bit about different cultures in America,” he said. “We are also here to learn how to express ourselves better and to use poetry to describe the world and our feelings. We want you to become really good at expressing yourself through words. And, most of all, we want you to have FUN!”

After Adam and the Poetry Pals staff led the large group in a series of ice-breakers, the students were invited to visit the school’s sanctuary or Beit Knesset, where they saw where Schechter students pray each day. Then they reunited in the gym where Rabbi Daniel Rosenberg, Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Solomon Schechter, provided a brief overview of the Jewish faith. During the question and answer session one boy asked: “Why do you keep your holy scroll in that cabinet?” A Schechter student quickly explained, “Because it’s holy to us, it has God’s name in it, and we want to keep it safe.”

group 2

The easy dialogue that began in the gym continued as students were divided into groups and led into five classrooms. Once there, they broke into smaller groups consisting of three or four students of different faiths. They took a few minutes to get to know each other and then they completed a worksheet together that asked for their favorite colors, foods, and sports; their favorite place to be; the part of nature they feel is most beautiful; something they are good at; a favorite holiday tradition; their country of origin; their religion; and their name. 

There were smiles and laughter as students realized they had so much in common. They continued to ask questions while working together including, “Why do Jewish boys wear “hats” on their head?” “Can the hats come off? “What is the meaning of the Cross?” “Why do girls wear the head scarves (called hijabs)?” and more. They were eager to explain their faith and share the answers to each other’s questions.


“We try to create a warm and fun environment where children can learn to express themselves and listen with respect to others, strengthen their own pride and self-esteem, and gain an appreciation for each other’s culture,” said Donna Yates, Chicago Poetry Pals Founder and Poet-educator. The program originated in Philadelphia, and when Mrs. Yates relocated to Chicago she asked the founder if she could replicate it here. “It’s been very successful in helping children break down stereotypes and build positive relationships,” she said. “The children feel so proud as they describe their faith to each other, and they enjoy the activities that help them express themselves through poetry.”

Click here for the rest of the article…


4 Responses to “Spotlight on interfaith creativity project: Poetry Pals — by Adam Shames”

  1. I think that what you are doing is terrific. I know that kids can run rings around adults in what they can master, but poetry, you know, that’s tough. Along with the poetry, thinking about some sort of prose, much easier, might be a good idea.

  2. Adam Shames Says:

    Thanks for the comment! We’ve found that poetry is really easy at this age (8-12) primarily because they don’t yet have bad associations. Words expressed in any fashion, with line breaks, qualifies, so it can be prose-like stories or memories or highlights of my favorite holiday. In our case, “Poetry” is just a springboard to use details to express your world, and then communicate them aloud in ways that can be heard.

  3. It makes a 70 year old envious.

  4. Laura Lentz Says:

    Adam, thanks for sharing this inspiring project with us! When I read about it on your blog I was so impressed and look forward to you sharing more about it in the future. All best!

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