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Honoring Sherry Robbins

Just Buffalo Literary Center celebrates the literary legacy of a local poet and teacher and two dedicated patrons

Reading, writing, arithmetic. We all know the importance of these educational basics. But some, like poet Sherry Robbins, go deeper, falling in love with words. Under her skillful guidance, children and adults alike find their true voices and in writing learn to distill experiences or dig into what makes anyone crave putting pen to paper. Every two years, Just Buffalo Literary Center selects a pair of honorees for its Literary Legacy Award. This year, poet and teaching artist Sherry Robbins and literary arts supporters Corinne and Victor Rice will be recognized for their outstanding contributions on Thursday, February 23 at Asbury Hall.

Robbins will receive this award for her work as an anchor member of Just Buffalo’s Writers Corps—a group of teaching artists who bring the magic of expression and the power of language to children—since its inception in 1982. Corinne and Victor Rice have been unflagging supporters of the literary arts and institutions of higher learning since taking up residence here in Buffalo. Both Robbins and the Rices deserve many accolades for their tremendous generosity and dedication to improving the lives of Western New York citizens, adults and children alike, with their commitment to the literary arts.

Sherry Robbins and I had a chance recently to talk over her life as a poet and teaching artist. AV: How did you come to make your career as a teaching artist?

Robbins: It was a dream job in the ’70s, one friends and I read about in poetry journals as happening elsewhere. No one was doing it here and we found that no one wanted to pay untried English majors to experiment on their people. So we volunteered, first with the Temple Beth Zion seniors group, and the Simple Gifts battered women’s shelter. The friends left town, but I stayed and found paid work eventually with the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, and with the St. Augustine Center. Opportunities grew from there, but it took another twenty years for the work to become a full time career.

AV: What can you tell me about how Just Buffalo’s Writers in Education program started, and how you were involved?

Robbins: Joan Murray and Debora Ott kicked off the Writers in Education program, meeting at Joan’s house in 1982 with about 12 potential teaching artists. They had great support from the Buffalo Public Schools superintendent at the time and I believe had close to twenty residencies that first year.

AV: You have been working as a teaching artist since 1977, and have been named New York State Teaching Artist of the Year (2005). For people who don’t know about art education, what would you most like them to understand?

Robbins: Years ago, students were asked to study the literary arts of historical significance, but not to create their own. Today, teachers are much more interested in their students’ creativity, but have no time for it in their increasingly scripted curricula. Then and now the value of having a living poet or writer in the classroom to engage students in the creative act is incalculable. Creative writing teaches creative thinking.

AV: What have you noticed in terms of changes to arts education programs like those offered by Just Buffalo in the last 30 years?

Robbins: The biggest change has been in working collaboratively with the teachers to design residencies that are of use to them and their educational goals, while still offering the happy surprises inherent in the arts.

Part of Just Buffalo’s educational mission is about “engaging students in writing, reading, listening and speaking with step-by-step interaction that leads to the successful creation of their own unique poems, stories, and essays.” As a former student of yours, I can attest to the magic you bring to the schools you visit! What happens as students create and share their writing? How do you see the work you do having an impact beyond the moments you are in the classroom?

In every single residency, there are moments when students or teachers say something along the lines of “Who knew?” They may sit in the same room day after day without ever asking each other a personal or philosophical question. I’ve learned about loss, about love, about the benefits and burdens of silence, beauty, family, fear, courage, hip-hop, immigration, and squirrels from students aged five to fifty-five. We ask these questions and honor students and teachers by taking their answers seriously. That being heard, I think, is vital to everything important in education and is carried in the heart and mind long after the residency ends.

AV: In the course of your career, you have reached thousands of students as a teaching artist. What is special about the work you do with Just Buffalo? What have been highlights for you?

Robbins: There are highlights every week: The special needs kids who write better than honors students, the selective mutes who first speak out in poetry (every TA has these stories), the third-grader who wrote like a Zen monk about the quality of emptiness, the macho boy who praised his mother in poetry, the shy kids who get up and SING their poems (it happens once a year), the teens who tell their coming out stories with courage and grace, the refugees who write clear-eyed about what they have seen and what they find here, the students who become teachers and invite me back to their classrooms, the student (you!) who grows up to be a powerful teaching artist, and the fifth grade girl who wrote last month about pain and hurt but still knew “how to spell Happiness/ with just four letters.”

AV: Has there been a connection between your own development as a poet and the work you do in the classroom?

Robbins: A strong one. Sometimes I actually quote lines of theirs in my own poems. More important, they ground me in this city and region, and challenge me to write ever more expansively, fearlessly, as they do.

AV: Why is the work you do important in today’s high tech world?

Robbins: Language is power, and poetry is the original and the best distillation of that power. Before you move about in the high tech world, you have to know how to articulate who you are, what you want, and what is important in life; you have to know how to look at situations from many different angles.. The way poetry is written, read, and invited also teaches us about silence and stillness, the very ground of creativity.

AV: How would you like to see Just Buffalo’s Writers Corps continue to engage with youth across Western New York? What hopes would you have for the Education program’s future?

Robbins: Ideally, the Writers Corps would be imbedded in every school, every week of every year.

More realistically, I hope they continue to think outside the school walls to engage with hospital staff and patients, treatment centers, immigrations centers, the police, fire and Coast Guard communities, city and county governments, and so on.

One of the most innovative programs from the 80s involving a Writers Corps member, Gerldine Wilson, was called the Dandelion Project. Gerldine worked with a Harvard researcher/lawyer to bring together three groups traditionally suspicious of each other: social service workers, social services recipients, and legal services lawyers. She had them write poetry together! Prejudices dropped immediately, each group was humanized through poetry. They put out a newsletter of their poems and baked cookies for each other. One of the “welfare mothers” as they were called back then went on to law school!

AV: How can access to literary arts enrich the lives of students, their families, and the local community?

Robbins: Come to any Writing with Light opening celebration and watch the faces of the family members who see their children’s work professionally mounted. Look at the school board members, the politicians, the eternally unjaded arts education workers, the people who’ve come in off the streets, and see their wonder. Who knew?

AV: Anything else you’d like to share?

Robbins: Do whatever you can to support Just Buffalo’s Writers in Education program. It may be less visible than other programs, but it has been going on for thirty years in more schools, basements, hospitals, and community centers than you can imagine. The writers who do this work are dedicated, open-hearted, imaginative, passionate people. Most of them, not as old or lucky as I, give up vacation time, or scramble for other work, or rearrange their own scholarly schedules, for the chance to spend a week or two encouraging magic. I promise you not one of them thinks of it as a job. If one of your children took part in a program, you know. If they haven’t yet, meet with their school staff and make it happen.

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