Outside Voices: Ms. Verdiva Thompson


Outside Voices is an interview series in which Community-Word Project catches up with community members.

Two women on split computer screen conducting an interview against plain white backgrounds.

On this installment of Outside Voices, CWP Board Member Lori Bullock speaks with 36-year veteran teacher, Ms. Verdiva Thompson, and the often profound impact that arts education has had on her students, her teaching, and P.S./M.S. 279, Captain Manuel Rivera, Jr. School, Bronx, NY.

[Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.]

Lori: It’s so lovely to meet you. I’m a relatively new board member [at CWP]. And I was so happy when Michelle said it would be lovely if you can interview Verdiva especially as we’re honoring P.S. 279 at our Spring Benefit. I know you’ve been a long-standing teacher, educator, and mentor of that community so how appropriate it would be to speak with you today. I’m so excited and it’s lovely to meet you.

So if you can first tell me, you know, for the record, your full name and your title is an educator and obviously the school that you’re associated with.

Verdiva: My name is Verdiva Thompson. I’m from P.S./M.S. 279. I’ve been there over twenty years. I’ve been an educator for over thirty-six years now. I have become acquainted with Community-Word Project for 20 years now. A great program.

I was fascinated by the way the [CWP] Teaching Artist were able to come in and, you know, just bring out a light in our students. We work in an urban community where students usually rely on sports and things like that to find their inner voices. But we always have this small bunch of students that really are not into sports. And they always seem to be that forgotten bunch.

And Community-Word Project, when they came in, they gave everyone a chance, to give them a sense of purpose and voice. So, yes, I really enjoyed working with Community-Word Project.

Lori: That’s wonderful. Let’s talk about the collective power of working with CWP as a partner, and sharing the vision to further enhance the community of students that are often considered on the margin or don’t have as many opportunities as private school students being that they’re in the public school sector.

What are some of the benefits that you have seen with the Teaching Artists and the programs at CWP, offering the students and enhancing their level of education in terms of art?

Verdiva: In terms of art and enhancing the students, we have students that always feel that they can’t or they just are not fitting in. But with CWP, it allows students to not only find their voice, but it also helps them with their writing skills. It helps them with their reading skills. It helps them to find that, like I said, purpose.

It gave certain students confidence because especially, you know, in poetry, in photography, you don’t always have to be right. You just have to be present. You give yourself a sense of purpose. You give yourself a sense of voice. You give yourself a sense of community because now you are part of this collective that’s giving you a chance to do something.

You’re not sitting on the side. You don’t have to be the cheerleader. You are a part of, which is always great. That kid that always feels they don’t have nothing to contribute is now taking on the role as not only part of, but part of the leadership.

And that’s a beautiful thing that I think Community-Word…the Teaching Artists that come in, they always seem to capture those students to be a part of, you know, the culminating project, but then also the finishing product.

They always want to be like, I want to show, I want to say, I want to do. So yes, I always champion for Community-Word Project because they always seem to find a way to tap into those students. And it, you know, it gives them that hands-on, whether, you know, we’re painting the murals, whether we’re editing poems, whether we’re just, you know, revising a little something.

Community-Word Teaching Artists always find a way to get those students involved and excited about their own words.

Lori: That’s amazing. What has been your experience in seeing the change or the shift in these students when they get involved with the arts, whether it’s writing or painting murals. Or taking their turn at creating a poem and reciting it and finding out they have a skill to tell stories and narratives through poetry? Have you seen the shift in their excitement in their faces and their ability to be present and say, “Hey, I can do this?” What is that like as an educator seeing that happen?

Verdiva: To me, it’s pure joy because as an educator, you know, we are confined to certain, you know, roles. We have to teach them about writing…telling them, oh, you have to put that period there. You have to start with that capital. But with Community-Word they have that freedom to express themselves. To find their own voice. To just be creative, to write off the margins, to fill up the whole page. You know, leave white space if they want to, make up a word, use whatever colors they want to. Those are the things that bring out the inner voices of students. That’s what Community-Word brings.

And then when we tell kids that, you know, on Wednesday Community-Word is coming, they light up. They’re ready. They know. They’re like, yeah, this is the time for me to show who I am. It’s like them going in that phone booth and turning from Clark Kent to Superman. Like, yes, this is my time to shine. I can be who I am. I’m that creative voice. I can add my words.

It’s just that transformation is wonderful because you can take that shy kid and bring them to the forefront or you could– take that kid that’s somehow overly aggressive, and now all of a sudden, they’re taking that and using it as a leader, being a helper, showing kids like, okay, you know, they usually be aggressive, but they’re using it now in a positive sense, in a leadership role.

Or, you know, you always have that kid that feels they don’t fit in, they don’t know where their group is, but then you find out they have this creative palette in them. So yes, Community-Word [Teaching] Artists find a way to really enhance those skills in these children. And I’ve seen it, it’s evident.

Lori: And let’s talk about the Teaching Artists themselves. Are you often kind of marveled at the skill level and acumen and artistic creativity that they bring to the table and they’re able to offer the students this toolbox of creativity to work with? Tell me how that’s actually affected the teachers who observe them and the students themselves.

Verdiva: The Teaching Artists, they do come with a plethora of skills and a variety of not just one fastest. So in my experience, I’ve had a chance to work with teaching artists such as, you know, Chad Frisbee, Kumar, Denise, Jess Levi. You know, these artists, they came with wealth: They knew how to interact with the children. They all had their own specialty, yet they knew how to complement each other, to bring out acumen in the children. And when they were in the room, they knew how to complement each other without stepping on each other’s toes. They knew how to go from photography to painting the mural. They knew how to go from the written word to verbal expression. So it was just a great balance of everything.

And they, you know, they show their own vulnerabilities to the students, which made the students more comfortable, especially for me because I was a middle school teacher. Middle school is the hardest because they’re on that cusp. “I want to be a baby, but yet I want to be, you know, the big kid too.” So they were able to help these middle school students transform and blossom. And find their awareness.

So by showing not only their skills as artists, but also helping our middle school students transform, whether it was the written word or the spoken word, whether it was painting the mural or just finding those leadership skills. That was a great complement.

And Teaching Artists always came prepared. They always came with a little something extra. And even if they brought in their own personal experience, the students were able to gravitate to it and learn from it.

Lori: I love that. And I can hear the excitement and the joy that you have in your heart and seeing all of this firsthand because I guess there is a definite shift of what happens…You use the word transformation when these students are in the pocket, so to speak, where they find their rhythm, they find their groove, and they suddenly spark.

What’s that like as an educator to watch, you know, from the outside looking in while the Teaching Artists engage the students and you see this middle school student that, you know, it’s a little difficult at times, doesn’t like to read or do their homework, and suddenly they are engaged and locked in and ready to go. And then, do you see them bring that same intensity and focus and carry that through now to their studies.

I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about that because these are tools for life that we’re hoping that helps to set with the work of Community-Word Project.

Verdiva: Because of time I have those transformations happen. I’ve had students who didn’t like to write. I had students who didn’t like to share. So Community-Word would come in and, you know, you had that one [student] sitting in the corner who didn’t feel that, you know, this is dumb. And then they started to get involved and you saw that transformation and now they’re involved. They’re sharing their words. They’re interacting. And then, when Community-Word wasn’t there, that student is now raising their hand. They want to interact and now they’re taking part in group activity.

Yes, I’ve seen those transformations. Proud of those transformations. I take my hat off and applaud Community-Word for some of those transformations with those types of students.

And the fact that, even when Community-Word comes, they allow the teacher to become part of the activities. And we’re not just sitting on the sidelines, you know, we’re part of the activities as well. They allow us to write our own poems or interact. Now we’re the students as well.

So things like that. So it gives the children, you know, that vision like, “Oh, my teacher doesn’t know everything. They’re part of every, you know, they’re part of the activities as well.” So we’re just not sitting there. You know, they make us a part of, you know, the activities as well, which gives the students a different view of the educator.

So now the educator becomes a student, which makes the students want to become more of the learner.

Lori: That’s an interesting dynamic because I think lesson there is that there’s always something to learn and throughout life you’re always a student, you know, being observant, being open to learn new things and experience new things to expand, you know, your capacity to learn and, you know, which kind of just gives you a broader, you know, foundation to experience life and be confident and know more.

And I know you talked a little bit about yourself, you know, being provided the opportunity to also write poetry. I had an opportunity to connect with Craig Hayes, as you know, as our Deputy Director of External Affairs, and he had found a poem that you wrote a few years back, which I think is really, you know, triumphant and inspirational.

In this transformational sense that you spoke about, which provides a little bit of insight about you and how you are looked at in the world. Tell me a little bit about the inspiration when you decided to pen the poem, You May Write Me Down in History. And I know the first opening lines were, you know, you may write me down in history, you can say so many things. And let’s talk about those things that moved you to write that poem.

Verdiva: Yes, that was a couple of years back…We were actually trying to get the kids to view themselves, how people see them. Because, especially in that middle school, you know, they’re worried about how their friends view them. So that lesson was a beautiful lesson because we were more trying to get the kids to transition about how do you want the world to see you as you’re moving forward.

And yes, so as we were doing that and how you know I want them to express how you want people to remember you as you move forward because once, you know, middle schools is that transition into high school and to adulthood. So, yes, I feel I am somewhat of a poet. I do want my kids to definitely see me participate. And as I, you know, write my words, I always want to not pick my words carefully, but I want them to see how I express my voice. And when I express my voice, I want them to be clear that when I’m expressing my voice, I’m not only expressing my voice for myself, but those who will read these words.

Because you want to be remembered. You want people to know…this is how not only do I see myself reflected, but how I want people to reflect me as I go on in life. When we did those transitions and things like that, you know, that’s just the poem that it does resonate with me, but you want people to remember who you are. And that was just at one point in my life. So I would have to go back and revise…how people would now see me in history because that was definitely a few years back.

Lori: Sure. And even then at that time, even what you wrote might still reflect, you know, how people are where they are in their life today, where a student might be in their life today, where they can actually resonate or find some sort of, you know, parallel to what you wrote.

I mean, you know, I’m sitting here reading, you know, one of the lines in your poem, in the fourth stanza, and it says, “You may write me down in history as an educated fool /  as a lover of westerns and soaps / as a writer, a poet, a singer, and a gem,” which is really quite beautiful and lovely. Because it sort of encompasses all the things that are, you know, nonsensical or trivial, but all the beauty and the other things that you possess and are experiencing and bring to the world to shine, which I think is really quite beautiful for you know your students to see.

And it’s also the lesson of authenticity that you bring which helps them to be able to reflect inside and see themselves. I’d be curious to know when the students read some of your poetry, what they might have thought, or did you inspire them yourself, or did they say, “Hey, Ms. Thompson, look at you writing poetry!”

Verdiva: Yeah. They were a little surprised that I knew how to write poetry. Some of them were not, because on Fridays, we usually did like a free Friday where we chose separate activities. So we did listen to different type of music. Things like that. We went from jazz to rap to classical. They were very surprised that I did know some form of rap music. Poetry and things like that. I told them that poetry is a time for not only to be free in expression, but to be freely honest.

Lori: That’s really is it, to be freely honest. And I felt that and I read that and I said, you know, wow, that’s really, really beautiful. So, I think there are some amazing things that are going on, you know, and being inspired with the Teaching Artists at P.S. 279 and with the educators brought forth with the students and the Teaching Arts Project. So that’s a wonderful thing. I know you’ve been a part of that community for quite some time. And is it my understanding now that you’re serving as a librarian now?

That leads me to my next point, given the fact that we’re in a really interesting time, where libraries are challenged just from a school budget situation where they might even not have a library. And to sort of watch over the library, you know, manage the books, the ebb and flow of the books that are dispensed to the students, and not only that, but really what kinds of books are being scrutinized and offered to the students, and some of them may even be banned.

I’m not sure if you are experiencing that problem within your school, but as a librarian, do you think that also kind of hinders the learning process or the self-discovery of a student, a middle school student, when they’re trying to find their pathway in life.

Verdiva: Definitely. So, yes, I’ve taken on the role of librarian in the school in between two of my 6th grade classes. So, um, yes, when we do the ordering for the library, I do champion and fight for a lot of diversity. I want the books in the library to represent the population of our school.

So, even without picture books, but definitely without middle school books, I want books that not only represent what our students look like, the authors look like, but also the content. Things that our students may be experiencing or have experienced. So, yeah. I champion those books, so it lets the students know you’re not alone. This is not a one-deal situation. People do go through this. This is not something that’s unheard of.

So there are books in our library that focus on children living in temporary housing,  students that are facing immigration issues. Students that are…well, families that have what they have called “extra families”, the family that’s sleepin’ on the cot. I have a book that depicts, you know, Johnny has new brothers and sisters, ’cause, you know, people do have those step-brothers and sisters and we have to learn how to get along with them. Or, you know, I have books that, you know, kind of… pictures my two mommies. So things like that.

So we need to actually put these representations out there, especially at that transitional age, so students know how to handle it. So they know how to transition. We need to teach children tolerance, so we can train them or teach them how to be better adults in society. But if we keep these things back, or take these things away from them, they don’t know how to deal with it when it comes upon them. So the idea of banning books in my opinion is disgusting.

So we need to expose our children, just like we were.We were exposed to Little House on the Prairie,…we didn’t live on a prairie, but we were aware. So when we were introduced to these new things or new people, we were tolerant. When we were introduced to people of new religions, from new places, things like that, we were tolerant. 

If children were exposed to these things or children were aware of these things, we can combat all this bullying. We can combat all this unawareness. When these children go out into society, or just when they enter equity with each other, they would know how to act or be accepting of other people’s differences, because they have gotten those genuine lessons.

Definitely, and that’s what we need to do. That’s what school and teaching is about because a lot of times, parents don’t know how to address those issues. But if we give those, just those little nuggets to students and they go, “oh yeah, I learned something about that in school. Oh yeah I’ve heard about that.” They could know how to transition and they learn those little nuggets of tolerance. We can move on. We can, you know, the patchwork of society…that needs to be scaffolded all the way up.

Lori: Such powerful words. Really wonderful insight, Ms. Thompson. Underserved kids and urban communities have a particular life that they have to tackle, which contain life experiences that you just spoke about that many other children don’t necessarily have to face. And the significance of having books, having Teaching Artists, having discussions, talking about these type of things that affect this community of children is so incredibly, incredibly important.

Which is why one of the things when I was attracted to serving at Community-Word Project is really if you just take the first two words of the nonprofit, Community and Word, right?

First off, we’re already talking about community, a specific community, that we are trying to inspire and lead with radical love. Right? And then there is the Word which for me means the good word, the gospel, the truth, the authenticity and bringing that collective power together to inspire the students with the help of the Teaching Artists.

How have you seen the community collectively, the educational community in New York City, the parents, friends, and organizers, volunteers all working together to help serve in this greater purpose, you know, as an educator, specifically with working with Community WordProject and seeing how this has progressed at P.S. 279?

Verdiva: We just have our strong parents associations. They are very hands-on. We also have teachers that we do mentoring to a lot of our students, things like that. We try to build that community within the building. So the students know that we’re just not, you know, 8am to 3pm and then we forget about you.

We have programs that actually involve our parents. We bring our parents in for what we call a Tea and Talk Monthly, where we address issues that affect our community and our students. So they know that we are there for them as well as our students. So they know that we are a community.

So we try to build all this up. So we are trying to build with on, like you said, the word. So that is just not a word. There’s action that goes behind it. So they know that in building that community, we’re just not, you know, spouting out words. There is action that, you know, we are there to build on what we’re doing. So in order to build community, you just can’t build on word. You have to build on action. You have to get your hands dirty.

You have to be able to sit with it. You have to be able to follow through. So you just can’t say, well yeah, I’ll get…No, you can’t get back to me. You have to actually follow through, pick up that phone, make that phone call, make that time to see me at 2:15! Things like that. So in order to build that community, you actually have to be involved. So that’s P.S. 279, we try to, you know, do all of that. We try to bring the community in. We have, you know, after school programs, we have programs for our parents. So we try to really emulate that because, you know, everything takes a village.

Lori: That’s amazing to hear. And have you seen them notice the change in their children that have been under the tutorial guidance of the Teaching Artists associated with Community-Word Project? You know, whether they’re excitement, you know, seeing their art or seeing them take the time to sit down and write their poetry, you know. What is the feedback that you’ve gotten in terms of that input that you’re looking for with the parents?

Verdiva: Yes, over the years we have seen that, you know, excitement, but we do, you know, some believe we’ve seen more and more parents in attendance, especially when those younger kids or the older kids’ parents are very excited, parents are very surprised, especially when the older kids are able to write poetry. Parents are very surprised when they come and see the work that their younger kids have done on a mural.

You know, so things like that, parents are very excited to know that their children was actually involved and that their children took an active role in these activities. So when we tell them that, you know, we had teaching artists from outside come in and that their child participated….pleasantly pleased that, you know, their child wasn’t just sitting around, their child wasn’t, you know. They loved the fact that their child was able to do other activities just not sitting around all day doing the regular academic, that something else was offered to their child so their child could be creative and expressive.

So these are the things that parents are also looking for, because like you said before, you know, it’s not that we’re competing with, you know, the charter schools or other affluent neighborhoods. We need to offer students in urban communities more so they can express themselves. So they can [have] these activities that help them with their writing, with their mannerisms, with their expression, things like that. Not everybody’s gonna grow up to play chess or basketball or things like that.

Students need another outlet. So when we have the community artists come in, and they see these other activities, students invest. When you invest in a child, you get that profit back. That’s what Community-Word has offered these children and when it’s scaffolded up, you know, that bigger investment gets you that bigger profit.

Lori: And you get a return on your you know investment, you see the dividends. And what the students are turning out to be their pathway to going on to higher education and using the skills that they’ve learned you know as a student, you know, obviously at PS279 and also being enriched with the cultural art programs that Community-Word has offered. So this is all a kind of a wonderful thing.

And finally, as we wrap up the interview, we’re going to be honoring P.S.279 at our benefit this spring. What are some of the things that you would like to see moving forward with the success rate of the program or what we’re offering the students, knowing that you have seen the good work as a first person viewer, you’ve witnessed it.

Verdiva: Definitely to see it continue and to grow. Definitely want to be able to offer it to more students and for longer periods of time, not just quick semesters in succession, but definitely see if we can maybe collaborate with other entities to see if we can enlarge our reach because there are so many students who need that outlet.

We need, maybe we can, you know, have activities where we’re involving the parents. This way, there’s a collaboration. So these are the things, especially, you know, especially our students who are in temporary housing. Students’ parents who just need that cooperation, who knows how to interact with their own child. So these are the things that we need. I know some parents might think it’s wasteful, but these are the things that we need to learn how to connect, not only parent-child, but parent-child-school.

So these are the things that we really need to look at and to broaden in that word of community. So those are the things that would be beneficial with Community-Word and the Teaching Artist, even like little school events that we can showcase that not only the students did something, but the parents were involved.

Lori: Yes, like a participatory program with the students and the parents working on a project together, you know, so they can experience, yeah. Understood.

Verdiva: Things like that, just to show that, you know, we’re again, we’re just not word. We’re putting that action in. Yes, building that community, showing that authenticity that this is what we need. So, you know, those are the things that I would love to see, you know, that outreach to showing, you know, those basic things, those skills that these communities need so we can put those words into action.

Well, I think we have gotten some active interview Q&A within this particular exchange of ideas that we’ve had just now. I’m so very honored to have spoken to you today, Verdiva, and I hope we are able to connect further on other Community-Word Project events.

And I hope to stay in touch with you. So grateful for you, carving out a little time today. I’m going to let you get back to your day, but we will be in touch. I know Michelle says hello, as well as Craig does, so I will pass on your hello back to them. And thank you again for taking the time out and I hope to see you soon, probably at the benefit. 

Verdiva: Yes. Appreciate that.

Lori: Okay, have a wonderful day and thank you so much and we’ll be in touch. Okay? Okay, great. Lovely. Thank you so much. Take care now.

Verdiva: You too.