Malibu Fifth Graders on What ‘Life Is’

Poets and artists from the fifth grade class at Malibu Elementary School have their work on display Feb. 14–March 28 at the Michael Landon Center at Malibu Bluffs Park.

The following line of poetry is written from the perspective of some sort of animal, household object, plant or otherwise non- sentient being. Try to guess the narrator’s identity:

“I love to stay still and relax / But I scream in silence / When I see you walking to me with that trash / I try not to open my mouth / But you somehow always open my mouth.”

That line is from a poem called “Trash can RIGHTS!” by Malibu Elementary fifth-grader Brandon Rivas. Written from the perspective of a trash can, Rivas’ narrator wishes it was instead born a closet. 

If you liked that guessing game, there are dozens more short poems written from the perspective of all manner of objects, along with many others written directly from local fifth grader’s perspectives, each accompanied by artwork and knitted into a dazzlingly colorful quilt on display at Malibu Bluffs Park’s Michael Landon Center. This poetry collection and quilt are the product of a collaboration among Malibu Elementary fifth grade teachers Nancy Levy and Jill Matthews, former Malibu Poet Laureate Ricardo Means Ybarra, art teacher Nicole Fisher, local mother Stephanie Colvig, Kristin Riesgo and Jolynn Regan of the Malibu city staff, and, of course, the Malibu Elementary fifth graders. 

Means Ybarra and Levy started hosting poetry workshops as part of Malibu Elementary’s fifth grade curriculum almost five years ago; Means Ybarra himself has been teaching poetry to children for more than a decade. 

Each year, Means Ybarra leads the fifth graders in a set of four poetry workshops throughout the span of a month. He begins by introducing a theme or a prompt, then giving an example to draw students out. 

He often starts with an exercise called “Mystery Guest,” the same sort of riddle-like exercise demonstrated in Rivas’ trash can poem where the students take on a persona from which to write. Means Ybarra likes to share a poem written from the perspective of a jack-o-lantern, which concludes with the line, “to end the day full of light.”

Then, the students share and their classmates guess their personas. 

“The most fun is when you get the brave ones to read their poems for the rest of the class,” Means Ybarra said. “Pretty soon all they have to do is hear a couple other students read and then they want to read.”

In later workshops, Means Ybarra delves into more complex poetic devices, such as metaphor—”I like to tell them that metaphors are the secret sauce, the spicy salsa of good writing”—and helps them begin to edit their work. By the end of the month, the young poets have a couple of poems from which to choose to present at an event called a poetry slam. 

Usually, Levy told The Malibu Times, the school will hold a party with cookies in the auditorium, where parents are invited to hear their children read aloud. This year, of course, the slam and the workshops were all online. 

While Means Ybarra acknowledged that the online workshop format can sometimes be difficult—he’s had experiences at other schools where some students were too shy to show their faces on their Zoom screens—Malibu Elementary’s fifth graders really got into the workshops, despite being separated from their peers by screens. 

The enthusiasm shows in their poems, which range in tone from playful to urgent to hopeful. Matthews described the poems as “self-aware, showing a sense of maturity, looking beyond themselves and wanting to make the world a better place,” positing that fifth grade is the perfect age to do this type of work because students are on the cusp between childhood and teenagerhood, about to head into middle school—but not there quite yet.

“There was a really beautiful balance of thinking deeply and also finding humor in the world,” she added. 

This year’s poetry anthology loose theme was “Life Is,” which felt particularly profound during a school year in which students have continued to weather a pandemic and constant worry about rising environmental issues after coming off a summer that saw a landmark racial justice reckoning.

Levy highlighted Regan as “the cheerleader” for the project and described how Means Ybarra adapted the Zoom breakout room function to great workshop success. 

The final component of the project was the artwork. In past years, Means Ybarra said, the poets have made art to go alongside their poetry with the help of Malibu Elementary art teacher Nicole Fisher and, usually, a visiting artist. 

“This year, we couldn’t get together and we didn’t have money for a visiting artist. In fact, money was really tight,” Means Ybarra said. “Then, Nicole Fisher came up with this idea to do a quilt, so everybody got a square of cloth and you got to paint on it and everybody did it. All the teachers did it and the students did it and I did it and Jo Lynn did it.” 

Fisher and parent Stephanie Colvig, whom Means Ybarra said has been helping out since her own daughter was in Levy’s class some years ago, patched the squares together into the vibrant quilt on display now. Malibuites are welcome to go and admire it where it is displayed through the windows of the Michael Landon Center, every day through March 28.