Rain Reveals the Creativity of Pittsburgh’s Kids

“Rain Poetry” project brings water-activated haiku written by schoolchildren to local walkways

May 3, 2024

If you happen to be walking in the rain in certain Pittsburgh neighborhoods this summer, you may find a surprise underfoot: haiku written by the communities’ children, painted on the ground in an invisible, water-resistant solution that is revealed when the surfaces get wet.The poems are the result of PA Humanities’ Rain Poetry project, which is working with children in the Garfield, Homewood/Brushton, and Northview Heights neighborhoods. The first installation will be revealed at Nelson Mandela Peace Park, with a celebration on May 8 from 4-6 p.m. 

Rain Poetry engages children from across Pennsylvania in a hands-on community poetry activity facilitated by local poets and teaching artists. The project launched in Philadelphia in 2023, with elementary school students from five neighborhoods learning about haiku then writing their very own poems. In the project’s Pittsburgh iteration, teaching artist Karen Howard is leading the workshops, while local muralists Max Gonzales and Shane Pilster, of Do What We Love, are designing the stencils to be used and overseeing the installation process.

The poems for the Nelson Mandela Peace Park installation were created by third-through fifth-graders at the nearby learning center Assemble. Written during a workshop on March 20, they reflect the center’s programming theme of this year: “the future.”

“I really enjoyed seeing the kids work together,” says Tany Haynes, an after school coordinator and educator at Assemble. “It was cool to see them take their own initiative and see their creativity come out.”

“It made me happy to write about how I felt. It was calming,” wrote one participant when asked to share feelings about the experience. Another offered, “I felt good plus awesome.”

At YouthPlaces in Northview Heights, the program held two workshops, working primarily with younger teens. The students chose the theme of “Northview Nights,” a response to stereotypes of their neighborhood as a dangerous, scary place to be, especially after dark. Their poetry answers this narrative with images of nighttime games, stargazing, cookouts, and peaceful slumber.

YouthPlaces site manager Leanna Lyle was heartened to observe the students off their phones, deeply engaging with each other and their task. “It was really nice to see them excited about creating these poems, even when they were very rowdy. If someone wasn’t in that space, you would have thought they were arguing, but they were just excited about getting their poems together and creating them.”

One participant echoed her sentiments, writing, “The way that the haiku made me feel is good, because we all worked together.”

Their poetry installation will be on Mt. Pleasant Road near the high rise in Northview Heights, with a reveal celebration on May 17.

A workshop for children 15 and older to be held on April 24 at YMCA Lighthouse in Homewood/Brushton will focus on cryptids (think Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, etc.), which the students have been studying in relation to storytelling in different cultures. The theme of their haiku will be “the secrets of Homewood,” and their poetry installation will be revealed in a celebration on May 22 in conjunction with their end-of-year showcase, featuring an outdoor festival with a stage, DJ, flea market, and more.  

“Rain Poetry is the most exciting project I have worked on in a very long time,” says teaching artist Howard, a retired 30-year veteran of Pittsburgh Public Schools and currently the coordinator of community outreach at Partnerships for the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project at the University of Pittsburgh. “I find it exciting because it is innovative, original and gives our youth autonomy. Everyone has a voice, and the opportunity to have these young people express themselves can be life-changing. I’m honored to be part of this ingenious project.” 

Howard is also a field supervisor for student teachers in early childhood education at Chatham University, a member of the Pittsburgh Poetry Society since 2018, and a fourth-year Madwoman in the Attic at Carlow University. Her work has appeared in the Poetic Classroom, Voices in the Attic and the Mennonite.  

“This project is kind of magical,” says Dawn Frisby Byers, senior director of engagement and content at PA Humanities, “not only because the invisible poems appear seemingly out of nowhere when it rains, but also because they draw out previously invisible experiences and create moments of unexpected communication – between, say, a young person discovering the power of self-expression and the neighbor out for a walk who suddenly encounters their words.”

The Rain Poetry project is made possible with the generous support of the Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Grable Foundation.

Examples of some of the haikus are below:
What will the future bring?
Nobody will know till then
I hope it is nice

– Miko H, 5th grade

We are the four friends
Eat ramen or face tickles
Together, we fly

– Lula S, 5th grade
– Aliana M, 4th grade
– Elise B, 5th grade
– Elijah H, 5th grade

My eyes keep closing
In my room lying in bed
Time to sleep, good night!

– Marlaya J, 14

The pig is lovely
The flower is big and bright
Pig hops on flower

– Da’lasia W, 1st grade
– Zoey H, 4th grade
– Emilia B, 5th grade

Cars cruising slowly
Looking at the stars and moon
Listening to crickets

– Zy’Onia, 13
– Taewoe, 13
– Ray, 13

Laughter in the night
As moths dance around porch lights
We got that on sight

– Zyanna J, 13

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