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AUBURN — Toryn Reed tore away from the bleachers once her name was called at a poetry event Wednesday.

Other children in the audience exploded into applause as Toryn, 9, confidently strutted toward poet Heidi Nightengale to read her poem in the gym of the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Auburn. Reed turned a classic nursery rhyme staple on its head with her poem, "A Big Disagreement."

"Mary had a little lamb, his fleece as white as snow, why was his fleece white? He jumped in mud, and turned brown, it's just a poem, so you know what? Never mind," Toryn read as the crowd laughed.

Toryn was one of more than 40 students of various ages who unleashed their original work at the poetry reading. The event was organized by Nightengale and the center. The undertaking began once Nightengale received a $2,500 grant from the Finger Lakes Arts Council. Since early March, Nightengale had been running poetry workshops at each of the center's after school program locations, helping students learn about poetry and revise their work.

After winning the grant, Nightengale sought out the center for the project due to the center's "mission to enrich the students' after school lives," and their "protocol and flexibility to do it in an environment where kids are having fun."

Nightengale, who also teaches at the SUNY Empire State College location at Cayuga Community College's Auburn campus, had been impressed by the students while working with them. She wanted to help the students improve their poetry skills and introduce them to "the power of poetry," to help see they could seriously pursue poetry if they choose to.

"I also just wanted to give them an opportunity for a singular moment of pride in their work," she said.

Nightengale said she believes most children seldom get moments to be "the star," and be encouraged to start or continue a passion, so she wanted to rev up and encourage the students' creative impulses. She said she made efforts to spend time with each student and gently help them, such as encouraging them to choose stronger words for their work.

Center program director Brandon Wakeham, who had previously been one of Nightengale's students, had nothing but praise for the project, saying his former teacher is a "professional."

At the event, the majority of the students who wrote prose performed with Nightengale by their side. Students took to the microphone with words on topics ranging the gamut from bugs to the video game "Fortnite" to social protests. Student King Ellinger performed a snow-themed poem.

"A snowy day is like magic," he said.

After King, 7, passed the microphone, he said he enjoyed the poetry workshops.

"It was fun because I was learning about it," King said.

After the event was done, Nightengale and Wakeham praised the students' abilities, saying many students who originally didn't plan on performing decided to go up in front of their peers.

Toryn said she had written her own poetry before the workshops, but knowing others had the same interest made her more comfortable.

"I sometimes need a way to express my feelings to the people here," Toryn said.

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.


Education Reporter