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Serving: IA

Giving voice to science issues

Courtesy of Water Rocks Students from Western Hills 5th Grade in West Des Moines
SHARING POETRY: Students from Western Hills Elementary School’s fifth grade in West Des Moines, Iowa, take part in the Spoken Earth program. This spoken-word program allowing the students to give voice to what they learn about the environment during the Water Rocks program.
Water Rocks! program turns to spoken-word poetry to allow student expression to grow.

The Water Rocks! program has struck a positive chord with teachers and students around the state with its Spoken Earth program launched early in 2021. Built around the concept of encouraging young people to express their thoughts and feelings about environmental subjects such as water quality, biodiversity and natural ecosystems, Spoken Earth has expanded the reach of Water Rocks by moving out of the science classroom and into language arts and other subject area classes. As the name implies, Spoken Earth workshops open the world of the spoken-word form of poetry as an avenue of artistic expression to students.

Offered in virtual and in-person formats, the workshops have drawn nearly 2,400 participants and were lauded for combining science learning with artistic expression. Students from fifth through 12th grades participated in some 50 workshops, and the Water Rocks team continues to develop exciting content and programs that explore different veins of the spoken-word format.

“Spoken Earth is poetry for the planet, combining the science Water Rocks is known for with the creative art of poetry,” says Nathan Stevenson, visual outreach specialist and conservation educator with Water Rocks. “I’ve been consistently impressed with the creativity and eagerness to share original poems that we see in each workshop. These young people have something to say and are excited to use their voices to speak up for change and for the Earth.”

Putting the program to work

Karen Downing, a language arts teacher at Valley High School in West Des Moines, brought the Spoken Earth workshop to her Encore classroom. Encore is a schoolwide program whereby teachers can offer learning opportunities to any interested students, regardless of whether they are enrolled in a specific class. Downing was intrigued by the chance to expose students to a combination of poetry and science.

“We need to be doing more of this type of integration of art and science — and with Spoken Earth, the synthesis was already happening,” Downing says. “Many of the kids who participated in this Encore session were science-oriented, and the structure of the workshop made it easy for them to quickly grasp the environmental content, but it also allowed them the freedom to apply their own creativity.”

Downing was also delighted to reconnect with Emmett Phillips, a member of the workshop team and former student of hers at Valley High School. In addition to his work with Water Rocks, Phillips operates Speak Your Peace, an Iowa-based education and consulting service dedicated to engaging the public in the transformative power of art.

The Spoken Earth workshops follow a simple format that kicks off with a spoken-word piece and a brief introduction to this powerful art form. Next, the team delivers science-based material regarding water quality, natural resources and other environmental topics. Students are then given time to create their own poetry, and time is reserved for them to perform it for the class.

Enhanced engagement

“The transformation from reticence to excitement is one of my favorite things in this workshop,” Stevenson says. “At the start we see skepticism, but it is overcome by the chance to be heard about things important to them. We typically see 75% of the students wanting to share their poems. This is both a testament to the power of their voices, and the supportive environment that encourages taking the risk and sharing their feelings aloud.”

Blythe Stanfel, also at Valley High School, brought the workshop in for two sections of her creative writing course which include students from 10th through 12th grades. Spoken-word poetry is a part of her curriculum, so the students were already familiar with the form, but she was very pleased to see how eager they were to create and perform for their peers. She notes that the program was informative and entertaining as well as short and sweet — making it a good fit for teachers working with poetry or science.

“Each student wrote an original poem on a theme of conservation or water use in Iowa,” Stanfel says. “It was neat to see them get into it, and I was very pleased that so many of them were inspired to write and express their feelings.”

“Spoken Earth has been a successful addition to the Water Rocks portfolio of outreach and education programming, and we are pleased with the outcomes and the opportunity to bring the program to schools across the state,” Stevenson says.

In addition to the school workshops, Water Rocks is hosting the Spoken Earth Poetry Slam on April 22. Details will be available through social media channels, newsletters, and at

Staudt is director of Water Rocks and a conservation outreach specialist with Iowa Learning Farms. Water Rocks is Iowa’s unique, award-winning statewide youth water education program. Through a combination of STEM and the arts, especially music, Water Rocks educates, challenges and inspires young people toward a greater appreciation of our state’s water, soil and other natural resources. Partners of Water Rocks include Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Section 319 of the Clean Water Act), Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and personal gifts of support.


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