Bringing Poetry to Illinois’s Young Writers

2023 Workshops With the Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards

Young family members of 2023 Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Award winners enjoying the arts and crafts table credit GlitterGuts

By Meredith Nnoka, Community Educator

Read Time 5 minutes
July 10, 2023

Find your voice, hone your craft, express your creativity.

For this year’s Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards (GBYPA), an annual poetry competition for K-12 students across Illinois, Illinois Humanities set a goal of making the contest accessible to as many students statewide as possible.

With our goal in mind, we hit the road to spread the word about GBYPA around the state. Alongside several organizations around Illinois—including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Young Chicago Authors, the King Branch of Chicago Public Library, and the Midwest Writing Center—we brought young writers hoping to submit their poems to this year’s contest together in person for a series of writing workshops.

Throughout the seven-year history of the contest at Illinois Humanities, we’ve seen the hard work and creativity of students and teachers around the state who’ve shown us time and time again why youth poetry matters. Illinois’s young writers comprise a dynamic, diverse, and hugely talented group of creative thinkers who make our state a better place to live every day. 

We also know that behind every student are the passionate and dedicated educators who inspire them.

Here’s a quick recap of our 2023 workshops...


Working with the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), which houses the Gwendolyn Brooks collection in their archives, we hosted a workshop at the Independent Media Center in Urbana. Renowned poet and children’s literature author Janice Harrington took students through a series of writing prompts and activities inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry, generating a range of creative responses to Brooks’s work. Students were also treated to a portable display of papers and materials from the Gwendolyn Brooks collection, along with historical context from UIUC archivists.

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Chicago Public Library: King Branch

Teacher and Odyssey Project faculty member Lucy Biederman took students on a writing journey at the King Branch of the Chicago Public Library, focusing specifically on the sonnet form. Lucy began by providing workshop participants with a “freewriting menu” then introduced students to sonnets by Gwendolyn Brooks, Terrance Hayes, and William Shakespeare as examples to pull from. Work by these poets became a jumping-off point for students, allowing them to experiment with a new form while learning from poets who have mastered it.

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Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice

In keeping with our goal to reach every possible student, we collaborated with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice to bring workshops to two Illinois Youth Center (IYC) detention facilities, IYC Chicago and IYC St. Charles. As the workshop leader, I led students through a discussion of two ekphrastic poems (poetry written about works of art) and a writing activity to create our own poems inspired by Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series. Though some students chose to write in response to Weems’s iconic photo series, others wrote about their experiences with incarceration and what awaited them on the outside. Students came ready to discuss their perspectives on poetry over pizza and soda, and together we challenged each other to put our authentic selves on the page.

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Young Chicago Authors

Our community partners at Young Chicago Authors hosted an evening workshop led by poet and teaching artist C. Lofty Bolling. Lofty brought poems by Gwendolyn Brooks (“The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith”) and Nikki Giovanni (“1619 Jamestown (but not only) An Answer to the New York Times”) to inspire students to write a poem from the personified perspective of one of their favorite places. Giving voice to a specific location was a particular specialty of Gwendolyn Brooks, including in her famous 1968 poem “In the Mecca,” which details life in Chicago’s Mecca Flats apartment complex. Lofty’s workshop brought special attention to Brooks’s skillset while nurturing a similar gift in young writers.

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Midwest Writing Center

Midwest Writing Center Director and poet Ryan Collins brought a range of prompts to students of all ages in two back-to-back weekend workshops. Drawing inspiration from Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry, Ryan encouraged students to “explore poems that create a certain magic where the language transforms a large thing into something small and personal or takes a small thing and expands it into something large and universal.” Ryan’s prompts encouraged students to envision new possibilities and explore new heights with their writing, asking students, “Have you ever wanted to be someplace you couldn’t be?” or, “Think about a time you had to say goodbye to someone you care about.”

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Thank you to all our workshop leaders and organizers who made this incredible roster of events possible. We’ve been so lucky to collaborate with each of them, and we look forward to fruitful partnerships going forward.

Wherever you are in 2024, we encourage you or your K-12 student to keep an eye out for future GBYPA opportunities for young Illinois poets. It’s sooner than you might think!

Save the date for the Poetry Awards Ceremony happening in Chicago at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts on Saturday, September 9, 2023 from 1:00-3:00 p.m.

Illinois Humanities presents the annual Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards competition for K-12 poets to find their voice, hone their craft, and express their creativity in honor of the youth poetry awards that Ms. Brooks ran from 1969-2000.

Submissions for our 8th annual Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards will begin this fall. 

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About the Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards

This annual competition honors the legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks and the creativity of K-12 writers in Illinois by creating a platform for the next generation of poets to share their voices and develop their craft. Submissions open in November and awards are announced the following summer. Winners receive a prize package and are invited to celebrate at an awards ceremony in Chicago.

Learn More