LONG BEACH — Most members of Marlene Callanan's fourth-grade class watch MTV.
Like millions of other youngsters, they like to groove on the rock videos that have brought revolution to the pop art world. Like nearly their whole generation, in fact, they generally prefer watching a good video to reading a good book. Or writing one, for that matter.
Jack Grapes, a professional poet and actor from West Hollywood, decided to take advantage of that. Working with teachers and administrators at College Intermediate School, Grapes developed an unusual and innovative program. It's called PTV, for Poetry Television. And its purpose is to woo children back to the written word through the technology with which they are most familiar.
"Television has become more important to them than anything else," said Roger Schickler, program facilitator at the school, an inner-city magnet campus for 9- to 11-year-olds interested in the arts. "They go home and spend so much time watching TV that we may as well use that."
Funded by a $12,000 grant from the private California Educational Initiative Fund, the project involves taping the school's 300 students reading their own poetry in a production that will eventually resemble one of the popular rock video offerings on MTV.
"I think it's an extremely creative idea," said Harry Handler, former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District and one of several professional educators who evaluated the project's initial grant proposal. Although there are other programs in the state involving poetry, Handler said, he is not aware of any combining poetry and video in this way.
"When you consider the environment in which young people are presently growing up and the exposure they have to video," he said, "you are using a means they feel comfortable with to stimulate interest in what I hope will continue to be one of the basics of our studies in fine arts and literature."
Among Callanan's fourth-graders, fine arts and literature took the form of youngsters reading their poems in front of whirring video cameras operated by their peers.
'People Don't Think'
"The crook broke my window," read Heather Winn, 9. "The dog just went to the bathroom. People don't think."
Intoned Timothy LaRosa, also 9: "I see a boy flying a kite and I hear a man talking. Never in my life, I have been very happy. I sometimes feel I'm dirt."
Looking like pint-sized professionals, the poets' classmates acted as directors and prompters during the taping. According to Grapes, the poetry will eventually be combined with taped student dance and music performances, as well as dramatic sequences illustrating the words in much the same way that music is illustrated on MTV.
The final product, Grapes said, will be shown at an assembly of students and parents in June. In addition, he said, the students are producing another tape to document the project itself for future use in staff training.
"At the core of the poetry are powerful feelings," said Grapes, 45, who visits the school once a week to instruct the students in poetry and help them with their tapings. Another poet, Lori Cohen, comes once a week, too, but on a different day. "When children learn they can express themselves," Grapes said, "it raises their self-esteem."
Teachers say they have already noticed an increased interest among the students in reading. "I see them going to the library and checking out poetry books to share with each other," Callanan said.
Although some students were initially inhibited by concerns with grammar, punctuation and rhyme, she said, much of that has been overcome by Grape's emphasis on content rather than form. "They're learning to feel more free, to be more expressive," she said. "Before, when you said, 'Write a poem,' they would just clam up. Now I even see children who don't have large vocabularies writing."
And indeed, many of the young poets ascribe a significance to what they are doing well beyond its immediate impact on their habits of reading and writing.
"It makes other people see the way you really are instead of just a plain old school kid," said Brianna Nunn, 10, the author of a poem called "Feelings I Have Inside."
Said classmate Genevieve George: "This is better than MTV because you can relate. It's kids just like you."