Seniors Jordan Snow and Maggie Helmke sat at the front of a weekly poetry seminar in Graham Memorial Hall on a recent Wednesday evening, not as eager students but as teachers.
The course “Food, Family, and Forehead Kisses: The Study of the Poetry of Community,” is designed and led by Snow and Helmke and is one of 15 courses being taught through Honors Carolina’s C-START program this spring.
The program, which stands for Carolina Students Taking Academic Responsibility through Teaching, was created by students over a decade ago and allows undergraduates to build and teach a course during the spring of their senior year.
Students submit a course proposal in the late spring of their junior year. The following fall, as an independent study class, they plan the course with the support of a faculty advisor. Each course taught through the program has been novel in its own way, says Jim Leloudis, the Peter T. Grauer Associate Dean for Honors Carolina and director of the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence.
“We’re looking for students who are going to develop a course that addresses an issue, concern or topic that perhaps isn’t otherwise addressed in the curriculum,” says Leloudis. “It’s about opening up a new teaching space.”
Leloudis says that the program serves as an excellent capstone experience for students’ undergraduate careers.
“I think it’s great to watch students become practitioners in their disciplines,” he says.
Helmke and Snow met in 2018 in an intermediate poetry class and quickly became close friends. Last spring, they decided that they would make the perfect poetry instructor duo and enlisted English and comparative literature professor Michael McFee – someone who had guided both of their Carolina poetry careers – to serve as the faculty advisor.
“[C-START is] the epitome of the pleasure of teaching at Carolina because you have two really intelligent, engaged students who want to do something above and beyond,” McFee says.
Helmke and Snow designed the course inspired by the sense of heavy loss experienced over the past couple of years.
“This is a time of human history that is not really high on excitement and joy, shall we say? I think we all need things to lift us. It was clear to me that the prospect of teaching this class was a joy to them,” says McFee.
Snow and Helmke asked themselves, “If we’re missing community, what are pillars that we really think hold our community and make it stable?” They settled on the principles of food, family, love and loss and carefully designed the syllabus to move thematically from loss to restoration.
Helmke says the opportunity to design this course has been incredibly personal. She is the daughter of Tampa brewmasters and cooks, so the interdisciplinary study of food is something she values personally and academically.
“I think that this opportunity gave me the ability to create something that’s uniquely ours,” says Helmke. “It speaks to both me and Jordan’s passions and showcases that to others in a way that I have not felt like I’ve been able to do.”
Both Snow and Helmke said that each week their students continue to amaze them with generative conversations and courage, as the poetry course is many students’ first.
“I just really love seeing the bravery of people putting their work out there because it can be intimidating,” Helmke says. “That’s one of the main reasons why we wanted to teach a poetry class that’s low stakes.”
During one class period, Snow turned quotes from the students’ discussion into a cento poem — a poem that draws its language from other authors. Snow says when they shared the poem with the class, many students were pleasantly surprised by their own contributions.
“It was really sweet to be able to have almost a full-circle moment,” Snow says. “You’re already speaking poetry before you’re even trying to write it.”
The class itself meets once a week for a pass/fail grade, and Helmke says many students have said it’s their favorite course in their schedule. McFee credits that to the duo’s passion as instructors.
“Because of their passion for the subject, they want to share that passion, information, knowledge, expertise with fellow students. I think it’s wonderful to be taught by a peer,” says McFee.
McFee says this program also facilitates a space for students to seriously consider teaching after graduation. That’s the case for Helmke, who also currently volunteers at a Chapel Hill middle school and says she feels really called to teaching.
“We need teachers,” says McFee. “We need good, committed teachers at every level.”
The last line from Snow’s cento echoes that: “We give what we grow.”