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Family, friends help memorialize late Sayreville teacher’s ‘Poem of the day’ in book

The work of an East Brunswick resident and former teacher in the Sayreville School District has been memorialized in a poetry collection.

“My Classroom Poems for Young Children!” is a collection of the poems by Michele Kilian, who died in January at 71 after a two-year battle with cancer. The book also features poems and illustrations by her family and friends and has a total of 206 poems. All profits from the sale of the book will be donated to St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

“Michele Kilian was an amazing friend, person and teacher who made a difference in the lives of many children, as she did in mine,” said Gail Semeniak, who knew Kilian for 50 years. “It was a privilege to work on this book to both honor her and raise money in her name for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.”

A resident of East Brunswick, Kilian was a first and second grade teacher in the Sayreville School District for 39 years until her retirement. She taught at the Jesse Selover School from her first 10 years and at the Woodrow Wilson Elementary School for 29 years.

During her teaching career, Kilian would write poems at the start of each class for her pupils. Known as “Poem of the Day” and “The Morning Poem,” the daily poems became a popular routine. The poems were handwritten on 4-by-6 [inch] notecards and organized by categories such as holidays and seasons.

It is believed Kilian began the activity at the Selover school in 1979, her fifth year of teaching. New poems were presented before pupils each day at the Wilson school when she was transferred in 1984.

After Kilian’s death, her husband Lou Kilian reached out to family and friends about publishing her poems and using them as a teaching tool. They worked on identifying which poems were written by her and which were by other authors, keeping the original poems for the book.

The illustrations for the book were provided by Patricia Kilian, her sister-in-law, and her longtime friend Barbara Damiano.

“Michele loved her work and her students,” Patricia Kilian said. “Her love of nature, animals, travel and family all comes across in her poems. The sunshine Michele brought into all of our lives radiates in her writings. How I would have enjoyed having her as my teacher when I was her students’ age. We miss her so much, I couldn’t have asked for a better sister-in-law.

“Losing her is difficult, but it was comforting and an honor to collaborate with the team under Lou’s leadership to help make a tribute to Michele in the form of this book based on her teaching method with benefit to St Jude Children’s Hospital,” she said.

While working on the book, Lou Kilian contacted his friend and former co-worker Ellen Haring for assistance. A poet herself, Haring contributed her own poem to the book and helped the team get in contact with Jaye Medalia, a publisher in New York City. Medalia was subsequently hired to help design and publish the book.

“When Michele passed in January, Lou asked if I would consider working with his team on a tribute book,” Haring said. “I was both humbled and honored and readily agreed. I was blown away by the poems Michele wrote for her students. They were short, to the point, very cleverly delivered and perfectly geared to her target group, first and second grades.

“I’ll admit I struggled to write with the same directness and simplicity, but I was fortunate to receive a lot of help and support from other members of the team,” she continued. “Hats off to each and every one of Michele’s family and friends who worked on this project. Their selfless dedication makes it patently obvious how much they loved and admired her.

“Donating the profits to St. Jude Research Hospital was just icing on the cake. I am proud to have contributed to this very worthy endeavor.”

Also involved in the project were Barbara Damiano’s husband John, who wrote poems; Kilian’s sister Marlena Wornowicz; and Kilian’s brother-in-law Tom Wornowicz, who did the liaison publishing work with Medalia.

“I believe what is most important is how much Michele loved teaching and always looked for a way to make the learning experience exciting and fun for young children,” Marlena Wornowicz said. “I knew she wrote poems for her classes, but I did not know how much the children looked forward to it until we started getting feedback from them after publishing the book. When her husband suggested putting a book together, her family and friends loved the idea and it became a labor of love.

“Being a private and humble person, Michele may not have gone for the idea at first. However, I do feel confident in the fact that all proceeds are being donated to St. Jude Children’s Hospital, which would certainly make her proud and happy. She dealt with her cancer so bravely and never wanted her loved ones to worry about her. The fact that children suffer with cancer and that St. Jude helps these families at no cost to them, is a cause she would love to help support with this book.”

In working on the book, Tom Wornowicz noted he discovered Kilian’s ability to communicate with her pupils.

“Every day during the school year, Michele heard and understood the voices, sounds, mispronunciations and inflections of over 20 first and second graders,” he said. “As adults and parents, we may be exposed to these voices of our children for maybe two or three years at most. Thus, as we composed our poems, many of them fell by the wayside.

“Michele had 39 years’ experience and understood the ‘language’ of a seven- and eight-year-old,” Wornowicz continued. “The poems she composed were on that level. It was written like a very, very smart child. Not complicated, not inspirational, with deep meanings to contemplate. They were short, sweet, fun and educational, as was the goal. Not an easy task for the inexperienced.”

Wornowicz described the book as a tribute to Kilian.

“This is a tribute to an artist who, for many years, crafted masterpieces unrecognized in daily life, just doing her job like we all do,” he said. “Now, after her passing, we realize what we lost, in what she left behind. We compiled these poems and added illustrations for enhancement of the book. It is not about poems Michele left behind, but [poems] she forwarded students, memories and wisdom that were inspired by her.”

Meghan Miller Megowan, a former pupil, and her sister and mother will be donating a copy of “My Classroom Poems for Young Children!” to every classroom at the Wilson school in tribute to Kilian. Lou Kilian will also be donating a copy of the book to every classroom at the Saint Bartholomew’s School in East Brunswick.

“Michele had an enormous impact on her students,” Lou Kilian said. “I received lots of cards, notes and emails from former students, all of them telling me how sorry they are, how they loved her and proclaimed her as their favorite teacher.

“I can’t believe how, after all these years, these students remembered and cherished her as their teacher. They were in Michele’s class 40 to 50 years ago. Many fondly remembered the ‘Poem of the Day,’ or ‘The Morning Poem,’ depending on who remembered what.

“Two former students wrote their own poems as a tribute to Michele after she passed and they are included in the book. Another former student who had a difficult home life reached out to me just recently to share the positive impact Michele’s kindness had on him, a memory he carries with him today after over 40 years and he even keeps a note she wrote to him in second grade.

“I believe this book will be a great teaching tool for teachers to have in their teaching toolbox,” he said.

“My Classroom Poems for Young Children!” can be purchased online at: https://www.amazon.com/My-Classroom-Poems-Young-Children/dp/057829852X.

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