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A middle school English teacher in southwest suburban Plainfield is spreading the life of poem.

Jennifer Gruca, an 8th grader teacher at John F. Kennedy Middle School, uses poetry as a tool for each of her students to see their own vulnerability. Gruca, who also leads the school’s Poetry Club, is WGN’s Teacher of the Month.

Jennifer Gruca

Sponsor and attorney Ken Allen awarded Gruca and the school $1,000.

Teaching for more than 15 years, Gruca remembers a time when reading wasn’t her passion.

“I was a reluctant reader,” she said. “I didn’t really find a book that I loved until college.”

The written word moved her. Now, whether in her classroom or ZOOM, Gruca says she focuses more on the topics and people her students can connect with the most.

“I feel like you have to find the poetry within you in order to appreciate the poetry that’s outside of you,” Gruca said. “So I’m hoping what they wrote about themselves using themselves as the textbook that actually unleashes something for them to be inspired by others.”

Neimantas Zonys is one of the students inspired by the process. It’s called “We Are the Future.”

Neimantas Zonys

“I started writing it and I was like ‘wow,’ this actually helps me,” he said. “If I get it on paper and I write and if I even speak it in the mirror to myself, it actually helps me get through things.

“I learned so much. I think I’ve never learned so much in a class before.”

Now a ninth-grader, Neimantas had Ms. Gruca during a tumultuous time. But her impact was so strong in a year for everyone that was filled with strife. At 15 years old, he says she changed his life..

And encouraged him to write.

“Ms. Gruca made me better,” he said. “Ms. Gruca just made me a better person overall and I wanted to put all of the things she made me into a book.”

Gruca tells WGN that helping her students is “incredibly motivating.”

“I think that’s what I love about this job the most,” she adds. “They teach me more than I feel like I  teach them. We facilitate a space for them to write and to read and be inspired but a lot of times I’m learning right along with them and I think that’s what it’s supposed to be.”