National Poetry Writing Month Brings Student Stories to the Stage

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Winners of the March 2 poetry slam at Kirby Middle School and Wooddale Middle School stand with the Communities In Schools Site Coordinator at Kirby. From left to right: Vivian, Ms. Albonetti, Damya, Mr. Bridgeforth, Emma, Samone.

“My journey with poetry has changed me completely. I started off shy and scared to make eye contact when telling my truth,” reflected Damya Jefferson, an eighth grader at Kirby Middle School. Through writing and performing poetry, and through the support of the staff at Kirby, Damya has found her voice and a new confidence. Though nearly every English curriculum in America features a unit on poetry, at Green Dot, we provide students like Damya with additional outlets to use performance poetry (or spoken word) to pursue self-expression and personal growth. At many of our schools, teachers lead poetry slams or spoken word clubs, a blend of literature and performance that concludes with live competitive events.

Beyond Iambic Pentameter

This spring, students in Memphis from Kirby and Wooddale Middle School competed in a poetry slam where they shared original poems about their personal stories. The slam was organized by Communities In Schools of Tennessee at Memphis, who hoped the opportunity would promote literacy skills in alignment with Read Across America Day. They also wanted to give middle and high school students the opportunity to connect their poetry to the MLK50 Conference theme “Where Do We Go From Here," which reflected on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis.

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Site Coordinators Anna Albonetti and Marqita Thompson decided to collaborate to bring Wooddale and Kirby students together. “We had eight students from Kirby and Wooddale participate in the middle school slam,” said Albonetti. “They sent me their poems a week ahead of time. In almost every single one of them, I couldn't read through the whole thing without crying.”

On March 2, students showcased their hard work. “It was so powerful to watch. I was recording them with tears in my eyes,” said Deadre Ussery, the Kirby’s principal. “It also gave Kirby and Wooddale students a chance to see how similar they are.”

Similarly, across the country in California at Ánimo South Los Angeles Charter High School (ASLA), students will be participating in the Get Lit Regional Slam, the largest youth classic poetry festival in the world. To prepare for the regional competition, students research, study, and memorize a classic poem, and then write a personal response to the original. Clifford Campbell, the drama teacher at ASLA, felt the Get Lit slam would be a great way to introduce students to an additional facet of the performing arts. “I’ve seen the performing arts change students lives,” recalled Campbell. “I think it helps clarify purpose and gives students another reason to be excited for the school day.”

“I’ve seen the performing arts change students lives." -- Clifford Campbell, drama teacher at Ánimo South Los Angeles

Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School participated in Get Lit’s first annual Classic Slam in 2012. Since then, a team of students from Ánimo Inglewood has participated in each successive slam, making it to the finals four times in the past six years, each team adding to a legacy of future Ánimo Inglewood poets.

Discovering a Love for the Craft

At Kirby and Wooddale, Albonetti and Thompson also partnered with Kirby Campus Security Officer Jamesha Whitfield, who has experience in performing and writing spoken word of her own. “The Green Dot Memphis team knew about the poetry events I run, so they asked me to help, and it’s been amazing. Our kids love to write, and they didn’t know how much writing heals them,” said Whitfield.

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Whitfield was so moved by what she heard at the poetry slam, that she began a writing group on Saturdays for any interested students. The group now includes students from Kirby, Wooddale, Bluff City High School, and a couple students from other nearby schools. Together they do vocal exercises and provide critical feedback to each others’ writing in order to get better at the craft. “These students knew they could write once they did the poetry slam, but now they’ve come to realize how powerful poetry is for them. They realize that they can say what they want to say, and they’re voicing what they they feel no matter what their background is or what trauma they’ve been through.”

Some of the writers are even planning on recording poetry and selling their recorded work! Whitfield is excited about how committed these students have been to becoming budding poets, and she’s inspired by the emotional journey they’re endeavoring: “Four weeks ago, some of them barely spoke...well, they spoke, but it wasn’t their truth,” said Whitfield. “Now they’re sharing their stories, making more rational decisions, and becoming leaders. Once they realized they could be themselves in poetry, they wouldn’t stop writing.”

In fact, several alumni from Ánimo Inglewood have continued writing and performing well beyond graduation. Both Fabian Hernandez, Class of 2011, and Ariel Taylor, Class of 2012 and a former member of the school slam team, have been featured performers at Da Poetry Lounge, one of the largest spoken word open mic venues in the country!

Building Literacy Skills and Self-Awareness

While teachers may be required to teach the intricacies of poetry reflected in academic standards, creating space for students to dissect and respond to a poem allows the art form to become a tool of expression, empowerment and self-awareness. At Ánimo Inglewood, having this additional outlet has helped students learn how to express difficult stories or emotions they didn’t know how to process before.

For example, Inglewood alumnus Jeramiah Winston considered himself to be quite shy, but through the encouragement of his drama teacher and his peers, he decided to participate in Ánimo Inglewood’s poetry slam. “It was the first time I ever got on a stage in front of people and performed something,” said Winston. “I can honestly say that was the experience that really boosted my confidence.”

Jeramiah Winston

All of our schools offer clubs and extracurricular activities that help students explore a range of interests and unlock new passions beyond the school bell. These activities and clubs, like poetry slam teams, help student to build students’ self-esteem, expand their social circles, and sharpen their ability to make connections between their own experiences and the world around them. “Ms. Whitfield has helped me improve for the better--physically, mentally, and emotionally,” recalled Jefferson. “Without her assistance on my journey, I would still be quiet and shy Damya.”

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