In a room filled with tears, shouts, laughter, and applause this winter, Island High School students performed poems they had written about subjects ranging from alienation, regret, and love to racism, poverty, and war. In so doing, they gave voice to their inner lives and provided adults in the room a raw look at the power of adolescent emotions, identity, and perspectives on the world.
"I'd turn to my past if I wanted a liar," read one student in a growling voice. "I stand for my family, my world, my faith/That's all that I got." Read another, "It's complicated how life is like a puzzle and I can't fix it." And still a third: "She was now seventeen/She was disowned/Acting especially mean/In her own world she drowned."
"Developing Their Own Voice"
Island High School is the Continuation High School for the Alameda Unified School District (AUSD), which means that its programs are designed to help students who have struggled to get the credits they need to graduate —not only due to family troubles, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy, but to the many other complications life has to offer.
The annual Poetry Slam is a unit in teacher John Nolan's English 4 class for seniors. "We teach this unit to help students learn to write and analyze poems and have an opportunity to tell their stories," said Nolan, who has taught at Island High for eight years and was voted AUSD Teacher of the Year in 2012. "It's a chance for students to develop their own voice and use it."
For many students, this can be remarkably healing work. As Greg (who preferred not to use his last name) read during the slam, "I'm from a long line of people who just don't understand my plans." In an interview after the event, he explained, "The class let me write what was on my mind. I will never forget what has happened to me. This was a way to say it."
"I Can Get Away With a Lot"
Several other students also talked about the way learning to write and perform verse helped them. "I wrote about my life, stuff going on every day, stuff I've been put through," said Jeremiah Braxton, 17, who penned the "It's Complicated" poem quoted above and came to Island High School after "messing up" in 9th and 10th grade at Encinal High. "In poetry, I can get away with a lot. I can express my emotions." Braxton, who has performed as a rapper and singer in northern and southern California, said that the poetry unit helped him learn to choose words and tone to convey meaning, which will be helpful in the musical career he wants to pursue.
Samantha Castro, 18, wrote a poem about her 7-month old son, Julian. She said she loved the poetry unit for the opportunity it gave her to explore and express her feelings. "My parents have been in and out of jail," she said. "I have seen a lot of violence. But I wanted something better for myself. It's not easy taking care of a baby, but I am doing what I have to do. I want my baby's life to be different. I want to be the best mother I can be." Castro plans on becoming a nurse or a teacher after she graduates.
Isaiah Aleman, 17, who performed the poem about faith and family quoted above, ended up at Island High School after falling behind in his credits and struggling with a number of difficult issues. This April, he said, he will have been on a more focused path for a year. "I am a different person," he said. "I've become more creative, more thoughtful. I can think more critically about what I want people to feel from my words, what I think, how I feel about other people." Though he had written poetry before, he said, the unit helped him learn about the best use of structure and vocabulary in a poem, as well as looking more deeply into the subject.
"Good Learning, Good Teaching, and Good Students"
This year, Alameda's poet laureate, Julia Park Tracey, coached the students on their poems before their slam, by helping them with writer's block, editing, and finding their voice and narrative style. The unit, she said, "is a huge win for the kids. These aren't students whose lives revolve around student government, pep rallies, and dress-up days. They have gone through real trauma. They are already living grown-up lives. Having the opportunity to take words from their heart and soul and then share those words can be incredibly powerful."
Some of the words from these teens' hearts and souls are as much about hope as trauma. Brittany Cox, who described the disowned teen at the start of this story, expressed a compelling optimism as she projected a peaceful close to the protagonist's life journey:
She was now seventy
Sitting in row one of the church holding her granddaughter
Knowing this was her destiny
She watches her son waiting at the altar
She was now ninety
looking around the white room at all the faces
There was no longer a fight with society
She smiles as she passes
Whether the resulting poems are angry or hopeful, filled with fear or brimming with strength, Nolan said, teaching the course annually reinforces his belief in the "deep, powerful stories" of students. "They come from such unique circumstances," he said. "It can be healing for them to process these experiences in a creative, productive way." Teaching the unit also has reinforced his belief that poetry is "flourishing" in our culture today. "I see so many artists with so many poetic skills and innovative rhymes," he said. "They're making up poems on the fly. We are living in really poetic times."
Upcoming Board of Education Meetings
March 22, 2016
6:30 pm, City Hall
April 12, 2016
6:30 pm, City Hal