Words tumble and flow, punctuated by emotion. Fingers snap rhythmically in the classroom as verses come full circle. It is poetry, raw, unnerving and real, and it’s coming from Kelloggsville High School students.
“When you write something down, you’re writing because you want someone to read it and to get those thoughts out there,” said Daniel Delosh, who won fourth place in the school’s recent Poetry Slam for a piece about his mother. “I plan to keep writing poetry. It’s a very therapeutic thing to do. You can write your thoughts down without opposition.”
Inspired by a group of unlikely mentors, students are digging deep into their personal histories, backgrounds and identities and emerging as wordsmiths. Indeed, the poetry in English teacher Jennifer Sadler’s class has stepped way outside the box of standard iambic pentameter, couplets and ballads. Students are developing their own styles to tell of relationships, hardships and life’s many challenges.
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Perhaps most astounding, said Sadler, is that the students present and listen to each other, unabashed and supportive.
“It makes my kids feel like they’re not alone,” Sadler said. “As a result they have more respect for each other. It makes them more empathetic, and it creates more of a family feeling overall.”
Spoken-Word Poets Share Their Craft
Members of The Diatribe, a spoken-word poetry group, have transformed Sadler’s poetry unit from teacher-led and traditional into hipster cool. The professional poets said stringing together words into creative expression is their calling and a way to make a difference in young peoples’ lives.
The Grand Rapids-based group, including G. Foster II, Marcel Fable Price, Rachel Gleason and Shawn Michael Moore, spends evenings weaving words during spoken-word nights at Stella’s Lounge downtown and Hookah Lounge in Eastown. But they also have spent many full school days volunteering in Sadler’s class and at 54th Street Academy, the district’s alternative high school.
The partnership culminated in the Poetry Slam, when 36 students braved their way onstage to read their work in front of professional judges and 300 students.
“Mind blown,” was The Diatribe poet Shawn Michael Moore’s response to students’ work. “These kids are exponentially past where I was at this age.”
The Diatribe formed two years to create an ArtPrize exhibit. Mainstays in the local poetry scene, members have diverse backgrounds and styles, and their work ranges from lyrical to rap-influenced, with internal rhyme and free flow. Their poems tell of personal experiences: being bullied, coming out as gay in a conservative town, abuse. They’ve learned that everywhere they go, someone can relate.
“The beauty of it is that we are diverse, and there’s someone out of our collective that will connect with each student,” G Foster II said.
Rachel Gleason said helping students feel comfortable being themselves motivates her.
“These children are going to be the future of poetry and obviously the future in general,” Gleason said. “If you feel like you had any part in them learning to open up, that’s the most important thing to me.”
Relating to Each Other
Sadler said when even the most quiet of her students hear The Diatribe and then other classmates, they become more willing to share. Much of that has to do with the bond the group has created.
“The Diatribe come in dressed like the students, talking like them, but showing how to articulate your words and showing how to present yourself in an educated way,” Sadler said.
She is working to find funding sources to pay for an after-school writing workshop with The Diatribe next school year. So far, they have never been paid for their time with the students.
The poets hope to increase their involvement in other schools as well, and are seeking support from non-profits or other sources.
Student Alexandrea Groters, who won third place in the Poetry Slam, said working with the poets has impacted her life.
“It was nice because it felt like stuff was getting off my shoulders and I was telling my mom more things. That felt good,” Alexandrea said. “They showed that even adults go through tough times, and even though you do, you have to get back up.”