Budding poets find their voices

Reading Tupac poem inspires students to write their own

Rose are red,
Violets are blue,
These students didn’t like poetry,
But now, they do.

Until recently, this kind of rhyming verse was what most eighth graders in Betsy Berry’s Language Arts class at Godwin Middle School thought of when they heard the word “poetry.” Now, they are seeing poetry in a whole new light — and sharing their original poems — after their teacher took a new approach to teaching the unit this year.

For Travis Reister, poetry has become an outlet for grief following the death of his mother to cancer. For Nazaria Spears, it’s a way to articulate the pain of a tumultuous family situation. Kierra Stimoff’s poetry with a beat addresses social injustice, and Julian Maysonet shares how racial profiling has impacted his family.

Poetry Slam Video Segments:
• Julian Maysonet recites a poem he wrote called ‘I.D.’

• Kierra Stimoff performs a percussive original poem

• Travis Reister shares a poem about his mother, who died of cancer

• Nazaria Spears shares a poem from her poetry journal

Only a month ago, Travis thought poetry was boring. Kierra thought it was “sad and depressing – it didn’t feel like a good vibe,” she said.

Now, they’re loving it, writing it, and performing it. What gives?

 A Bloom from Concrete

To get students interested in poetry, Berry found culturally-responsive writers who she knew would resonate with students.

“We pulled Langston Hughes, Sandra Cisneros, Jason Reynolds. And we did ‘The Rose that Grew from Concrete’ by Tupac [Shakur]. That was the shift,” said Berry. “They were liking the unit up to that point and I felt like I had a high level of engagement. But we did that poem … and all of a sudden they were so moved, because it was relatable.”

Seeing how the poem moved them, Berry assigned her students to write their own version of “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.” They results were raw and powerful.

“They talked about themselves, they shared their stories, they talked about their trauma. It was beautiful,” said Berry. “Then we had an opportunity to present — even more healing. It was just very, very powerful for them to have an opportunity to express themselves.

Kim Urbanski’s art students created pieces based on poetry from Betsy Berry’s English class

“A lot of them told me, ‘I’ve gone to therapy before. This feels like therapy.’”

Julian said he had been grappling with feelings of injustice after his father was racially profiled by police. He didn’t have words to express this before delving into poetry.

“It’s a way to express how you feel without being judged, and it’s just a good outlet. I probably never would have wrote this poem if I wasn’t in this class,” said Julian.

Grand Slam Finale

At the end of the unit, Berry held a poetry slam in each class of about 25 students. She showed her classes YouTube clips of spoken word performances, and gave them plenty of leeway: They could perform a poem that was three lines or 30 lines. It could be one they wrote, one they had studied, or something else.

“That’s when they blew the roof off,” said Berry. “They performed their poems, they performed Tupac’s poems, some did their haiku. For many, it was their first time performing.”

The synergy around poetry in the middle school has continued, Berry said. Recently, performing artists The Diatribe held a student assembly in the school, and many of her students are now participating in a workshop with the group. Kim Urbanski, who teaches art at the school, worked with students to create artwork based on “The Rose that Grew From Concrete” and students’ poems.

Many students now keep journals, where they jot down new poems. Berry said they were sad to see the unit end, but she has promised them a monthly poetry slam, giving them more reasons to keep the verses flowing.

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Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting. Read Bridie's full bio or email Bridie.

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