Teacher to Community
by Emily Southerton | 04.5.16
Emily Southerton is a teacher and poet who created and runs The Poet Warriors Project. She previously taught music and reading.
When I started teaching our first poetry unit, it was right around the time Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida. A lot of my kids identified with Trayvon racially, and I think that there was a feeling that students, especially young black students, weren’t able to self-identify in their communities, and that other people were trying to impose identities on them.
I decided that [my students] should share what they wanted to about themselves with their communities. To get their voices beyond the classroom walls so they could make sure they were self-determining their own identities. Doing that project moved my class into a whole new level. You could tell my kids were empowered to be the best versions of themselves and create change.
[I thought] other young kids should have the space to share these works and self-identity powerfully in those spaces. I came up with a program [The Poet Warriors Project] that could be created with identity curriculum, and a space for students to publish and be heard across the nation. I proposed the idea to Teach For America and for the last three years we’ve been building it out from my one classroom to 60 cities across the U.S.
By Matthew Maddan
When it is angry,
the hurricane pushes you back!
He starts to create
a rampage which
in its path
One reason why we teach poetry is because we see it as a platform where there aren’t really any rules. A lot of great poets in the past, they’ve broken all the rules. Kids love that idea, and it opens them up to be themselves and take control of their story in the way that feels most authentic to them. When we give them that freedom, they really open and tell their most powerful stories.
If you tell a funny story, you can brighten someone’s day; if you tell a really hard story, you might be able to affect someone who is going through the same hardship themselves. This girl wrote a story about her mother and it started off just with all the ways that she loves her mom and the ways that they’re similar, but then ended with this revelation that her mom is in prison right now and facing trial for a really serious action. When I talked to her afterwards, I asked, “How do you think this poem will change someone else?”
She said, “I just want other girls across the world to know that if their mom or dad is in prison, they can be powerful in their communities and they can separate that from themselves while still loving their parents.” This was a sixth grader telling me this. “And finally, I want my mom to read this so that she knows I still love her and support her.”
Here in Philadelphia, we had a kid write a poem for the first time. He wrote about bullying, and that was something he just chose to do. We had students writing about identity and he said, “For a lot of my life I was bullied, and too many Philadelphians’ lives and talents are wasted when they see themselves as [lesser]. We need to step out and be powerful despite the way others have treated us.”
He wrote this poem, and if he would’ve just kept it in his classroom, it would’ve been a really powerful thing for his classroom –– but because he was able to take it out into his community, he was not only able to affect a greater number of people with his words, but he actually also established himself as someone who fights against bullying for his community.
When he established that in himself, it didn’t just end with that poem. He connected a love of bodybuilding with his ability to create change and stop bullying. He started this anti-bullying bodybuilding camp for kids at his school who were bullied. Over the summer he had kids and coaches come in and he taught them about positive self-perceptions while helping these kids learn how to work out.
I think when he had that practice of, “Let me speak in the community as someone who’s against bullying,” that really established a solid identity. Something he could be, and could continue to be, beyond poetry and beyond his classroom.
By Keilah Moore
My dad always said
During the times
That you are down
Lift your chin
And catch your crown
You’re a princess
So never forget
That seems like you and anger
Have never even met
Emily’s top 3 tips for fostering student-community connections:
1. Incorporate identity conversations into every new subject, connecting student identities to those of the change-makers responsible for the current subject matter you’re studying.
If you’re studying a poem, a mathematical application or a historic invention, for example, tell your students about the writer/mathematician/inventor as a person, talk about their identity, their environment, their experiences at your students’ ages and have students identify factors which might have motivated that person to write/theorize/invent something new for their communities. Then share a story about the impact that poem, mathematical application or invention went on to make in the world.
Then turn the tables. Ask about your students’ identities, their environment, their experiences and allow them to discuss what might motivate them personally to create something new for their communities through writing/mathematical application/or invention.
2. Study the basic (standard) skills change-makers have, and allow students to connect those new skills to local passions. Carefully study the skills in your curriculum, then allow students to again consider the real-world changes they believe they could make on their community, and let students get started on personal passion projects that drive toward that change utilizing their new skills.
3. Create or find the public/digital spaces for students to express their powerful ideas, and start calling for building positive change. This last tip is so key–students will truly see themselves as community change-makers if they’re openly expressing themselves as such to their friends, neighbors and community, and actively drive toward that change in some way.
Any teachers who want to publish their kids’ work online (on our website) are free to do so. We share our curriculum so if people want to follow the project like others have been doing across the country, then they can. But if you have been doing your own curriculum and just want a space to publish, we offer that to teachers as well. Every fall we do a big sign-up and we’ll be solidifying a list of featured publishers.