Anticipation filled the air as family and friends settled into their seats, waiting for each young poet to step onstage. The room was silent as eighth grader Tianna began her recitation, a deeply personal reflection on insecurity and depression.
Suddenly, she removed the microphone from its stand and roamed the stage, launching into an impassioned delivery that elicited spontaneous cheers and applause from the audience of family and friends. “Stop making me unsure if I could ever be beautiful,” Tianna said, her voice booming. “Stop making me think I’ll never be enough.”
The evening was a culmination of our Visiting Poets Program, a longstanding partnership between Harlem Academy and the Poetry Society of America that brings professional poets of color into our middle school classrooms and gives students the opportunity to perform their original pieces.
For a month prior to the performances, acclaimed poets José Olivarez and Jive Poetic worked with our middle school students to explore the craft of poetry, guiding them through the writing and revision process. The collaboration helps students to expand their vocabulary and strengthen their verbal and written communication.
“All the language in our students’ poems was purposeful, and they didn’t shy away from vulnerable topics,” said English teacher Kia Turner. “The growth they have shown over these past four weeks has been tremendous.”
Harlem Academy’s approach to poetry gives students agency to express their views about issues that matter to them. Middle schoolers tackled a variety of weighty topics, including race, identity, mental health, and acceptance.
As they drafted and honed their poems, students experimented with words to convey voice, imagery, and meaning. Their resulting work not only demonstrated their critical thinking, writing, and performance skills, but also their diverse experiences and perspectives.
Jive Poetic, who collaborated with the eighth graders, was especially impressed by the intricacy of students’ topics. “The subject matter of their poetry was very complex and engaged,” he said. “These students are so aware of the world. Working with them was an amazing experience.”
Although Tianna was nervous about performing in front of a live audience, it was more important to her to share a message about her struggles. “I wanted to show others that if I can make it through, they can make it through, too,” she said.
Here is a clip from Tianna’s powerful performance.