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Every Word is Important

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Imagine a group of gifted poets sitting on a stage. One by one, they walk to the microphone to recite poems about race, immigration, love of family—each poem more powerful, searing, heartbreaking, or poignant than the next. Now imagine these poets are just 11-, 12-, and 13-years old.

When our middle-schoolers joined professional poets for original readings earlier this month as part of Harlem Academy’s Visiting Poets Program, everyone in attendance knew they were witnessing something special. On February 15, sixth- and eighth-graders took the stage at Harlem School of the Arts with celebrated poets Ama Codjoe and Henry Mills. A week later, eighth-graders joined Pulitzer Prize-winner Tyehimba Jess at The National Black Theater. Our young poets impressed the crowd both nights.

“Together, our students and the master poets dug deep into the work of words,” said Harlem Academy English teacher Kia Turner. “These young scholars, activists, and changemakers will make the world listen to them.”

The Visiting Poets Program, a longstanding collaboration between Harlem Academy and the Poetry Society of America, connects our middle school students with professional poets who work alongside teachers for several weeks to explore the craft of poetry and guide students through the writing process.

Eighth grader Jayde performs her poem at Harlem School of the Arts.

The resulting collection of work not only showcased the diverse experiences and perspectives of our students, but also demonstrated their critical thinking, writing, and performance skills. “One of the super powers of these young poets is the range of their work,” said poet Ama Codjoe, a two-time Pushcart nominee who worked with the sixth-graders. “From political manifesto to lyrical contemplation, their writing is robust, vibrant, and fresh.”

As our students took center stage at both venues, eager to share the words they’d spent weeks polishing and revising, the audience experienced a palpable range of emotion – sadness, anger, hope, joy. Attendees were blinking back tears one minute, laughing out loud the next. As Ms. Turner put it, the performances included little moments that have big impact, like making tostones with your mom, the endless nights of studying that often go unnoticed, and what it feels like to walk down the street as a young, black male. Both evenings ended in standing ovations.

“I became emotional when I was writing my poem, but I knew I couldn’t stop,” said seventh-grader, Sofia, whose piece, I Need You Mama, was a moving ode to her mother, who was in the audience. “I had to put into words what she means to me, and something Mr. Jess said in class helped: “Every word is important.’”

Here is a snippet of Sofia’s moving poem:

I Need You Mama
You give me
Hope momma, me das esperanza xa
That one day

I would take us out of these brick walls
To glass halls
To become
A person, Una persona
You expected me to be
I need your hope mama
I need you mama

To read more of our students’ work, click here.