During a Pandemic, Poetry Offers a Powerful Tool for Expression

Date Posted:  Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Every year, after working closely with professional poets as part of Harlem Academy’s Visiting Poets Program, our sixth and eighth graders look forward to taking the stage and reciting their original pieces in front of a cheering audience. While they couldn’t step onto a physical stage this year because of the pandemic, they were still able to step up to the mic – virtually.  

With insight beyond their years, our students rose to the challenge and delivered powerful original poems during a live virtual performance watched by more than 100 families and supporters. They tackled an array of issues from identity, mental health, and race to the small moments of everyday life.
“The strength, tenacity, and determination these students have shown has been nothing short of astounding,” says middle school English teacher Kia Turner. “During such a difficult time, they have not shied away from difficult topics. They have instead dug deep. Their poems are evidence that these young scholars, activists, and changemakers will make us think differently about the world.”

Adds poet Daniella Toosie-Watson: “I’ve been so moved by the students’ vulnerability, brilliance, and the care that they put into their pieces. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them and to share in their creative process.” 

Ms. Toosie-Watson and fellow poet Jive Poetic spent four weeks working with our middle schoolers virtually as part of our Visiting Poets Program – a longstanding partnership between Harlem Academy and the Poetry Society of America. The program brings professional poets of color into our middle school classrooms to explore the craft of poetry and guide students through the writing and revision process, culminating in a live reading of original poems. 

Here is a sampling of our students’ recent performance:


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Tags:  middle school English poetry

Our Virtual Bulletin Board

Date Posted:  Thursday, November 19, 2020

Imaginative, colorful, and inspiring student projects that would normally line the walls of Harlem Academy continue to be reative and thoughtful as ever in our distance learning format. Whether crafting a traditional essay or building a campaign poster using graphic design software, our students are up to the task.


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Tags:  lower school middle school English reading

Bringing Language to Life

Date Posted:  Thursday, February 27, 2020


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.


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Tags:  poetry middle school English writing

Inspiring a Love of Reading

Date Posted:  Thursday, November 7, 2019

Last year, seventh grader Aryel Sealey read a whopping 48 books during the school year – more than any other student and surpassing the goal of Harlem Academy’s first 40 Book Challenge. “The challenge was a great motivator, and winning gave me a strong sense of accomplishment,” she says. Will Aryel keep her title this year?
Our second annual challenge is well under way, encouraging middle schoolers to read 40 books independently by the end of the school year. “At first, students think there is no way they can read an additional 40 books in a year, but once they find books they like, they want to read all the time,” says middle school English teacher Kia Turner, who coordinates the competition.

Although most students are eager to take on the challenge, participation is not mandatory and students have the option to set individual goals. “I want students to read at their own pace” explains Ms. Turner. “Not every student is going to hit 40 books, but I have students who have read 25 or 30 books. That amount would have seemed astronomical to them before the challenge.”

Sixth grader Ava Mason, who is taking the challenge for the first time, thinks the experience will benefit every student. “Reading so many books gives us the opportunity to learn about different authors’ perspectives – and to learn about ourselves, too.” Ava just finished reading “On the Come Up” by Angie Thomas, about an aspiring rap artist who uses her music to shed light on racial injustice. “This book taught me the importance of using my voice to stand up for what I believe in.”

Ava Mason shares her next book in the challenge with Head of School Vinny Dotoli.  

Students aren’t the only ones reading up a storm. Eleven Harlem Academy teachers and staff have joined in the fun, too, filling the halls with colorful posters charting each book they’ve read. Ms. Turner notes, “I want the adults in our community to model excellent reading habits for our students.” Amelia Buchanan, who works in the development office, is up for the challenge: “It makes me more mindful of how I spend my free time,” she says. “When I’m not working, I’m reading!”

So is Aryel, who has already finished seven books since the challenge launched in September. “I hope I can make it to the top five again this year,” she says.


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Tags:  middle school reading English

Moving Up!

Date Posted:  Thursday, June 13, 2019

Producing a magazine takes a lot of work, and Harlem Academy students are up to the task – especially when that magazine acknowledges a major milestone in their lives. Moving Up! is a celebration of our fourth-graders’ transition to fifth grade. It marks their accomplishment while honing critical planning, collaboration, and writing skills that will serve them well in fifth grade and beyond. 

Every year, the fourth-grade class spends six weeks creating the magazine from cover to cover, with guidance from former Associated Press editor Ron Berthel, who retired after 41 years and now volunteers at Harlem Academy. 

Fourth-graders come up with the topics, conduct interviews with other students and teachers, write and edit articles, and lay out the magazine, with “Mr. Ron” offering tips and advice every step of the way. Fourth-grade teacher Eunice Lee works closely with students throughout the six-week process to ensure that their writing is clear, cohesive, and fun. 

“The most rewarding part of advising the students is encouraging them to think for themselves and helping them develop lifelong skills,” says Mr. Ron. “Seeing all of their hard work come together in the final product is incredible.”

Getting to the final product means dividing the work. The class splits into several groups, with each working on two articles. “I was the group leader for the reading group, so I had to assign jobs to everyone based on what we needed to get accomplished,” says Analise. “We interviewed people about books, wrote reviews of books, and took polls of which books our class liked best. When we were deciding which quotes to include, we picked the ones that we thought added the most value to our articles. No one-word answers!”

Classmate Sophie, who was in the advice column group, enjoyed the editing process most. “It was fun working one-on-one with Mr. Ron,” she says. “He was a really big help. He’d say, ‘When I was an editor, here’s what I used to do.’ Then he showed us how to make our articles better. Plus, he made grammar jokes!”

Amid the jokes, a lot of learning takes place. “By the time the class wraps up their journalistic project, they have learned to brainstorm and evaluate ideas, gather information from primary sources, write a strong lead, and revise and edit their work,” says Ms. Lee.

Analise, Sophie, and the rest of the fourth-grade class are proud to finally present Moving Up! – and so is their mentor, Mr. Ron: “Seeing the finished product is my favorite part.”



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Tags:  lower school middle school English

"Nuyorican" by Micaela Gonzalez

Date Posted:  Wednesday, April 10, 2019

I’m from the dark Bronx, illicit and glowing. Where all I eat is simmering ketchup, salty, bacon, egg, and cheese, teeth muscles chomping, mouth watering.

I’m from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico where the crystal clear water is perfect,
but also my purple pulpo, salty white carrucho, and cheesy yellow sorullos take me back. I’m from set tables of rice and beans every night and divine ice cream from Rex Cream, just a hint of spice to the mix. 
Don't forget about mom's chicken and pig feet, slimy and gooey!
I’m from the bodega on the corner wondering, 
“Hey, where's my Cola Champagne?” The only thing I chug down when I go.

I’m from Nana's 4-decade-old apartment 15A,
Daddy’s raucous basement house,
Mom and I live like a bitter-sweet and spicy heart that cannot be separated. . . 

I’m from a great school with great teachers, 
never thinking I could be so well educated

I'm from my two-story-high-bed with the one medal that makes me proud of who I am as Micaela Gonzalez, where the butterflies take me away 
And the lights give me hope to make the world develop equality. 
Cars honking, people yelling; Home is where I am a Nuyorican.

I’m from trips with my dads 80’s music “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down never gonna run around!” 
Nights of the coqui’s orchestra, “coqui, coqui”

I’m from Abuelita Milagros house dreading to her say, “Deja de mirar en el espejo lo va a romper” (Stop looking in the mirror your gonna break it!) I crack up every time I hear it.

I’m also from, hectic nights of the Latinx version of X-Factor on Telemundo “Let’s go, Eric!” I’m from dreams of sports--from supporting family and friends who encourage me with their weight lifting hand. 
From people who don’t scold me but educate me.

I am putting strength and effort to work hard for my dream to be like Carla Cortijo, one of the first Puerto Ricans on the WNBA. Even though I am what I would say trash

This is a message from a 12-year-old girl 
Chase after your dreams, like a bird looking for its nest

Tags:  poetry middle school English

"Waves" by David Fabian

Date Posted:  Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Heart, Soul, charged with emotion. It cannot be seen, only heard. Always inside you. Immense, deafening tidal waves explode all around me into existence. Spreading along the scene filled with action around me.  When you open your mouth and let your inner you speak out into the deaf world around you, when you crunch down on a kernel of cereal, they are always there. Sometimes they become even more than waves. They become memories, like a huge impact accompanied with screeching metal, and the sounds my wrist used to make after a harmless game of soccer. They have been with me all my life, branding me memories burned into my mind. Everytime I hear anything that gives me a sickening sense of deja ‘vu, I immediately feel the tidal wave of memories crashing straight into me. I feel the wave hammer down upon my physical being, enough to break through the stone cold wall that now once protected my brittle frigid heart from memories that break my soul into a million pieces, so that I relive those memories, those moments once again.

Tags:  poetry middle school English

Teacher Spotlight: Kia Turner

Date Posted:  Tuesday, September 25, 2018

For Kia Turner, who teaches middle school English, teaching is about more than educating the mind. It’s also about nurturing the soul.


Kia Turner with student


Why is Harlem Academy the right place for you?

What I love most about Harlem Academy are the kids. My students push me to be a better teacher and person every day that I step into our classroom.  Small class sizes – which are hard to find in today’s education landscape – mean my students and I can grow deep relationships. It also allows them to exercise their voices boldly and often.

Does that come through in their writing?

Yes, their writing is so strong and insightful. I think that insightfulness is a direct result of Harlem Academy’s approach to education. The high level of preparation our students receive starting at age six is a testament to the work that my colleagues are doing in our lower school. It’s a game-changer in terms of what children are capable of by the time they become my students in sixth grade.

What is your approach to teaching literary analysis?

I take a student-centered approach.  I ask them, “What are you going to add to the existing scholarship?” That’s what you do in college: find a topic you care about, research what other people have said about it, then make your own unique contribution. Our kids are ready to do this level of work.


Kia Turner


You don’t prompt your students when it comes to finding topics for their papers. Why not?

To me, it’s inauthentic writing if you’re analyzing something you don’t care about. So rather than prompt my students, I push them to develop a relationship with the texts. I give them the tools to find what interests them about the book. I call it finding their “sticky.” What’s interesting to you? What can you not figure out? What is the thing that you keep going back to? That’s your topic.

How do you view your role as an educator?

My job doesn’t begin and end in English class. Teaching is a human endeavor. It’s unlike any other profession. In order for students to learn as much as they can, they need to know that we’re invested in them, that we believe in them, and that we are here to support them.

Tags:  English middle school staff writing

Choosing Shakespeare

Date Posted:  Tuesday, June 12, 2018

At Harlem Academy, being smart is cool. Our students don’t shy away from challenging academics; they opt for more. Take Shakespeare, one of the most difficult texts students will face at any grade level, let alone in sixth grade. Harlem Academy middle schoolers develop such love and appreciation for the Bard that studying his plays in class isn’t enough for many of them. One quarter of them choose Shakespeare as an elective, too. “The students are drawn to the challenge the language presents and look forward to delving into it outside the classroom,” said Kia Turner, lead middle school English teacher and elective advisor.

One of those students is seventh-grader Justice Dandridge. “Taking the elective gives me an extra chance to explore Shakespeare beyond the page,” she said. “Acting out the literature rather than just reading it is interesting and helps me understand what’s going on. That’s what we do in class, and it’s fun to do more of it when we’re not in class.”

Yealie, Malik, Tolu, Justice, and Essence perform Act 3, Scene 3.

Our middle schoolers first begin studying Shakespeare in sixth grade, approaching the work as actors. “At Harlem Academy, Shakespeare plays are taught via a performance-based approach,” explained Ms.Turner. “Our students always read Shakespeare's words out loud and in character, which helps develop close reading skills and improves comprehension.”

The elective, which meets three times a week, allows students to become fully immersed in the work. They study and rehearse specific scenes to perform at the Classic Stage Company’s “Shakespeare Smackdown,” a citywide competition. This year, two of our troupes won honorable mentions. Students just completed a full performance of Julius Caesar, showcasing all of their hard work.

More importantly, Harlem Academy’s approach to teaching Shakespeare—both in class and as an elective—prepares our middle schoolers for their next chapter. Part of what makes this work so strong is the chance to delve into Shakespeare year after year. “Our students develop the skills and confidence they’ll need to fully comprehend the difficult texts that await them at top secondary schools and in college,” said Ms. Turner.

Madisyn, Delali, and Manny with their award.

See more photos of the Julius Caesar performance here!

Congratulations to Madisyn Cunningham, Justice Dandridge, Essence Johnson, Delali Lyons, Manny Mencia, Malik Middleton, Tolu Onanuga, and Yealie Ulaba-Samura for their recognition at this year’s Shakespeare Smackdown!

Tags:  Shakespeare electives English middle school

Every Word is Important

Blog Type:  Upper School Date Posted:  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.

Tags:  English poetry
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