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:


< Previous    |    ​All Blogs    |    ​Next >
Tags:  middle school English poetry

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.


< Previous    |    ​All Blogs    |     ​Next >

Tags:  poetry middle school English writing

"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

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

In Their Own Words

Date Posted:  Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Harlem Academy students’ poems were among 12 selected by celebrated author Jacqueline Woodson for display at the New York Botanical Garden’s Chihuly sculpture exhibit. Chosen from a pool of more than 150 Tri-State area submissions, the poems were evaluated using no identifying information, so each had to stand on merit alone. Winning poems came from independent schools, charter schools, and traditional public schools, but HA was the only school with multiple winners.





The New York Botanical Garden’s CHIHULY exhibit runs through October 29. The winning students’ poems are displayed alongside the pieces that inspired their work.

Special thanks to the Poetry Society of America for their partnership with Harlem Academy’s Visiting Poets Program.

Tags:  middle school poetry writing

Giving Voice to Glass

Date Posted:  Friday, September 15, 2017
Seventh grader Adonis Beckford was one of four Harlem Academy students selected among just twelve poems included in the Chihuly exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden.

Standing among the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures at the New York Botanical Garden, Harlem Academy seventh grader Adonis Beckford approaches the podium and recites his poem, “Sapphire Star.” He and three other Harlem Academy students had been selected as winners of a poetry competition pairing young voices with the artist’s glass installations in one of New York’s showcase summer exhibits.

Acclaimed poet and National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson had over 150 submissions to read and evaluate. Each entry was presented with no identifying information so the poems would be judged on merit alone.

“Harlem Academy was the only school to have multiple winners,” said Victoria Lewis of NYBG. “We were blown away by the level of sophistication of these poems. Their words have a raw energy that captured the bright colors and unique forms of these glass creations.”

These students’ achievement grows from the critical role that writing poetry plays in Harlem Academy’s academic program.  Through a partnership each year with the Poetry Society of America (PSA), five professional poets visit the school repeatedly over a six-week period, working with all middle school students on drafting, revising, and performing original poems.

"Their words have a raw energy that captured the bright colors and unique forms of these glass creations.” - Victoria Lewis, NYBG

“Writing poetry doesn't come naturally to me,” says Adonis, “but I think it has made me a better writer. Thinking like a poet helps me organize my thoughts so I can express myself better.” 

Former English teacher Whitney Wood, who conceptualized and developed the Visiting Poets Program with PSA, adds, “poetry becomes a celebration of self-expression and community as the students share, listen, and grow together. Their voices matter, they are powerful, and they are heard.”

The New York Botanical Garden’s CHIHULY exhibit runs through October 29. The winning students’ poems are displayed alongside the pieces that inspired their work. This exhibit offers an audio guide in which Ms. Woodson reads the students’ poems and explains why she selected them as contest winners.

Special thanks to the Poetry Society of America for their partnership with Harlem Academy’s Visiting Poets Program.

Tags:  middle school writing poetry

Writing to Perform

Date Posted:  Thursday, April 2, 2015
poetry class
Teacher Whitney Wood developed the poetry program in partnershipwith the Poetry Society. Above, Ms. Wood (r) and Charif Shanahan (c) of PSA observe as poet Ama Codjoe (l) works with grade-eight students.

This special evening is the culmination of a trimester-long collaboration between Harlem Academy and the Poetry Society of America. The innovative workshop model brings professional poets to Harlem Academy’s middle school classrooms to lead college-style seminars. Over the course of six weeks, each poet works one-on-one and in small groups with students, leading them through the creative process of writing, revising, critiquing, and performing original works.

All middle school students participate. The workshop develops critical skills, building students' vocabulary and sharpening their use of language and structure. Equally important, by connecting them to working poets in New York for three consecutive years, it helps our students to understand the skills, habits, and work ethic needed to write at a professional level. The annual performances synthesize this creativity, effort, and joy into an intimate event that is truly special for our school community.

“I love the poetry unit and performances,” says eighth grader Atiana Monteiro. “The visits from the guest poets get kids that think poetry isn’t for them to find joy in it. Some realize that they actually love it. The performances bring us all together and show the bond between the teachers, parents, and kids at Harlem Academy.”

Enjoy the student work below.

Excerpts from Ode to an Apple
by Yarelis Nuñez, Class of 2016

On a June day,
Sweater weather day,
I can sink my teeth
into your red skin
I feel your cold, sweet
My taste buds rise
like the texture
of a quince.
Sometimes you come
with more beauty than usual
That beauty is one single,
green leaf
that you,
have taken
for yourself.

This program is supported through a grant to the Poetry Society from Kim Bendheim and the Leon Lowenstein Foundation.


Tags:  poetry English
Subscribe to RSS - poetry