Honoring Student's Voices

As educators, we spend most of our professional careers looking for that one stroke of teaching genius that will change a child’s life forever. We don’t want to find ourselves approaching retirement feeling frustrated that that special moment never happened. Looking back, we want to be able to say, “I know I have made a difference.†And when it does come it sends chills up your spine and brings tears to your eyes every time you think about it.

I can still feel the lump in my throat every time I play back a tape from a ‘slam session’ and hear those student’s voices. Their words are so personal, so moving and reality-based; a sharing of their deepest thoughts about life in an urban community all wrapped up in a poem. The program, developed 7 years ago with the help of the most special educators I know, is called Bronx WRITeS; Writers and Readers Incorporating Technology in Schools.

Bronx WRITeS is a poetry writing and performance project that culminates with a District-wide Poetry Slam competition via videoconferencing. This project involves 16 schools (10 middle schools and 6 elementary schools) in the Bronx, NY. The project combines original poetry writing with the art of performance and video conferencing technology. The use of this technology promotes standards-based literacy, communication, and collaboration of original poetry writing among students across the district. The success of this project lies in its ability to engage students in writing and performing works of original poetry to authentic audiences, receiving immediate feedback from students and teachers.

The program has grown tremendously in popularity since its inception in 1997, and has been shared through video-conferenced student performances with students in Alaska, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, and Wisconsin. The project is a collaboration with Region one, which includes districts Nine and Ten, and DreamYard, a nonprofit arts organization. Jason Duchin, co-president of Dreamyard, recruits and trains professional poets to work with students and teachers on poetry writing and performance twice each week for ten weeks. A third session each week is dedicated to planning time for both the poet and classroom teacher.

The District Technology Department, along with John Ellrodt, a technology consultant, works with schools to teach them about the use of video- conferencing, digital video photography for performance practice, and simple word processing skills to document the writing process. Slam teams of five members from each represented school engage in Poetry slam competitions, through video conferencing, with other schools across the Region twice a year for one week.Geri Hayes, the region’s cultural arts director who inspired this vision, coordinates the scheduling of the program.

The students, teachers and poets of this program have full ownership of it, from devising the ‘slam rules’ to developing the rubric to be used for judging the competition. Students have a clear understanding of the judging process because they receive these rubrics prior to the slam competition. Here is the scoring rubric:

The impartial judging occurs at a remote location. Judging teams consist of three adult and two student judges from each of the schools, and student judges cannot be a member of the slam team. Judges use a holistic approach to scoring rather than individual point values for each criteria of the rubric.

The program, which in 2003 received a Federal Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemation Grant, has produced the following outcomes for our students:

  • It motivates students who would not normally write or perform to improve theirliteracy skills.
  • Students write about issues that have real meaning for them; developing ability to express feelings.
  • English language learners can express their thoughts by writing poetry in their native language.
  • Students develop collaboration skills and engage in accountable talk.
  • Students experience an increase in their use of technology to document the writing process and develop an electronic portfolio of their work.
  • The use of videoconferencing has broadened the scope of our students learning experiences outside of their local community.

Teachers in the program have also documented: increases in self-esteem and self-confidence as well as increased student attendance (up to 6 percentage points in some schools when compared with nonparticipating classes); increased performance on standardized New York State language assessments; and a decline in disciplinary actions.

The Bronx WRITeS team, Geri, John, Jason and myself meet regularly to refine the program, evaluate its progress, and plan regularly scheduled professional development sessions that best meet teacher and student needs.

The following tips have helped schools to ensure a successful slam team:

  • Practice-Practice-Practice; set up school-to-school videoconferencing slams where students can give each other feedback prior to competition week.
  • Conduct a school assembly with a large audience for poetry slam practice.
  • Use the library to practice.
  • Rehearse students in front of other classes in the school.
  • Practice in front of adults as well as students.

The program culminates with a bi-annual “open-mike†session at a local university theatre. All student participants, including those who were not chosen for the slam team, are invited to share their poems on stage.

Maria Fico

Below are just three of the excellent poems:

PS 32

When Dads Leave

When dads leave they do not know how
Many things they empty out.

Some empty out birthday chairs
When they’re not there for their kids.

They empty out hugs and kisses they could have
Given to kids and mothers
when they’re lonely.

They empty out the most important thing

They empty out the hearts full with love
Lots of love.

They empty out the drawers
in the rooms moms and dads us to share.

They empty out the pants in the closet.

So before you make the mistake my dad did
Think again.
When dads leave.

Poet: Amanda Arias Grade 5

P.S. 86


If I knew it would be
The last time
That I’d see you fall asleep
I would tuck you in tighter
And pray the Lord
Your soul to keep.

If I knew it would be
The last time
I’d see you walk out that door
I would give you a hug and kiss

If we go down the sunset
Like fish in the sea
And you tell me how much
You love me
I’ll show you the world
Then I’ll call you back for one more

So if I knew it were the last time
I’d hear your voice lifted
I’d videotape each action and word
So I could play them back
Over and over again.

But just in case I might be wrong
And today all I get,
Is a shot at one last kiss.
And tomorrow never comes
It’s not a promise to anyone,
Young or old alike…
And they will have no regrets about today.

And today is all I get to hold my love
Once… tight…

So if tomorrow never comes
You’ll suddenly regret
That extra time
For a smile, hug or a kiss
When you were too busy to grant my wish…

So just let it be.

Our love was always a rope that could never be cut apart.

Poet: Oscar Espinal Grade 6

MS 391


What is a poem?
A written filled dream?
Something you say on a sheet of nothing?

Is that your poem?
Is that all you have?

Well, a poem to me is an emotion,
A poem to me is a sense,
A sense so open and wide tested,
It can’t be judged.
And when it is judged,
And when it is judged,
The gods will accept

in favor of all toward harmony.
Harmony to a world destroyed before its beginning.
And as we destroy this world,
As men beat their wives,
And wives beat their children,
And children beat their dogs,
And our hearts beat in our chests,
We realize that a poem is not art.
Art is what you hang up.
Art you let get ripped up and make anew.
Not a poem.

A poem is a part of your body,
A part of your soul,
A part of a piece of that little destroyed world you have in you.

That world with the smell of angels at family reunions

The world where no crimes are done

The world where no one is rejected

And beauty is a side effect everyone has.

Today we live in a world of devilish flame,
Where the name brand clothes you wear determine your beauty
And the ones who buy you the most are the ones you keep,
And those who truly love you are the ones you reject.

We can relieve this world of its devilish flame
If we remember the feeling,
If we cherish the emotion, called Poem.

Poet: Rashid Denberry Grade 7