TOPICS > Education > Making the Grade

How one poet is helping Chicago students find their voice through verse

May 30, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
More than 50 people were shot during the holiday weekend in Chicago. Often, when we talk about the city — and its school system — we hear about too much violence and too little money. Jeffrey Brown talks to poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera about his new project, which gives Chicago students the opportunity to create meaningful works about their lives and the challenges they face.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a distinct way of giving students their own voice.

Earlier, we reported on another violent holiday weekend in Chicago. More than 50 people were shot over four days. Last year, more than 4,000 were shot in the city.

Often, when we talk about the school system in Chicago, we hear about too much violence and too little money.

Tonight, we look at a project led by the nation’s poet laureate to give kids a way of creating meaningful expression about their lives and challenges they face.

Jeffrey Brown is back with this report. It’s part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

JEFFREY BROWN: The reality of one ninth grade girl’s life told in the language of poetry, by Nakia Sales.

NAKIA SALES, Author, “Black Kid”: Black kid, black kid, you have been shot. Black kid, black kid, why you have to die? Never got to see you walk across the stage in a suit and tie. Now your momma crying over your casket, asking God why.

JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier, at her West Side Chicago school, she’d told me how she came to write her poem.

NAKIA SALES: When we came back from Christmas break, I had just lost two of my friends.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lost them to violence?

NAKIA SALES: Yes. They was walking down the street one day, and a car had rolled past, and they had got shot, both of them, in the head. And then, when I got back to school that day, when I got to writing, “Black Kid” automatically came to my mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: This ceremony at the Harold Washington Public Library was the culmination of a year-long pilot program to bring poetry into the curriculum of about 40 inner-city Chicago high schools and a chance for students to read their work for Juan Felipe Herrera, the outgoing U.S. poet laureate.

This past year, Herrera ran four workshops for ninth grade English teachers, offering ideas and prompts to encourage writing. He urged them to choose their own reading texts as examples,anything they thought their students might relate to.

Across the city, more than 85 percent of students in Chicago public schools are children of color, and most are classified as economically disadvantaged.

MISSY HUGHES, Teacher, Michele Clark Magnet High School: I’m really intentional about finding poems that speak to their experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nakia’s teacher, Missy Hughes of Michele Clark High School, was one of the instructors who signed up for the program.

MISSY HUGHES: We just saw how students were able to tell their story, because there’s like — there’s this mainstream narrative out there about who they are and what their lives are, and that’s — it doesn’t honor the complexity or the nuances or really their own voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: Herrera also pushed the teachers to find their own voice through poetry, and to read the results out loud.

MISSY HUGHES: It’s intimidating. It’s the poet laureate of the United States. It keeps me honest to do it. It’s really hard to do that, to go up there and write something intimate, most likely about your life and your experience, and then to share that work with everyone.

JEFFREY BROWN: It worked for the teachers, and for students like Nakia, who says poetry has already had a huge impact on her young life.

NAKIA SALES: It’s a way to get anger out too, stress. Anything that you got on your mind, just let it out on a piece of paper.

JEFFREY BROWN: But just how do you reach young people who don’t have experience with poetry?

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA, U.S. Poet Laureate: It may not be in their background, maybe, in terms of books, having books at home.

But they have a lot of stories. So, the poetry is there, but it’s there rumbling in the heart and in the blood and what they see, you know, what they see day to day. And we want to bring all that out.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Herrera, the nation’s first Mexico-American poet laureate, the project is deeply personal. When we first met two years ago, he told me of growing up in California, the son of migrant workers from Mexico.

He spoke only Spanish at first, an experience that left him feeling like an outsider.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: And it created a lot of combustion in me, because I wanted to be inside society, I wanted to communicate, I wanted to have conversations. I got to the point where I just had to explode.

JEFFREY BROWN: Herrera credits words and poetry with unlocking his ability to communicate with the larger world.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: That’s the place I found peace, the place I found freedom, the place I found my voice, and the place where I could construct things.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the hope for these students as well.

Lynette Mendoza is a teacher at the Marine Leadership Academy, a public school where students prepare for military service and wear uniforms. When the laureate visited the school, Mendoza says, it had a strong impact on her students, more than 90 percent of whom are Latino.

LYNETTE MENDOZA, Teacher, Marine Leadership Academy: They have a male military instructor, and some of them come from homes where it’s male-dominated.

It was really important for the kids to see a man could read poetry, write poetry, and be inspired and still be a man.

JEFFREY BROWN: That was important, that he was a man?

LYNETTE MENDOZA: I felt it was real important.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re making — make the connection from what they learn from poetry, to a science class, or a math class, or a government class.

LYNETTE MENDOZA: You’re looking at the formulas in math or in science, that’s the power. And if you know how to work it, you know how to make certain adjustments, you can come up with something earth-shattering. And the same thing happens with words.

JEFFREY BROWN: The district partnered with the Library of Congress, which selects the poet laureate, and the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, which, for the record, also supports the NewsHour.

This remains a small program, and costs have been minimal. The school system provides subs to fill in when teachers have their workshop days with Herrera.

LaTanya McDade heads the Office of Teaching and Learning. And while she admits the district, the third largest in the nation, faces enormous challenges, getting buy-in for a poetry program wasn’t one of them.

LATANYA MCDADE, Office of Teaching and Learning: If you look over time at schools that have strong arts programs, you see higher performance in students overall. So when you show that kind of data, you’re seeing a higher percentage of students really showing strong academic performance where there is high arts investments.

JEFFREY BROWN: The next step, McDade says, is to measure the impact of the poetry classes. The district has signed on for another year and will track the effectiveness of the program for both teachers and their students.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: Dinky planet on a skateboard of dynamite, oh, what to do?

JEFFREY BROWN: As for Juan Felipe Herrera, his term as U.S. poet laureate is ending, but he’s committed to continue working in Chicago’s schools. He says poetry’s place in the education of young people is needed more than ever.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: We have got to let our students’ lives, all their lives, not just part of their lives, express itself in as many ways as possible. And where else are they going to get that openness and freedom? In what other area in school? Maybe there’s other areas, but, for sure, poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Herrera and others involved hope this project can be a model for other cities around the nation.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Chicago.