Title

Speaking Power to Possibility: Critical Youth Empowerment in a Middle School Poetry Project

Location

Vereist

Strand #1

Social & Emotional Skills

Strand #2

Academic Achievement & School Leadership

Relevance

This proposal focuses on a middle school poetry project that pairs beginning (and predominantly white) education students with middle school (and predominantly African American and Latino/a) youth at a title 1 school in learning about, reading, writing, and performing poetry. Although poetry, as a form of youth empowerment is most relevant to conference strands I (Head) and II (Heart), it also encompasses the language of hands, health, and home. In the context of my program, poetry serves as a synergistic vehicle for supporting academic engagement and success by providing equitable opportunities to learn. Working collaboratively in poetry writing and performance, middle school poets and their university student mentors engage in a creative weaving of cooperative learning through communication and positive identity development. At the heart of this work is the development of safe spaces where the experiences of youth are centered and affirmed—an important element for any student, but particularly for vulnerable marginalized student populations who can feel disconnected from and invisible in schools and curriculum.

Brief Program Description

This session will examine how a critical youth empowerment (CYE) model supports disenfranchised youth and their university mentors participating in a poetry project as empowered, active agents, and how serving as mentors can alter undergraduate students’ relationships to marginalized communities (Jennings, Parra-Medina, Hilfinger Messias, & McLoughlin, 2006). This interactive session begins with a description of the CYE framework and how it informs the poetry program. The audience is then invited to engage in one of the poetry activities used with our youth poets as a performance of the CYE model. Lastly, we will engage audience in discussion of a matrix of the CYE model to help those involved in youth programming to consider ways to include elements of CYE in their youth programs. This session welcomes teachers, teacher educators, K12 and university students, and program directors or community workers looking to develop or enhance youth programs through creative approaches.

Summary

An over-emphasis on standards-based reforms has narrowed the vision of schools as community-based learning environments and places where youth become active citizens invested in and empowered to contribute to their communities (Delpit, 2006; Dewey, 1916, 1938). The middle school poetry program seeks to connect the diverse experiences of middle school students to their communities and the world through reading, analyzing, writing, and performing poetry. Middle school poets collaborate with beginning education students in a creative process that cultivates positive self-identity, strengthens literacy and public speaking skills, and reflects diverse cultural perspectives and experiences. The program applies the six dimensions of Critical Youth Empowerment (CYE): (1) “a welcoming and safe environment; (2) meaningful participation and engagement; (3) equitable power-sharing between youth and adults; (4) engagement in critical reflection on interpersonal and sociopolitical processes; (5) participation in sociopolitical processes to effect change; and (6) integrated individual- and community-level empowerment” (p. 41), to guide and evaluate activities and make visible the importance of developing culturally responsive, empowering pedagogies (Ladson-Billings, 1995).

Through hands-on learning and grounded in creativity and student collaboration, this project centers the voices and lived experiences of youth. Beginning education students serve as mentors and collaborators and develop meaningful relationships and experiences with culturally and linguistically diverse students. The poetry project also:

  • Incorporates art, music, literature, and poetry from culturally diverse voices, popular culture, and the traditional canon
  • Uses hand-held technology like iPads, and mini video cameras to record, inspire, share ideas, and practice poetry writing and performance.
  • Hosts local poets and poetry lovers to share and perform poetry and engage our young poets in creative activities and dialogue. In the past, we have hosted county school administrators and school board members, university faculty and students from Dance, Theater and Creative Writing, school staff, and community members.
  • Engages middle school poets and university mentors in a service learning project to share poetry and multicultural books with K2 students at the nearby elementary school to give back to their community and build confidence performing publicly.

Evidence

The focus of school curricula on achieving specific scores on state-mandated tests leaves little room for a consideration of student voices and their experiences of the impact of curricula, teaching, and school culture. Ruddick & Flutter (2000) found that the careful attention and inclusion of student voice in school positively impacts student learning, “especially when student voice is linked to changing curriculum and instruction” (p. 289). A culturally responsive approach to youth empowerment, then, engages student voice and experience to enhance an understanding of how youth learn and affirm and nurture students’ sense of themselves as capable learners (Nicholls, 1995). In the four years this program has operated, our data reveals how meaningful, reciprocal relationships between youth and their mentors opens critical spaces for the young poets to speak back to their mentors and speak up for themselves and each other when given a challenging task, support for success, and an affirmation of their experiences and perspectives; in essence—the stage.

As more youth programs rely on volunteers, and particularly college volunteers and teacher education students, to work with youth, too often these programs focus on rote academic improvement rather than other elements of youth empowerment. The poetry project works to ensure that we are creating experiences that move beyond the constraints of current school curriculum and high stakes testing and that facilitate critical cultural consciousness to help youth become leaders in their schools and communities. Ongoing engagement in developing communities of practice, such as the poetry project discussed here, “requires that, as teachers/learners, we each give ourselves to the process of transformation through our own personal means and in dialogue with others” (Freire, 1998, p. 126). As the middle school students test their voices as learners, emerging scholars of their own experiences, and partners in a learning journey, so too do pre-service teachers learn the value of their critical voices through asking questions and in dialogue with their peers and their poets.

Format

Individual Presentation

Biographical Sketch

Dr. Thompson is as an Associate Professor in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She earned her Ph.D. in the Social Foundations of Education from the University of South Carolina in 2008. Research interests include culturally responsive education, youth empowerment, and developing cultural competency in pre-service teachers through school and community-based collaborations. She has published and presented on youth empowerment, and diversity and equity issues, and lives her work by immersing beginning education students in schools and communities serving culturally diverse students.

Keyword Descriptors

youth empowerment, cultural relevance, poetry

Presentation Year

2016

Start Date

3-7-2016 1:15 PM

End Date

3-7-2016 2:30 PM

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Mar 7th, 1:15 PM Mar 7th, 2:30 PM

Speaking Power to Possibility: Critical Youth Empowerment in a Middle School Poetry Project

Vereist

This session will examine how a critical youth empowerment (CYE) model supports disenfranchised youth and their university mentors participating in a poetry project as empowered, active agents, and how serving as mentors can alter undergraduate students’ relationships to marginalized communities (Jennings, Parra-Medina, Hilfinger Messias, & McLoughlin, 2006). This interactive session begins with a description of the CYE framework and how it informs the poetry program. The audience is then invited to engage in one of the poetry activities used with our youth poets as a performance of the CYE model. Lastly, we will engage audience in discussion of a matrix of the CYE model to help those involved in youth programming to consider ways to include elements of CYE in their youth programs. This session welcomes teachers, teacher educators, K12 and university students, and program directors or community workers looking to develop or enhance youth programs through creative approaches.