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Literacy As a Weapon: Documentary To Be Heard Spotlights Radical Approach to Teaching That Put Bronx Teens on the College Track

The Power Writers program teaches, "If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you."

Can a radical approach to teaching writing help students from low income backgrounds learn to express themselves and get on the college track? That's the premise of To Be Heard, a new education documentary that tells the story of Karina Sanchez, Pearl Quick and Anthony Pittman, three teens who participate in the Power Writers Program, an intensive three-hour-per-session class led by guest instructors at University Heights High School in the Bronx. The film follows the friends over the course of their four years at the school and shows how they overcome the statistical odds to go on to become the first ever in their families to attend four-year colleges.

While the trailer has its gripping moments—like when Pittman bluntly states, "This is my neighborhood, the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. They just give us a basketball or a gun and say either shoot the basket or shoot each other,"—it's also an inspiring look at what's possible in schools. However, it's clear that inspiration alone isn't what helped Quick, a teen "responsible for bringing home the only paycheck for her family" graduate from high school and earn a full scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College, the most expensive liberal arts school in the country. Instead, the documentary emphasizes that the attitude and approach of the teachers, writing instructors Roland Legiardi-Laura and Amy Sultan, is what made the difference for these kids.

Legiardi-Laura is no ordinary teacher. On top of running the Power Writers program for the past decade, he's one of the directors of the famed Nuyorican Poets Café, the 35-year-old New York City home of spoken word poetry. Still, he and the other teachers insist they have no magic tricks to get kids to learn. Legiardi-Laura simply encourages all students to see literacy as a weapon. The Power Writers motto, "If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you," is something any educator looking for a fresh approach to getting students writing can adopt.

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