In the birthplace of hip-hop a local nonprofit is teaching a different kind of rhyming: the fine art of the poetry slam.
In the South Bronx, the birthplace of hip hop, the art of spitting rhymes is alive and well—in the form of competitive performance poetry. Local nonprofit Global Writes teaches middle and high school students the fine art of the poetry slam by bringing working poets into English classes for 32-week sessions. Students as young as 12 become fully engaged in the writing process because they get to write about the things they care about—everything from the poverty and obesity in their community to their families. Along the way, their confidence, critical analysis skills, and performance and public speaking abilities skyrocket.
An inner-city schoolteacher visits post-Katrina New Orleans with his students.
Greetings from New Orleans, where I’ve come with two of my colleagues and a dozen of my students to participate in post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. We’re more than halfway through our weeklong stay here, and our community-service project has been a learning experience for all involved. My students will share their thoughts next week, and I’ll share my initial observations this week.
Lesson One: There’s no substitute for on-the-ground experience.
Over the last four months, we've been learning about New Orleans during a weekly afterschool class. As effective as those lessons were in prepping our students for what they would encounter down here, the ride from the airport alone surpassed all emotional preparation.
We drove past shuttered schools, including one that still—still!—had a notice for a September, 2005, event posted on its display board. We drove by innumerable abandoned homes tagged with the spraypainted "X" of rescue crews who searched for Katrina’s victims. All the while, our elderly driver told of his 19-hour drive to evacuate the city.
An inner-city schoolteacher rejoices in the triumph of his student-mother. One of the great joys of this job is the inspiration I sometimes...
An inner-city schoolteacher rejoices in the triumph of his student-mother.
One of the great joys of this job is the inspiration I sometimes receive from the people I work with—my students.
Take Tuesday, when my school held its annual National Honor Society induction ceremony.
The inductees, all clad in black pants and white collared shirts, stood in two perfect rows in the auditorium. Leading one line was Jalene, a petite pillar of perseverance, who, in addition to maintaining her A average, plays volleyball, works part-time, takes a college course—and raises her three-year-old son, Angel.
In recognition of Jalene’s accomplishments and the powerful counterexample she represents to the generalizations about teenage mothers, I’m turning this space over to her this week so that she might tell her story.
Feel free to post comments below—Jalene and I will do our best to write back in the week ahead.
When I found out I was pregnant, I was about to drop dead. I was 13-years-old, and I was already five months pregnant before I found out. My father was like, "Oh my God, you need to have this kid because I don’t want you to have an abortion."
When people hear the term teenage mother, they think about a lazy teenager who isn’t smart and basically drops out of school. In order for me to have my mind set on having a positive future, even though I was young and pregnant, I just tried to ignore everyone’s opinions and what everyone else had to say. I knew those comments weren’t going to help me.
I was like, okay, I'm going to have a child. I am definitely not dropping out. Why? Because I want to think of my profession. I need money. I don’t want to live on this block, I don’t want to live in front of the projects. I need to get into college and actually finish.
After I decided to stay positive and continue school, I asked my mother to transfer me out of my middle school and into a school for pregnant teens. That school was the best thing to ever happen to me. I took newborn education, I learned how to sew, how to make a quilt, I learned how to breastfeed, I learned how to stay healthy and all of the risks of being pregnant.
I felt a little awkward coming into a public high school because it was with a bunch of normal people. After school, I would go home, breastfeed Angel, and then come back for volleyball practice. I couldn’t breastfeed during the school day or I’d be marked as having cut class.
Angel is with a babysitter during the day. His father sees him five times a week, even though he works two jobs. So while I’m doing homework, he’ll take Angel to the park or out to buy ice cream. I’m just like, "I need to do my work, you need to take care of that kid." He has this whole idea that he wants to be a good dad, even though he doesn’t like changing Pampers or all of this other stuff he finds disgusting. My sister has always helped, too.
Last year, my highest average in a marking period was 96.5. The reason I did so well last year was because I stayed after school all the time. Now I have a tutoring job after school, and I take a college classes on Saturdays.
My major obstacle is managing my time. No matter what I do, I go to bed super late and wake up super early. In the morning, I take a shower, give Angel a bath, I need to dress Angel, dress myself, feed him, feed myself and then I need to come to school.
During volleyball, I was going to bed at two or three in the morning and waking up at six o'clock. My grades were good, but I realized how much I need sleep. I was coming to class and wanting to fall asleep and not paying attention to what the teacher was saying. I was basically teaching myself.
This year, I had a whole babysitting problem and moved a lot farther away, where it now takes me 45-minutes to get to school. I don't like coming late to school. When I come late to school I feel incomplete. I feel like I keep missing out on so much. I come to class and I don’t know what I’m doing. I try to do the work, but it’s still not the same.
Before Angel, I planned to go out of state for college. I want to study interior design or business. I was always thinking about dorm rooms, going hiking, seeing mountains. I was always thinking about going places. I don’t think there’s as much I can do with a kid. That’s definitely one big thing that has changed.
But that’s why I work hard. I want to expose myself to good things. I want to be a successful person. I want to live downtown, and I want to live by Central Park. I don’t think I’m going to accomplish that if I just sit outside.
Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD will appear on Fridays. Last week's essay can be gotten here.
The inspiration and exasperation of an inner-city schoolteacher. This is a new column by a teacher in the South Bronx. It will appear every...
The inspiration and exasperation of an inner-city schoolteacher.
This is a new column by a teacher in the South Bronx. It will appear every Friday.
After class the other day, I sidled up to a student of mine. He had struggled earlier in the year, but had lately shown signs of getting back on track. Today, however, he hadn’t turned in his homework.
“Shawn, what happened with your homework today?” I asked him.
“I didn’t take my book bag home with me yesterday,” he replied. I raised an eyebrow—why wouldn’t he take his book bag home with him?
“I gave it to Xavier.”
“And why’d you give your book bag to Xavier?”
“Because I had to go fight.”
“Oh.” At this point, I reached a fork in the conversational road. Part of me wanted to thank him for sharing this information with me and to inquire as to why he was fighting, who he was fighting with and whether or not he was okay. But in this unscripted moment, my teacher self took over, and my thoughts reverted to the message I received over and over again during my teacher training—maintain high expectations.
“I’m sorry to hear you were fighting, Shawn, but you’re still responsible for getting your homework done, regardless of the circumstances.”
Shawn looked at me like I had four heads, then nodded his head in agreement.
“I know, Mister.”
Had I just proved to my student that I take his education seriously and expect him to do the same? Had I just been a total jerk and missed an opportunity to build an authentic relationship with my student? Or, had I done both?
Welcome to the confounding world I live in as a teacher in an inner-city school. My days are filled with alternating moments of exasperation, like the one outlined above, and inspiration, when my students prove to me that anything really is possible.
I’m starting this blog to share my experiences as a teacher, hoping to contribute to a more accurate understanding of what it's actually like to be in a classroom every day.
My kids are just like kids anywhere—beautiful people, full of energy and ambition, deserving of a high-quality education. At home, at school and in their community, many have received a raw deal. They learned too little when they were young. They had too few effective teachers as they got older. They encountered too few positive influences along the way.
I come from a vastly different world than the one in which I teach. I’m from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a comfortable Philadelphia suburb where the median household income is $87,248. I teach in the South Bronx, an impoverished area with a median household income of $19,389.
My tony hometown borders Camden, a city known for being named among the most dangerous places in America. The school systems are vastly different, too. It has always struck me as absurd that neighboring towns could offer their residents such different educations (and, as that follows, such different life prospects). (Author Jonathan Kozol found the disparity absurd, too— he included the Cherry Hill-Camden dichotomy in his classic treatise, Savage Inequalities.)
In college, I discovered Teach for America. While I recruited fellow students for Teach for America during my senior year of college, I never thought I'd actually participate in the program. I didn’t think I would be particularly effective, unable to build relationships with students whose backgrounds were so different from my own. (I had, after all, seen Dangerous Minds.)
I changed my mind after volunteering at a daylong workshop, where in a few hours' time, I developed a remarkably close bond with a group of teenage students. Over the course of an afternoon, we built more trust and mutual respect than I had imagined was possible.
And so I applied to Teach for America and a year-and-a-half later, am eager to share my experiences. I don’t remember them all —last year was marked by intense sleep deprivation—but I look forward to sharing those I do. I sincerely hope you will engage with me, even suggesting topics you would be interested in reading about.
Keep in mind, my experiences are my own and are not necessarily representative of other teachers in my school. And they are certainly in no way representative of Teach for America or the New York City Department of Education.
These posts are simply a reflection of my efforts to mind the gap, to pay attention on a macro-level to the educational disparity that pervades this country and on a micro-level, to the different abilities of my individual students.
(Please note: The names of students have been changed.)
Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school. He will be regularly writing for GOOD about his classroom and his kids.
Photo (cc) via Flickr user majoracartergroup.