Island High Poetry Slam Brings School Together

Courtesy Julia Park Tracey

Island High School English teacher John Nolan teaches poetry to his students.

Island High School holds a poetry slam in the fall that fills the multipurpose room and offers individuals the chance to share deeply personal work in front of the entire school. Not every student makes it to the stage, but those who do are amply rewarded.

"The slam has proven to be our greatest outlet for students," according to Ben Washofsky, principal of Island High. He knows how much effort it takes to get up in front of a group and share something personal – and feels nothing but pride when he sees how supportive the students are to one another. "The love the rest of the student body shows them, especially when struggling with very deep emotional thoughts," reinforces that pride, he said.

In the most recent slam, students read original poetry about the loss of a father or a brother, about a broken heart, about witnessing the death of a beloved cousin. The large room was silent with respect, then raucous with applause and cheers after each student shared his or her work. "I am always touched by the respect that they give to each other in these opportunities for sharing," said Washofsky.

Several Island students talked about what they like about poetry and why it matters to have the creative outlet. Sean Stearns, 18, is a senior who has enjoyed writing since about sixth grade. "I started trying to find words, to find descriptions of what I’m trying to say." His poetry, which he shared in the most recent slam, is articulate and lyrical. "I [usually] keep it for myself," Stearns said. "Just trying to express my own personal feelings."

Stearns is finishing high school and heading off to Merritt College to study horticulture, but he is confident when he says, "In my free time, I’ll always write. It’s fun finding creative ways to make your feelings known. You have to find your own way to say it, find your own common language."

Jasmin Baculpo, an 18-year-old senior, said, "I do like to write how I’m feeling, when I get a chance to." She is busy finishing school and preparing to find a job. She has plans to attend Laney College to study photography. For Baculpo, reading her work at the slam wasn’t as difficult as for others; she’s used to singing in public, and she had many poems from which to choose. "I want to show them what I’ve got," she said. Her slam poem was about her family and how much she loves them.

Nicholas Tuck, 18, calls poetry, "one heck of a way to express something." He writes at school and in his own time, stories, haiku and poetry. He has a collection of poetry on his nightstand, and is not hesitant to say what he likes. Tuck’s slam poem about a missing parent reads like a sarcastic rant, but the deeper feeling is apparent.

John Nolan teaches English at Island; one of the six units of coursework is called "Poetry Performance." Students write poems and other short pieces, knowing they will read them at the slam event.

"Everyone usually writes something. A lot of our students do have some very important stories in their lives, which is why, in part, they are here," Nolan said.

Some Island students have had trouble at home or in other schools and have transferred to Island to finish their units. Teen parents attend school at Island High, bringing their babies and toddlers to the on-site nursery. Some of the poetry the students share in class or at the school-wide slam reflects the challenges they are working to overcome. "In some cases, [the poetry] is part of the healing process," said Washofsky.

Poetry is a good medium for feeling those feelings, according to Nolan. "A student [may] have something intense that they are trying to explore." He says he tells his students, "This is your chance to tell your story."

"It’s been a really successful unit, a great opportunity for students who really do have a lot to say, to say it publicly in a really creative and productive way." Nolan adds, "It’s an honor to work with students with so much to say and with so much courage, such strong voices."

The school’s motto is to "Be your best self." Sharing their words in poetry is a way for his students to do just that, said Washofsky.

Julia Park Tracey, Alameda’s poet laureate, is writing a series of articles during national Poetry Month (April) to illustrate why poetry matters today. Contact her at julia.editrix@gmail.com or find her online at www.juliaparktracey.com.