Island High Students Explore Identity Through Poetry

Island High Students Explore Identity Through Poetry


Each year, seniors at Island High School have a chance to write and perform poetry as part of a “Poetry Slam” unit in teacher John Nolan’s English class. The resulting poems treat a wide number of topics in a broad range of styles. 

But all provide a glimpse into the ways that teens perceive and handle what can be challenging life circumstances. This year’s slam took place on March 16. 

In a room filled with tears, shouts, laughter, and applause this winter, Island High School students performed poems they had written about subjects ranging from alienation, regret, and love to racism, poverty and war. In so doing, they gave voice to their inner lives and provided adults in the room a raw look at the power of adolescent emotions, identity and perspectives on the world.

Developing Their Own Voices
Island High School is the Continuation High School for the Alameda Unified School District (AUSD), which means that its programs are designed to help students who have struggled to get the credits they need to graduate — not only due to family troubles, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy, but to the many other complications life has to offer.

“We teach this unit to help students learn to write and analyze poems and have an opportunity to tell their stories,” said Nolan, who has taught at Island High for eight years and was voted AUSD Teacher of the Year in 2012. “It’s a chance for students to develop their own voice and use it.”

For many students, this can be remarkably healing work. As Greg (who preferred not to use his last name) read during the slam, “I’m from a long line of people who just don’t understand my plans.” In an interview after the event, he explained, “The class let me write what was on my mind. I will never forget what has happened to me. This was a way to say it.”

I Can Get Away With a Lot
Several other students also talked about the way learning to write and perform verse helped them. “I wrote about my life, stuff going on every day, stuff I’ve been put through,” said Jeremiah Braxton, 17, who penned the poem “It’s Complicated” and came to Island High School after “messing up” in 9th and 10th grade at Encinal High. “In poetry, I can get away with a lot. I can express my emotions.” Braxton, who has performed as a rapper and singer in northern and southern California, said that the poetry unit helped him learn to choose words and tone to convey meaning, which will be helpful in the musical career he wants to pursue.

Good Learning, Good Teaching and Good Students
This year, Alameda’s poet laureate, Julia Park Tracey, coached the students on their poems before the slam, by helping them with writer’s block, editing, and finding their voice and narrative style. The unit, she said, “is a huge win for the kids. These aren’t students whose lives revolve around student government, pep rallies and dress-up days. They have gone through real trauma. They are already living grown-up lives. Having the opportunity to take words from their heart and soul and then share those words can be incredibly powerful.”

Some of the words from these teens’ hearts and souls are as much about hope as trauma. Brittany Cox expressed a compelling optimism as she projected a peaceful close to her protagonist’s life journey:

She was now seventy
Sitting in row one of the church holding her granddaughter
Knowing this was her destiny
She watches her son 
waiting at the altar

She was now ninety
looking around the white 
room at all the faces
There was no longer a 
fight with society
She smiles as she passes

Whether the resulting poems are angry or hopeful, filled with fear or brimming with strength, Nolan said, teaching the course annually reinforces his belief in the “deep, powerful stories” of students. “They come from such unique circumstances,” he said. “It can be healing for them to process these experiences in a creative, productive way.” 

Teaching the unit also has reinforced his belief that poetry is “flourishing” in our culture today. “I see so many artists with so many poetic skills and innovative rhymes,” he said. “They’re making up poems on the fly. We are living in really poetic times.”