Virtual Poetry Slams Deliver Multiple Benefits for Urban Youth

Kimbrlyn Hernandez was so excited when she learned that she and her 8th-grade classmates at M.S. 145, Bronx, N.Y., would be going to Chicago and San Francisco for poetry slams. But the “trip” to those cities to share her poems would take seconds rather than days, thanks to the Internet and Global Writes, Inc., a nonprofit organization committed to promoting literacy, communication, and collaboration among young people and an OII grantee. As the virtual encounters and “trips” began, Kimbrlyn’s thoughts were random sentences, but as the sharing and “travel” continued and she gained both confidence in her writing and comfort in the interpersonal relationships she formed online, Kimbrlyn’s poetry evolved.

On the West Coast, Roger Villalobes, a former student at Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, was also gaining trust with his peers as they provided feedback on one another’s poems. He, and Kimbrlyn, and more than 300 other students participating in the Global Writes poetry slams experienced the freedom of self-expression without the fear of their works being unfairly judged based on their economic status or ZIP Code instead of the quality of their ideas or courage to share their struggles in life. According to Villalobes, “Poetry comes from the heart and can be compared to someone’s diary,” and that can make you vulnerable, especially if you’re sharing struggles that are deeply personal.

Kimbrlyn Hernandez, Yvette Brown, Roger Villalobes, and other Global Writes participants share insights about the poetry slams.

Kimbrlyn found the courage to be vulnerable — so much so that her poems expressed feelings about incidences of domestic violence she witnessed her aunt going through. The poetry slam encounters allowed Kimbrlyn and her peers to share such feelings. And they also learned that their struggles in life are shared by others in their own locales as well as places distant in miles but not in the experiences of their pre-teen peers.

Students from PS 33 watch the judging for their team’s poems in the winter 2012 slam tournament. (Photo courtesy of Global Writes)

Students from PS 33 watch the judging for their team’s poems in the winter 2012 slam tournament. (Photo courtesy of Global Writes)

Another New York City student, 8th-grader Yvette Brown of MS 145 in the Bronx, also discovered a common bond with her poetry-slam peers who lived in Chicago and San Francisco. She was completely captivated by the realization that while they lived in cities thousands of miles apart, she and her fellow poets shared the same childhood experiences of “getting dirty and playing in the grass or taking a trip to Chuck E. Cheese’s,” spoken in the words of Yvette. They were able to creatively express “who they are” so that they retained their individuality, while also conveying their sense of shared humanity.

Global Writes, by adopting a venerable form of literary expression and combining it with the contemporary presentation mode of the slam — and then taking the combination to a whole new level through technology — unlocked a powerful teaching and learning medium for middle school students. What’s more, the learning is enhanced by the students’ peer judging of one another’s performances. Points are assessed for how well a poem is written, the student’s performance, and the poem’s delivery, resulting in a maximum 10-point score. And beyond the score they each receive, the students report that the opportunity to freely express who they are truly impacts their lives.

One thing can lead to another

In 2006, Global Writes received an Arts in Education Development and Dissemination  (AEMDD) grant for its Tale of Two Cities project, which brought together students in New York City and Chicago in a trial run of their innovative idea of virtual poetry slams as part of students’ English language arts and creative writing experiences in school. As the multi-year grant was unfolding, the former director of another AEMDD grantee, the Performing Arts Workshop in San Francisco, and its current director, Jessica Mele, met with Global Writes program director Maria Fico and co-director John Ellrodt at an annual OII-sponsored conference of AEMDD and Professional Development for Arts Educators grantees. From their discussions, an idea grew that Performing Arts Workshop, an arts education service organization that enjoys a strong partnership with the San Francisco school district, could join with Global Writes to bring San Francisco students into the virtual poetry slam project and became the impetus for a new AEMDD grant application in 2008, which was awarded to Global Writes, Inc. for a four-year project.

Lessons learned helped to ensure success

Students from MS 145 in the Bronx and the San Francisco Community School share poems in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Global Writes)

Students from MS 145 in the Bronx and the San Francisco Community School share poems in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Global Writes)

Formative evaluation has played a significant role in Global Writes’ success with students, teachers, and administrators as the project has evolved over the course of several AEMDD grants during which additional cities have joined the virtual poetry-sharing network. By combining lessons learned along the way with knowledge of the three school districts, and paying particular attention to the unique characteristics of each of their technology infrastructures, an otherwise daunting programmatic challenge became a consciously conceived and implemented “best-practice” expansion effort. Inherent to the success of it was a high level of trust that Global Writes was able to gain with the technical support staff responsible for the videoconferencing in each of the participating cities and schools districts.

For the teachers and students, a handbook that documents how to plan for and implement the major components of the program continues to facilitate the multi-city replication. And, in keeping with the online nature of the effort, Global Writes created a virtual space for teachers and teaching artists to share lesson plans, other instructional resources, and video exemplars of the program.

What’s ahead for Global Writes

When asked about the future expectations for sustaining the multi-city poetry-slam program, Global Writes co-directors Maria Fico and John Ellrodt indicate that their immediate expectation is to deepen the work with English language learners and to study these students more closely in order to develop strategies to support their language development that can be integrated into the program. They also plan to look more closely at the affective impact of their work and to better understand its therapeutic value for adolescent youth as an avenue for them to speak out through their poems about personal concerns in their lives.

Poetry slams unlock powerful teaching and learning experiences. This participant from MS 145 in the Bronx provides evidence of that with his performance during the winter 2011 tournament. (Photo courtesy of Global Writes)

Poetry slams unlock powerful teaching and learning experiences. This participant from MS 145 in the Bronx provides evidence of that with his performance during the winter 2011 tournament. (Photo courtesy of Global Writes)

To address the sustainability question in the participating cities, Maria and John are working to build relationships with more local funders. This past summer, their efforts in New York City received a huge vote of confidence with the award of a new five-year grant for summer and after-school programs from the New York State Education Department. With the new school year, Global Writes launched Arts and Academia Bridging Boundaries, Empowering Collaborative Communities, better known as A2+B2=C2. The funds come from the NYSEC’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers program and will permit Global Writes and several local partners to not only bring visual and performing arts programs to schools, but to engage families as well. And, in keeping with its leading-edge use of Internet technologies, A2+B2=C2 will rely on the use of videoconferencing as well as mobile devices for both students and adults to share their writing and arts projects and to collaborate across the participating schools.

For the students in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, Global Writes and its local partners in those cities look forward to strengthening their collaborations and working toward a program that will remain and thrive beyond the federal support they have received from OII and the AEMDD program. Their combined efforts to learn and grow together, while documenting best practices along the way, are helping to ensure the program’s longevity.

“I Am NOT a NERD!”
By Lirim Ramosaj, PS/MS 95 BRonx

Question: What’s a “nerd?”
Well…according to Webster’s dictionary:
“A derogatory term for a person who is intellectually
knowledgeable or bright, but socially inept.”
“Socially Inept??!” SOCIALLY INEPT????!
Trust me…I am NOT “socially inept!
I do have friends who come from all walks of life!
And they are not “imaginary friends” or cosmic beings from
another solar system!
Or Galactic cells from the Planet “Nerdo”!
I do not have a subscription to “NERD MAGAZINE”!
Or watch “NERD TV” on some cable channel that only “nerds”
would know where to find.
I do not go to NERD Conventions…where a bunch of guys are
walking around wearing goofy glasses and talking “nerd-
To impress each other with their high-tech-short-hand-coded
Nor do I go around wearing shirts with ink pens sticking out of
the pockets!
Do you know how hard it is to get a ink blot out of a shirt?
If I was a “nerd”….I wouldn’t care!
Just because I play video games
Like..Far cry…Minecraft…fallout…Assasins Creed.
That’s not “nerdy”…that’s “waaaavvvy!”
Yeah! Man!
I am not a nerd because I like to hear
The click…click…click…of my mouse….
As I destroy mutants with my plasma weapon on my screen!
(Boing! Ping! Bang! Pow!) “Gotcha!”
And scoring points that range from a hundred thousand to a
million plus!!
Making it past…the fifth and sometimes…tenth levels!
I’m not a nerd
Because when I play….
I feel like a lone wanderer….a dynamic soldier…and the “best
hope for humanity”….
While I roam the wastelands….seeking out my enemies in order
to bring peace to the galaxy and to the worlds beyond!
If I was a “nerd”…
Then ask yourself this question….
Would a “nerd” laugh at a joke that has nothing to do with the
If I was a “nerd”…would I have friends ranging from all
colors…all races and from all different cultural backgrounds?
Discussing how can we solve the social ills of our communities?
If I was a “nerd” would I’d be willing to step out of “the box”
Willing to take chances and explore common regions….
Or every day conversations with anyone who crosses my path?
Would I be willing to care about the well-being of those around
Or be sensitive enough to step in to help a friend in a dire
If I was a “nerd”….I would care less because it would be all
about MY
Intellectual world…of micro-chips….computerized technology…
And trying to live up to the legacy of Steve Jobs….
Whom I sure….people thought he was a “nerd” too!
But frankly….I don’t care if people think I’m a weirdo…or a
“nerd” for that matter….
I’m pretty sure they thought the same thing about Mark
Zuckenberg …
Laughing and teasing him non-stop….
But after FACEBOOK and the billions he’s made….who’s
laughing now?
So if that makes me a “nerd”?
Who cares!
I’m still always going to be me!

Shavonney White is a management and program analyst in the Office of Innovation and Improvement.