Archive for July, 2011

Speaking the Spoken: Personal Growth through the Power of Poetry – Part 3 of 3

Students who are expelled from school face a myriad of challenges that must be addressed in order for them to function successfully in society.  Southwest Key’s Travis County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP) serves just this purpose: to get expelled students back on the right track in life.  One of the most inventive programs at the JJAEP aimed at personal growth is Speaking the Spoken, which teaches students to articulate their thoughts and feelings through spoken-word poetry.  (Need to refresh your memory? Check out the first two installments of this series: Part One  Part Two)

Through their Speaking the Spoken experience, the students at JJAEP learn to open up and express themselves freely.  In a student population where there is normally a high level of stigma associated with sharing one’s feelings, this is a major accomplishment.  Additionally, students gain the ability to cope with their issues in a creative way that is more productive, introspective, and healthier than engaging in fights, drugs, or other criminal activity.

After Speaking the Spoken, students’ written and oral communication skills improve substantially, as does their attitude toward presenting their ideas to others.  The success of Speaking the Spoken can be seen in the pre- and post-tests that are administered to students upon arrival and completion of the JJAEP program.  After four years of data collection, 98% of youth who identified as having a lack of family and social supports reported an increase in their ability to express themselves and control their anger; these students report having a greater perception of self as well.  Students become better writers, talk and interact more openly and positively with others, and are glad to be a part of the Speaking the Spoken program.

Jason Rubio, Southwest Key’s program director for the Travis County JJAEP, praises the program, saying, “I’m sure that many of our students will look back and reflect on their participation in this program as one of the highlights of being at JJAEP.”

As the Spring 2011 semester at JJAEP came to a close, the students made a trip to East Austin College Prep, where a similar Xenogia program had been taking place, funded by the National Council of Crime and Delinquency.  The JJAEP students performed their spoken word poetry for the Prep students, focusing on messages about making good choices and living positively.  Considering the background of the JJAEP students, creating such a message was a challenge; growing up, they often lacked the types of positive role models that they sought to emulate through their performance to the young and impressionable Prep students.

At one point during the performance, one of the East Austin Prep students asked, “What is the JJAEP?”

To which a JJAEP student replied, “It’s a place where if you make a mistake, you get a second chance.”

What students make of their second chance is up to them.  Speaking the Spoken offers an innovative way for students to gain insight into their emotions and express themselves artistically and otherwise.  Through spoken word poetry, their raw feelings are transformed: coherent, meaningful, revelatory.  The Speaking the Spoken program captures the spirit of the JJAEP in this transformation.  After their JJAEP experience, those who were once headed down a dead-end path are prepared to live a positive and meaningful life.

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

July 29, 2011 at 9:00 am 1 comment

Speaking the Spoken: Not Your Typical Poetry Class – Part 2 of 3

At Southwest Key’s Travis County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP), students learn how to express their thoughts and feelings through poetry in the innovative Speaking the Spoken program, taught by Zell Miller and Da’Shade as a project of the Xenogia collective.  (Revisit the first part of the Speaking the Spoken blog series here)

In class, Miller has students go through various exercises designed to enhance their poetic writing skills, get them to open up to new modes of thinking, and give them an opportunity to speak about issues they would not have a chance to elsewhere.  In one such exercise, students are given prompters such as “Power is…” or “I am…” and are asked to free-form write in response to each prompt.  Students are asked to consider their life experiences and inner thoughts and feelings when addressing each prompt.  The focus of these exercises is expression, and as such, the only rules are that their writing cannot be disrespectful and it cannot contain any punctuation.  By taking away the traditional enforcement of spelling and grammar rules, this class gives students the freedom to express themselves however they see fit.

After their writing exercises, Miller helps students take their poetry from the page to spoken word.  In addition, he facilitates collaboration between the students in order to weave their poems together for group pieces.  These group pieces tend to revolve around a common theme that is present in the students’ individual poems.  By tweaking here and there, the students are able to create a multi-voice poetry performance that feels coherent but contains elements of each collaborator’s work.

In order to encourage his students to open up, write, and speak their poetry aloud, Miller insists on being completely authentic and creating a relationship with his students.  These two things, he feels, are the keys to success as a teacher.  If he doesn’t have a positive relationship with his students, he cannot expect them to trust him or put their best efforts into their poetry.

While most JJAEP students hardly consider themselves burgeoning poets, many are drawn to the class based on their interest in hip hop, which has strong ties to spoken word poetry.  The class introduces students to more socially conscious hip hop and thought-provoking rhymes, and over time students generally become much more comfortable and confident in their work.  In fact, some JJAEP Speaking the Spoken alums have gone on to join under-21 poetry slam teams and have taken on spoken word as a serious hobby.

The Speaking the Spoken program at the JJAEP concludes with a performance of the students’ work, with parents and Southwest Key staff in attendance.  To Miller, this is the most rewarding part of his job: seeing his students progress from never having written a poem to proudly performing their work in front of others.  The performance highlights that the choices and experiences that led to the students’ referral to JJAEP can be expressed through poetry that they can celebrate and be proud of.  Performing in front of an audience also helps students gain confidence and a sense of self, which can benefit their future relationships and job prospects.

Integral to the mission of the JJAEP is changing students’ attitudes and perspectives on education, adult role models, and life in general.  To learn about the unique role that Speaking the Spoken and Xenogia plays in this process, subscribe or visit the blog on July 29th to read the final installment in this three-part series.

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

July 27, 2011 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Speaking the Spoken: How Poetry Can Help Rebuild Lives – Part 1 of 3

“You’re expelled.” There’s a phrase no kid wants to hear while they’re in school.  But for numerous kids whose choices and life circumstances have led them down a troublesome path, expulsion is inevitable.  What happens next could determine a lot about their future: whether they graduate, drop out, or end up in jail.  In order to get these students on the track to success, their behavior and attitude issues must be addressed in a safe environment that fosters personal growth.  This is where alternative education steps in.

Southwest Key’s Travis County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP) offers a unique school setting for adolescents aged 10-17 who have been expelled from their local school.  These are students who likely have pending felony charges and are at high risk for dropping out altogether.  While it maintains some characteristics of a regular school, the JJAEP is very different in its goals and focus.  Whereas a regular school prioritizes academic growth and achievement, the JJAEP is centered on changing students’ behavior and establishing positive relationships between the students and the school, the administrators, and their adult role models.  To this end, the JJAEP school day is highly structured and incorporates therapeutic elements to address students’ emotional needs.

One of the JJAEP’s most promising programs geared toward psychological growth and healing is Speaking the Spoken: The Art of Verse, conducted by Xenogia (zen-OH-zhee-uh), in which students learn to express their feelings through spoken word poetry.  Speaking the Spoken is funded by the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division, is offered 2-3 times per week over the course of six weeks, and is incorporated through the JJAEP’s high school level English classes.

What is Speaking the Spoken?

The Speaking the Spoken classroom program at the JJAEP started as an offshoot project of the Xenogia spoken word collective in Austin, which was established in 2001.  Xenogia poets perform slam poetry, participate in poetry competitions, and offer instructional classes.  At the JJAEP class, students are given an introduction to spoken word poetry and are taught how their life experiences can fuel their poetry.  A strong emphasis is placed on exploring what caused the students to end up at JJAEP and digging deep into their personal sense of identity.  The six- to eight-week curriculum consists of one week of course preparation, three weeks of intensive artistic and cultural curriculum, and two weeks of follow-up, reflection, and educational and artistic therapy.  The last two weeks of the program are used to integrate artistic curriculum instruction into the students’ daily lives and includes a performance of the students’ poetry.

In order for a program like Speaking the Spoken to be successful, it is vital to have a teacher that the students can respect, admire, identify with, and enjoy learning from.  All these elements of a great teacher (and more) are embodied by the program’s instructor Zell Miller, an interdisciplinary artist.

Miller is a self-described “teaching artist responsible for helping youth find their voice,” and has been a poet all his life.  He looks at poetry as something that is inside every person and can encompass a broad range of things, from conversation to one’s use of language to the sounds of words.  Each person’s poetry is distinctive based on “how people bend things depending on where they come from,” Miller said.

An Austin-native, Miller has taught similar programs at various middle and high schools in AISD for several years.  Prior to working with Xenogia, Miller had been teaching performance work for over 20 years.  Integral to his spoken word poetry lessons is the way he presents the art form to his students.  Instead of taking the typical high school English teacher approach, Miller emphasizes to his students that poetry is a source of inner strength and power: while one can be stripped of many things – home, family, rights – no one can ever take away one’s individual voice.

Each Speaking the Spoken class session brings new thoughts and feelings to light.  To get a glimpse at what these classes look like, subscribe or visit the blog on July 27th to read the second installment of this three-part series.

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

July 25, 2011 at 9:00 am 1 comment

In the Classroom at the STEM Summer Institute

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and a classroom full of 7th and 8th graders are building robots with the instruction of three dedicated teachers.  Not too unusual for a school day, except that they’re in the middle of summer break.  How is it that these kids chose going to class over going to the pool on a hot summer day?

This isn’t your average science class; it’s part of the innovative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Summer Institute, a partnership between the Boys & Girls Club, East Austin College Prep, and the KDK Harman Foundation.  For seven weeks this summer, roughly 140 kids of all ages are spending their days at the summer camp, where STEM classes are woven into more traditional activities such as arts & crafts and old-fashioned summer camp recreation time.

Each week has a different STEM theme; on this particular week, the theme happens to be robotics.  The lead teacher is the energetic Mr. Kapasi, aided by two younger assistants.

Class starts off with the basics.  “Why do we use metal to build robots?” Mr. Kapasi begins, passing out foot-long rods of steel and aluminum for the students to examine.  As the students get warmed up and begin to answer questions without hesitation, Mr. Kapasi and his teaching aids get a chart going on the board with their responses.

After about 10 minutes of questions & answers, the students break into groups to begin construction of their own robots.  Kits are handed out, and the teachers divide up, one per table, to assist the students in their week-long project.

At one table sits a group of industrious boys, hard at work on their robot.  Their heads are leaned in, listening closely to their instructor, each concentrating to make sense of the machine and figure out how to build it together.  These boys, eager to talk with each other as they walked into the classroom, have now fallen quiet, focused on the task at hand.

On the other side of the room, some students appear a little less motivated.  Three girls seem to prefer talking and laughing amongst themselves rather than rudimentary robot construction.  There could be a myriad of reasons for this: they’re good friends, it’s late in the afternoon and they are worn out, or perhaps they just don’t feel like it.  Or maybe, as so often happens with girls in this age group, the insidious grip of skeptical expectation is already upon them; maybe they believe that girls and science don’t mix.  Whatever the reasons are that these girls aren’t yet enamored with robots, the teachers are there to find a way to get them interested in science.

One table over, Mr. Kapasi leads a demonstration of a student-built robot that he brought into class.  The surrounding students look on; they’re probably wondering how the seemingly random assortment of metal rods, screws, and gears in front of them can possibly be assembled into a functioning machine.

Back at the girls’ table, interest seems to have picked up.  The table-mates are now dutifully following the building instructions for their robot, as their teacher shows them what to do and explains the mechanics behind the project.

Getting students motivated and interested in science is no easy task.  Through creative and intellectually stimulating hands-on activities, these summer STEM classes give students a glimpse of the real-world applications of the concepts that they learn in the classroom throughout the school year.  Each week offers a different perspective on the vast world of science and technology, and projects like building a robot are what keep students coming back for more.  It’s only Tuesday, so they’ve still got quite a ways to go before their robots come together, but that sense of accomplishment they’ll feel on Friday afternoon will be worth much more than sleeping in and taking trips to the pool.

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

July 21, 2011 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Southwest Key Awarded for Helping Haitian Orphans

In January of 2010, a massively catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti, leaving devastation in its wake.  Buildings were reduced to rubble, homes left in pieces, and many lives destroyed.  As international aid started flowing in to Haiti at this time of emergency, volunteers from Southwest Key joined the wave.

One of the immediate problems facing Haiti in the aftermath of the quake was the evacuation of Haitian orphans adopted by Americans.  In order to complete the adoptees’ paperwork that would allow them to live in the U.S. as soon as possible, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services needed all hands on deck.  The ORR asked Southwest Key to provide additional staff members to assist in this process, and many members of the Southwest Key Familia leapt at the opportunity to help the Haitian orphans.

Starting almost immediately after the quake hit, Southwest Key sent staff members to Florida to help the Haitian orphans complete the extensive paperwork process that was required in order for them to be adopted and live in the U.S.  For approximately one month, a rotating cadre of Southwest Key staff spent their days working with the Haitian kids as they arrived at a small airport near Orlando.  Staff members took turns feeding the children, playing with them, and filling out the forms that would allow them to live with their adoptive families in the U.S.

Left to right: Alexia Rodriguez and Karina Lopez of Southwest Key Programs, Ken Tota (Deputy Director of the ORR), Maureen Dunn (Director of the ORR)

On April 11, 2011, the ORR recognized Southwest Key’s efforts in helping the Haitian orphans by presenting the nonprofit with a Certificate of Appreciation.  The certificate thanks Southwest Key staff members “for their commitment to and tireless support of unaccompanied Haitian orphans evacuated from Haiti during the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake.”

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti can be quantified in terms of loss: lost cities, lost infrastructure, lost families.  Rebuilding what was lost is a long and arduous process, but every effort, both local and international, contributes to Haiti’s restoration.  Southwest Key is honored to be one of the many organizations that played a part in providing relief for Haiti.

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

July 19, 2011 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Southwest Key ranked #4 Hispanic Nonprofit in U.S.

Southwest Key has been named by Hispanic Business magazine as one of the top 25 Hispanic nonprofit organizations of 2011!  Based on the data available to them, Southwest Key ranked fourth largest in the United States, and the largest in Texas.

Hispanic Business magazine compiles this list every year by sending a survey to nonprofit organizations in the U.S. that address Hispanic issues.  After examining the responses, the Hispanic nonprofit organizations were ranked based on their annual budget.

Southwest Key’s total expenditures for 2011 were just over $67 million, rightfully earning the nonprofit its place on Hispanic Business magazine’s esteemed list.

You can read the full article and view the national rankings here.

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

July 13, 2011 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

Southwest Key Fights Hunger in Central Texas

Hunger.  You’ve probably seen pictures of it in magazines and on the news: the gaunt and emaciated faces of men and women, children whose legs are no thicker than your wrist.  Too often we think of it as a third-world tragedy, a dilemma to be addressed by international aid organizations and our occasional donations.  But hunger exists here in America too, and is closer and more prevalent than we often realize.  Though you might not be able to tell just by looking at them, thousands of men, women, and children in Central Texas are suffering every day.

The Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB) has long been fighting the battle against hunger in Central Texas.  And now, Southwest Key has become a major player in this fight as well.  Southwest Key has been a “Wheels of Sharing” Mobile Food Pantry distribution site for the CAFB every second Friday of the month since December 2010.  On the first distribution day, the Southwest Key site served 722 individuals for a total of 6,124 pounds of food.  Since then, the numbers have more than doubled, and as of June 2011, Southwest Key is officially the largest site in Austin.  The most recent distribution day served 374 households for a total of 1462 individuals, of which 235 were new recipients at our site.  In all, 12,349 pounds of food were distributed to those in need.

The “Wheels of Sharing” program provides additional food assistance in areas that are not within a convenient distance from a food bank location and/or lacks CAFB service.  Among the foods provided are basic staples such as bread and pasta, fruits and vegetables, meat, potatoes, soup, and some frozen foods.  In addition to receiving food, CAFB staff also offer guests help in applying for food stamps and other federal assistance programs.  And the Mobile Food Pantry is not your typical food truck.  Each vehicle operated by the CAFB has awnings to shade volunteers and food recipients, additional lighting for distribution past dark, electricity, and multi-temperature controlled storage facility for food.

According to the Hunger in America 2010: Central Texas Report, approximately 48,000 people receive food assistance from CAFB in any given week.  Of these, 41% are children, and nearly half of CAFB’s clients must choose between purchasing food and paying for utilities.  The “Wheels of Sharing” Mobile Food Pantry offers an invaluable food resource for those in need.  Through this program, CAFB has taken a substantial step towards addressing the hunger problem that faces Central Texans.  Southwest Key is proud to be a Mobile Food Pantry distribution site and we hope to continue to increase the number of people served at our location.

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

July 11, 2011 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

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