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

July 25, 2011 at 9:00 am 1 comment

“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

Entry filed under: Juvenile Justice, Southwest Key Programs.

In the Classroom at the STEM Summer Institute Speaking the Spoken: Not Your Typical Poetry Class – Part 2 of 3

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. JD Meyer  |  August 1, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Looks great. In Tyler, our writers’ group, Texas Writers’ Network, is accepting proposals for short stories and poetry until the end of August. We’re going to have an anthology. There will be the Art of Peace in Tyler–last day for submissions however!


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