February 18, 2008
Harnessing the power of poetry
By Elizabeth Elkins
Maisha Fisher has always had a passion for the spoken word. Long fascinated by open mic and bookstore community spaces, the assistant professor of educational studies was convinced such communities could be key to re-imagining language arts classrooms that foster democratic engagement.
For her postdoctoral research at Columbia University, Fisher spent a year shadowing what was described to her as a “little poetry club” at University Heights High School in The Bronx, N.Y. However, she soon learned it was much more.
The teacher was Joseph Ubiles, and his students were the Power Writers — a group of Latino and African American students who met after school and on weekends to write and critique poetry. Fisher’s observations were published last spring by Teachers College Press as “Writing in Rhythm: Spoken Word Poetry in Urban Classrooms.”
“I learned so much about the constant exchange that’s going back and forth between Joseph and the Power Writers and I became a part of that circle,” says Fisher, who serves as a consultant on an in-progress documentary about the Power Writers called “To Be Heard.”
“The students would give me the names of artists and hip-hop musicians they believed I should listen to and films I should see. It’s so easy for teachers to get too busy teaching — in the traditional sense — and forget to actually talk and exchange ideas with their students. In this program, students and the teacher challenged each other. It became circular, with no hierarchy between,” she says. “I realized very quickly this was so much more than ‘a little poetry club.’”
Fisher insists “Writing in Rhythm” is a useful text for both literacy researchers interested in urban education and for teachers who want to do this kind of work. Its purpose is three-fold: to offer a model for incorporating open mic formats into the classroom, to show teachers how to better respect student culture and life experiences and to define what it means for a language arts teacher to be a “practitioner of the craft.”
However, Fisher says, a teacher must create the space that works for their particular school. “The message is more about how to love and appreciate students. In the book, Joseph says his students’ work is ‘exalted.’ The Power Writers group was the first time the students felt they had something worth saying and hearing. And that is where the power is,” she says.
Fisher had several surprising moments during her stay at University Heights.
“I was shocked that the Power Writers were more nervous about giving feedback to others than in sharing their own work,” she says. “Students were taught that nobody cared about their opinions, therefore they became sensitive about critiquing their peers. This differs greatly from magnet programs and the like, in which students are encouraged to critique.”
Since the book’s publication, Fisher has been contacted by teachers who have created similar programs across the country.
“Teachers want a support network,” she says. “This kind of thing is happening all over and it’s wonderful to see within the test-driven climate of public education. With testing, students don’t get a chance to own what we teach them. These kinds of programs give them a chance to own words, to write on the spot and to brainstorm. But, most importantly, as Joseph proved, it is about love and respect for students.”