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Literary Savages Get Real


As soon as I walked into my classroom with my mentors at New Directions Secondary School, I was bombarded with whoops and hollers as if I were just named Worst Actress of the Year. Was this the Golden Raspberry Awards? Far from it.

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A couple students took control of the SMART Board with lightning haste. Before I even took off my jacket, they had projected pictures of random Asian women. Not Asian models, but images highlighting stereotypical features of Asian girls. The students roared with laughter straight from the gut. I was a joke. So I guess it was kind of like a mockery award show. My prize, however, would be the pleasure of going from this low moment to helping with the production of the student-created anthology, Literary Savages.

But in this moment, my Teaching Artist mentors, Jashua Sa-Ra and Chaya Babu (both pictured below) quickly and successfully shut down the rhetoric and brought back the students into their lesson on erasure poetry. While I observed them working on their poems, I was able to converse with some of the students about who they are and their interests. After a couple weeks of being in the classroom, I was able to assist them in creating their poems and finding their voices in the activities the TAs were doing while also learning more about them outside of the classroom.

I spent a couple months with these transfer students, creating various types of poems, from erasure (blackout poetry) to found poetry (using words from other sources). My mentors chose wonderful poems and song lyrics to explore and analyze that directly connected to the students in class. Everything was tailored to who these young artists are and where they were in life. Every class started with identifying how we were feeling emotionally with a color. Tired, stressed, energetic, hopeful. Red, green, orange, indigo. Every day was a different color, an unpredictable adventure with these teenagers.[if gte vml 1]><v:shape id="image3.png" o:spid="_x0000_s1027" type="#_x0000_t75" style='position:absolute; margin-left:0;margin-top:32.25pt;width:141pt;height:188.25pt;z-index:251659264; visibility:visible;mso-wrap-style:square;mso-wrap-distance-left:9pt; mso-wrap-distance-top:9pt;mso-wrap-distance-right:9pt; mso-wrap-distance-bottom:9pt;mso-position-horizontal:absolute; mso-position-horizontal-relative:text;mso-position-vertical:absolute; mso-position-vertical-relative:text'> <v:imagedata src="file://localhost/private/var/folders/63/9s6485td7fb8mg2md12mb7hr0000gn/T/TemporaryItems/msoclip/0clip_image003.png" o:title=""></v:imagedata> <w:wrap type="square"></w:wrap> </v:shape><![endif][if !vml][endif]

While some students were drawn to the found poetry, others were more resistant to letting themselves be artists in the moment. After all, they had a tough-guy reputation to maintain. However, even the toughest ones couldn’t resist the freedom of writing and owning their own voice. All of their frustrations spilled onto the page in ways they hadn’t known they could do. “You mean I can use the word fuck?”

Yes, yes you can.

They were sold. My co-teacher and I conducted a lesson using Rudy Francisco’s “My Honest Poem.” After we read the poem and watched Rudy Francisco’s performance, students wrote about their truths: good, bad, and weird. But we were all in it together—being honest and vulnerable. I knew that as soon as the bell rang, these writers would put back on their leather jackets and pretend like none of this ever happened. Though, as we read our work aloud, we were truly together, in our bodies and in our words.[if gte vml 1]><v:shape id="image1.png" o:spid="_x0000_s1026" type="#_x0000_t75" style='position:absolute; margin-left:-6.85pt;margin-top:0;width:142.45pt;height:197.4pt;z-index:251660288; visibility:visible;mso-wrap-style:square;mso-wrap-distance-left:9pt; mso-wrap-distance-top:9pt;mso-wrap-distance-right:9pt; mso-wrap-distance-bottom:9pt;mso-position-horizontal:absolute; mso-position-horizontal-relative:text;mso-position-vertical:absolute; mso-position-vertical-relative:text'> <v:imagedata src="file://localhost/private/var/folders/63/9s6485td7fb8mg2md12mb7hr0000gn/T/TemporaryItems/msoclip/0clip_image005.png" o:title=""></v:imagedata> <w:wrap type="square"></w:wrap> </v:shape><![endif][if !vml][endif]

This class inspired me to write my own honest poem. While it’s a work-in-progress, the vulnerability and compassion these artists had for one another during that class period made me want to share my own truths, no matter how good, bad, or weird they are. In the end, we are all some kind of savages. Some of us are just really literary about it.

Courtney Luk is a current TAP member and a Partner Teacher through the NYC Teaching Collaborative. She writes young adult novels and poetry. You can follow her shenanigans on Twitter!

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