By Sam Piha
Providing opportunities for youth to reflect on and express their thoughts and feelings are a critical strategy for any afterschool program. These opportunities are essential to promoting youth voice, healthy youth development, social emotional skills and resiliency, especially those who have experienced trauma. Strategies and activities include sharing circles, poetry and spoken word, journaling, videography, art and the theater arts.
We interviewed Daniel Summerhill (poet, performance artist and Assistant Professor of Poetry/ Social Action & Composition, School of Humanities & Communication, CSUMB) on the importance of using journaling and poetry/ spoken word to promote young people’s self- expression. Below are some of his responses.
Q: Why is it important to provide youth with opportunities to reflect on and/or express themselves and their feelings?
A: Because they HAVE them and don't always have space to express them. Often outburst or "disruptive behavior" are a sign that a child isn't receiving the proper space to express or reflect. However, many times, us as adults and teachers etc write children off as just being "bad" or "misbehaving." Misbehavior is merely an expression that goes against whatever construct or rule you have in place. You have to allow space for humans to express. That is why the uprising of black people and allies these days is so healthy. It provides a sense of liberation and expression. Youth are no different.
Q: Do you think that journal writing is a good way to provide these opportunities? Why?
A: Absolutely, even if it's just a stream of consciousness writing. In each of my creating courses at CSUMB, students spend 10 minutes at the beginning of each class dedicated to journaling. The only rule is that they write. They can write, "i hate writing" for 10 minute as long as the pen doesn't stop. Usually, they don't. Even if they begin writing something like "I hate writing," typically their mind is still going and ends up on the page. This is the idea of stream of conscious journaling. Allowing the mind, thoughts and feelings to drive the writing, rather than something external. Journaling allows you to slow down and notice yourself and your thoughts, which is greatly therapeutic!
(From Temescal Associates- Check out this article from the National Afterschool Association, Finding Their Voice: Why Kids Should Journal and the Pandemic Project).
Q: Do you think that poetry writing/ spoken word are good ways to provide these opportunities? Why?
A: Poetry allows the writer to discover things about himself and spoken word often allows others (listeners/readers) to see things about themselves. So in many ways, poetry is very conversational, whether it be with the self or with others. This idea in its purest form is expression, communication is simply expression. There are very few mediums that allow a person to converse with themselves the way poetry does. You are able to use images and language that you aren't typically allowed to in conventional discourse, that is liberating and allows you as a writer to tap into all of your senses the best way you can.
Q: Do staff need special training?
A: Staff don't need "training," but to need to acclimate themselves with the history, orality and the culture of spoken word. Specifically, the roots in African storytelling and more recently, the beat poets, last poets are now the plethora of good poets out there performing. These are base level things to be learned in order to yield good understanding and teaching of performance poetry. There are some good resources for this, including Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X and Dr. Joshua Bennet has a work of narrative nonfiction, Spoken Word: A Cultural History.
Q: Can you provide one example of a writing project that you did that provided youth with good opportunities for self- expression? What age were the kids?
A: I used to be a teaching artist and would frequently teach poetry workshops to teens mostly, middle school as well. It wasn't so much me having a prescription for expression. Humans are hardwired to express, but oftentimes don't have the platform or medium to do so. My role wasn't to teach them how to express, they already knew how. They did it by talking, walking, eating, listening to music etc. My role was to figure out how to create the safest and most rewarding space for them to express as fully and as authentically as possible.
For example, Black Joy workshop, headed by Chapter 510 and published by Nomadic Press, had a diversity of young men a part of it. I didn't tell them how to express their interest in skateboarding, activism, sports and food. That is what they were into; however, in that particular workshop, my role was to connect those expressions to "black joy" and to help them understand their expressions as "joy." Joy is an expression. A good one.
Q: Can you recommend any good resources/ websites for afterschool programs that want to learn more?
A: Spoken word is still a growing and semi-new art form, in the modern sense. So there isn't a lot of literature about it other than the two books I mentioned above. Saul Williams has an older film called "Slam" that is worth checking out and the Poetry Foundation might have some good resources. Otherwise, it is best to just get to know the spoken word artist out there. follow them, support their work and immerse yourself in their world. There are a lot of really good spoken word artists out there.
Daniel B. Summerhill is an assistant professor of poetry/social action and composition studies at California State University Monterey Bay. He is the author of Divine, Devine, Devine (forthcoming), a semifinalist for the Charles B. Wheeler poetry prize. Summerhill holds an MFA in creative writing from Pine Manor College (Solstice). He has received the Sharon Olds Fellowship and was nominated to Everipedia’s 30 under 30 list.
Daniel has performed alongside greats such as Jasmine Mans, Abiodun Oyewole, Lebogang Mashile, Gcina Mhlophe and others. He co-headlined a European tour and was invited by the University of Kwazulu-Natal and the U.S. Embassy to teach and perform at the annual International Poetry Africa Festival in 2018. He is the 2015 NY Empire State Poetry Slam Champion and a 2015 Nitty Gritty Grand Slam Champion. His poems are published or forthcoming in the Lilly Review, Califragle, Button, Blavity and elsewhere. A chapter of his research, Black Voice: Cultivating Authentic Voice in Black Writers is forthcoming by the Massachusetts Reading Association.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.