Can Poetry Block the School to Prison Pipeline?

In one of the country’s most challenging neighborhoods, local activists launched an experimental poetry program with ambitious goals.

At Houston’s Sharpstown High School, 98% of students are minorities, and 81% qualify for the free lunch program. Recent reports reveal that more than 20% of Sharpstown students missed 18 or more days of school in 2014–2015, which is of course linked to negative outcomes like lower rates of literacy, graduation, and college attendance.

But one of the biggest threats to student welfare is what activists call the “school to prison pipeline.” In schools like Sharpstown — read: non-white, non-wealthy schools — students can enter the justice system for even minor infractions, and many never escape the cycle of crime and punishment.

One group in Houston believes that poetry, of all things, is part of the answer.

The four students in the video above are among more than 175 from a total of five Houston public schools and two Harris County juvenile detention centers learning to write poetry in a program called Iconoclast.

The program is supported by nearby St. Paul’s Methodist Church, in partnership with other donors and community members. But Iconoclast, which was launched in October 2014, is a secular poetry program without any religious content or teaching.

Rev. Matt Russell, Senior Associate Pastor at St. Paul’s, says the goal of the program is to enable students “to see a new imagination for what their futures could be and then create definitive pathways towards those possibilities.”

In schools where students often come to school hungry, poetry may seem tangential to creating new futures. Yet, Iconoclast students report discovering belonging, empowerment, and new ways of speaking about their own life experiences. They look forward to coming to school as a result of the class, and students even recruit friends and classmates to join the class at the beginning of each semester.

Turning Teens into Published and Public Poets

Sharpstown students don’t just write poems for class; they also perform their poems for poetry readings at St. Paul’s Methodist, before audiences as large as 250. On these nights, they gain exposure to established local poets, who offer special workshops and often read alongside the students.

Teacher Faris Jabbar says he sees students “performing their poetry in venues they never would have attended, performing in front of people they normally wouldn’t have met,” as well as gaining exposure to things “that are really relevant to them but that they still normally wouldn’t encounter.”

Iconoclast’s lead teacher at all seven sites is poet Marlon Lizama, a published author of poems and short stories written “from the immigrant perspective.” He has traveled nationally and internationally as a poet and artist. Lizama says he is proudest “when I see them up there presenting confidently as artists, not as at-risk kids in front of people that are going to clap for whatever you’re going to say anyways, but as artists that are creating and performing their work.”

Warren Holland, a senior at Sharpstown who introduces himself with the pseudonym “Warren Peace,” says he and his classmates are part of the program “to do something that we love.” With poetry, he says, “It’s just me, and people get to hear me and see me for what I truly stand for and want to talk about.”

And in his poem “In My High School,” fellow classmate, junior Donald Val, laments his peers’ untold stories but celebrates the “lucky day [he] picked up a pen,” the pen that now enables him to tell his own story.

“I always tell them that their stories are very important,” says Mr. Lizama. Especially for the Hispanic kids, because their parents are immigrants, or they’re immigrants themselves. This is the first time they actually get to write out their stories. They try to hide their stories for so long simply because they’re made to feel shame of who they are.”

A Kickstarter campaign that began in November 2014 financed the publication of a paperback anthology of student poems. Edited by Lizama, They Say is scheduled to be released this month and will be sold on Amazon, in participating Iconoclast schools, and in local Houston bookstores. Proceeds go toward a college scholarship fund for the student authors.

Watch below for more Iconoclast student poetry: