Self-expression is one of the most important — and one of the hardest — things a teenager can do.
Cicero-North Syracuse High School has created a forum in which students can do just that.
At the school’s annual Poetry Slam, held April 30 and May 1, students are able to share their own poetry as well as that of famous poets in front of a large group. They can also sing a song; one student performed an original piece and played the ukulele. Students are judged by a panel of volunteers, teachers at the school, who determine a first-, second- and third-place winner. Each winner receives a Barnes and Noble gift card.
This year, staffers also joined the event; the winners of the student event had the opportunity to judge the faculty on their readings.
“We wanted to get staff involved to generate camaraderie and collegiality,” said English teacher Patty Farrington, who organizes the event every year. “We need to act as role models and show the students we’re readers, too.”
The event began in 1999 as a way to celebrate National Poetry Month, which takes place every April.
“It emphasizes the important role poetry, and language as a whole, play in our lives,” Farrington said. “We felt we needed a place for students to share and express their own work. We’ve also found over time that students have asked about sharing other pieces they felt influenced by, so they share those as well.”
Farrington said she thought the event was important because it allowed students freedom of expression as well as total creative control.
“In free verse poetry, there are no rules, and even though there are some rules as to structure with other forms, there are no boundaries on what someone feel,” she said. “To express and have that ultimate control — where else do they have that except over the words they wrote and shared? That’s phenomenal for a young person.”
Farrington emphasized the bravery it takes to get up and share personal works with such a large group — this year’s event included more than 40 student readers and attracted dozens of spectators.
“It takes a great deal of courage to do this,” she said. “You wear your heart on your sleeve when you share your own writing, and when you share someone else’s, you’re wearing their emotions on your sleeve.”
Senior Jillian Moczara said it was nerves that kept her from participating in previous years, something she now regrets.
“I’ve written poetry for a couple of years, and I’ve never been confident enough in it to read it in front of people,” Moczara said. “This year, I finally had something I was comfortable enough reading in front or people.”
Moczara’s poem about the power of spoken-word poetry was a prize winner in this year’s competition. She said she was glad she found the courage to participate this year, as poetry plays an important role in her life.
““I thought that was really cool to let [students] express themselves in front of other people,” she said. “It’s really inspired me and helped me realize what I want to do with the rest of my life. I want to be an English teacher. Writing it functions as an emotional outlet for me.”
Farrington said poetry plays an important role for everyone.
“Poetry shapes the way we think about the world around us,” she said. “For students, it allows them to become observers in a way they may not have before. It allows them to see things in a whole new way… Poetry doesn’t have to be something stiff and formal and unreachable. It doesn’t have to be hard to understand. Everyone can take part and enjoy.”
Most importantly, poetry and events like the Poetry Slam allow students to see their peers in a new light.
“It was cool because I was just sitting here, and I would be in awe of the brilliance that is in this school,” said junior Crystal King, who participated in the event for the first time this year. “I had no idea. You see a lot of ignorant and dumb people in high school, and then you see these beautiful minds and it was really cool to see all of that.”
Farrington, who would like to see the Poetry Slam become a full-day, districtwide program, said the event allows students to connect to each other on a different level while acknowledging the tremendous amount of talent within the high school.
“It’s so important for them to be spotlighted. There’s so much goodness in this building,” she said. “No matter what a student shares, even if it’s sad, it’s okay to share what you’re feeling. [We want to show them] their feelings are valid. To share, value and care about their feelings as well as the words that express those feelings is key to what we’re doing with students in terms of helping them grow.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.