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Film Espouses the 'Power' of Writing

One of the latest in a slew of education documentaries, "To Be Heard" profiles three Bronx high school students who participate in an outside-the-curriculum program called Power Writers. The program is led by guest artists who teach three-hour blocks once a week at the high school and, using what the directors call "compassionate pedagogy," encourage students to write and perform soul-bearing, politically conscious poems.

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Roland Legiardi-Laura, co-director and one of the instructors featured in the film, said in an interview that "To Be Heard" addresses the country's "literacy crisis." Yet a more apparent thematic thread is the need to empower inner-city teenagers—and the way language can give them a means to combat their often-grueling and abusive home situations.

The three student stars, Anthony Pittman, Pearl Quick, and Karina Sanchez, form a close-knit friend group they refer to as "the tripod." Each struggles with his or her own personal demons—Pittman is in and out of the court system, Quick is overweight and fear-ridden, and Sanchez lives with a violent mother and six siblings for whom she bears responsibility. Through workshops and slam poetry competitions with Power Writers, they push each other to express their pain and hope. As Legiardi-Laura explains to the students, writers' words have the "ability to transform other people. And that's when you become truly powerful."

The Power Writers program, which began 10 years ago, does not follow an instructional methodology or curriculum, and the instructors are not trained in a specific therapeutic method. But Legiardi-Laura is adamant that Power Writers is replicable. "Anyone can do what we're doing. ... It's about listening to students and being open to them," he said. At a panel discussion after the film screening, Quick explained that while most classes in school require students to sit and listen quietly, "Power Writers is more 'we'll sit down and shut up and you say what you want to say.'"

The instructors establish themselves as life coaches or motivators rather than by-the-book school teachers or disciplinarians. They use a "get-real" approach, allowing and using expletives and ensuring (except in extreme cases) student confidentiality. In an early scene, instructor Joe Ubiles is riding the subway with a group of students when Anthony begins stripping seductively for his female cohorts. Ubiles, who has taught for two decades and grew up in the inner-city as well, responds by simply telling Anthony, "You'd better have your bail money in your pocket." (The moment, alas, foreshadows later events).

The instructors also hold Saturday classes at their own apartments, take students on trips to the beach and Walden Pond, and escort them on college visits. Amy Sultan, co-director of the documentary and also a Power Writer teacher, says in the film that she is often asked, "Aren't you supposed to keep a distance [from your students' lives]?" Yet that's a line she refuses to draw. "And as far as I'm concerned, that's why the kids have gone where they've gone," she says.

For Legiardi-Laura, the film is something of a platform to rail against the current test-obsessed education environment. In one scene, he tells students, "Words are weapons; they're stones and rocks. That's why we're learning vocabulary—not because we're going to take some stupid test sometime." In the panel discussion, he further contended that "there's an overemphasis on outcome. At some point school becomes teacher-proof. ... Now teachers are test proctors. And in five years, they'll be disembodied voices behind computer screens."

Yet it's easier to dodge curriculum and espouse compassionate instruction as a guest teacher who is not bound by the test scores' high stakes—and many full-time teachers are resentful of outsiders who flaunt their ability to do so. Legiardi-Laura explained during the panel discussion that the teaching artists—who are funded both by the Department of Education and nonprofit organizations—sometimes have "complex" and even "problematic" relationships with the schools they work in. While some teachers support the program and say it motivates students to write, others are embittered because students prefer the poetry workshops to their core classes, he said—and some kids even skip class to visit with the teaching artists.

There are no hard data to prove the program works—only anecdotal evidence that participants test well and gain confidence and worldliness. And while Power Writers students often bring prestige to their schools by winning awards and scholarships, they also "become troublemakers immediately," said Legiardi-Laura. "We give them a voice, and the first place they express it is with their school administration."

The film borders on sentimental at times, but ultimately maintains its gritty, close-up integrity. In the end, the directors do not claim that the writing program solves students' problems—and in fact, only one "tripod" member ends up attending college. But they do contend that the program serves as a jumping-off point for other innovative literacy initiatives. For instance, Legiardi-Laura said, the Power Writers organizers are planning the "first mobile poetry community for youth," which would allow students to store and share their poetry through smartphones—something many of his students are already doing.

In all, the directors suggest that educators take a step back and listen to their students. "The way you respect a kid is to listen," he said in an interview. "You have to give kids as much control over their learning space as possible."

Photo: Pearl Quick performs spoken-word poetry after a screening of "To Be Heard," the documentary in which she is featured, at the 2011 SilverDocs film festival in Silver Spring, Md. —Liana Heitin for Education Week Teacher.

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