Every Monday afternoon, Heritage University students Joseph and Latasha Larez spend two hours corralling a rambunctious and energetic group of sixth, seventh and eighth graders at Toppenish Middle School in order to teach them to write, collaborate, share and express themselves creatively and authentically. The Larezes’ work is a collaborative effort to get kids excited about learning through spoken word poetry, while providing the couple with a working lab for their liberal arts independent study course.
“The spoken word is a powerful tool,” said Joseph. “It connects us to each other and to our community.”
Spoken word is poetry or story-telling performed artistically. It often includes collaboration and experimentation with other art forms such as music, theater and dance; however, it focuses on the words themselves, the dynamics of tone, gestures and facial expressions.
Working with the Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) club at the middle school, Joseph and Latasha help the kids address difficult subjects. SADD’s mission is to help students avoid destructive decisions, and so the topics focus on issues the kids face in their personal lives such as substance abuse, bullying and suicide.
“Working with the students each week has really opened my eyes and given me a broader perspective on what kids are going through these days,” said Latasha. “I feel what they feel through their writing, and it’s exciting to connect on a deeper level with the kids. As a mother, I think it has also opened my eyes to what my own children are thinking and feeling.”
A mother of five, as well as an American Cultural Studies major and a tutor at the university’s writing center, Latasha’s wealth of life experience and wisdom offers students a depth of understanding that allows them to be vulnerable.
“Poetry is relatively new to me,” she said. “But as I prepared for this project, and in working with the kids each week, I've been surprised at how naturally writing poetry comes together.”
Using poetry and performance as tools to express their thoughts and feelings, the SADD students have so far chosen to center their writing on the themes of bullying, alcohol prevention and depression. Students are given the opportunity to choose and agree on a new theme each week.
They then break into small groups to work on writing and performances.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for junior high students to harness their complicated and evolving emotions and turn them into something positive," said Gerry Galindo, Toppenish School District intervention specialist and advisor for SADD.
The Larezes' involvement with the spoken word project began inauspiciously a year ago when Joseph, who also works for the university's maintenance department, was working in a room where members of the Mellon Fellowship program were preparing for a presentation. They were practicing readings on racism and growing up a minority. Joseph offered his interpretation on a reading and soon found himself invited to present at the Mellon Fellows Undergraduate Regional Conference. While the presentation was not spoken word poetry in its traditional sense, it had that same combination of dramatic reading and powerful language.
At the same time, the university's English and Humanities Department was starting the development of the Somos Indio "We are Indian" project. Funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, it aims to build a great understanding of the similarities of different cultures through curriculum development and public discourse. Dr. Winona Wynn, chair of English and Humanities at Heritage, saw a natural fit between the Somos Indios project and the kind of performance-drive essays that were presented at the Mellon conference.
She and Joseph started talking about this phenomenon called “spoken word” and how they could work with local school districts on such a project. Dr. Wynn then enlisted Galindo’s support, and Joseph and Latasha signed on for an independent study course to build a model spoken word project at a single middle school and to develop a curriculum that could be replicated in other school districts.
“This is important work they are doing. This project is about making connections between identity and story with the greater community,” Dr. Wynn said. “Joseph and Latasha have such heart and understanding for middle school students. They have a keen ability to ask hard questions while listening with compassion and understanding. The kids are really drawn to them and, therefore, are willing to take more risks with their writing and performing.”
It’s not always easy to inspire 25 middle school students to give voice to their innermost thoughts and emotions. But each week, the Larezes show up ready to dive in with these kids believing that words, when given an opportunity to be expressed, can change the world.
“When the students are having a hard time getting started, I remind them that poetry is just music without the instruments,” Joseph said. “Somehow that seems to help them connect the words floating around in their heads with the paper and pencil on the desk.”
The goal of the SADD group at Toppenish Middle School and the foundation for the Larezes’ independent study is to create avenues of expression. With expression comes a voice, and a voice creates connections in the community, and those connections bring about change and understanding.
“We want these students to write their stories; every one of them has something unique and special and valuable to share,” Joseph said. “We encourage them to share what they write with their peers because it not only gives them important communication tools, but it helps them understand each other better.”
As the semester has progressed, the Larezes have developed curriculum for a spoken word poetry group that can be adapted to different student ages. They began the process to start a spoken word poetry club at Heritage this fall and hope to be up and running on campus by the end of the school year. Joseph and Latasha have dreams of seeing the format multiply in many different age groups and school settings.
“This is all about expression,” Joseph said. “Whether you love words or music or movies—or anything, really—everybody needs a way to communicate and share his story. Spoken word is an excellent tool to teach communication skills.”
With dreams of one day starting a non-profit organization serving homeless youth and domestic violence victims in their home community of Harrah, Washington, the Larezes have laid a solid foundation of creating authentic connections within their communities through thoughtful, creative expression. Learning from each person they come into contact with, Joseph and Latasha use these experiences to create understanding and compassion for their community.
“We want to give people a second chance at life by building up their self-worth and self-confidence while also meeting their basic needs,” Latasha said. “Everything we do, whether it’s through school or our home life, is building toward serving our community.”