This week we tell the stories of not one but two great programs at Oak Park and River Forest High School. These are teacher-led efforts that bring together teens who are looking for something that will connect them to others while allowing them to explore their own challenges and lives.

Spoken Word is so many things. Performance. Rap. Poetry. A class. A club. A connection. Led by the pretty much inestimable Peter Kahn, an OPRF English teacher, Spoken Word began here in 1999 and has grown from a very large after-school club into its own English class and part of the curriculum in other lit classes. 

Dr. Susan Bridge, the former OPRF superintendent who green-lighted Spoken Word all those years ago, has come back to the school and is working with Kahn as the program continues to evolve. The latest twist comes as Kahn is increasingly working with teachers and schools beyond OPRF to nurture the intimate and powerful Spoken Word experience for more young people.

Meanwhile, this past weekend more than 200 OPRF students took active part in Operation Snowball, the annual three-day retreat held this year at a camp in far south suburban Frankfort. Operation Snowball has been around OPRF for nearly 20 years. It has ebbed and flowed as these things do, though this year was a record turnout.

Who comes to Snowball? It’s a disparate group. Some are students more directly facing up to specific issues of drug or alcohol worries, family troubles, identity. And some are just teenagers looking to navigate a big school in an atmosphere apart from the usual splits of athletes and brains, popular and left out. 

“It’s just about getting kids involved because when you are a teenager, everyone has issues,” is how Andrea Neuman, a co-sponsor along with James Geovanes, aptly puts it.

This is a teen-led program for brave teens ready to talk about real things, the sorts of topics that don’t come up in casual, peer-pressured settings. And when school’s back in session, there is always that Snowball connection that respects inclusion and honors the challenges every young life faces.

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