I am the Spoken Word Teaching Artist for the Oak Park Education Foundation (OPEF), writing with the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Brooks and Julian middle schools. In the classroom we honor the many experiences everyone has and spotlight those stories through poetry.
The Middle is a magical manifestation of writing and stories, a collective effort of my Spoken Word students, my team, a lot of late nights editing poems, and the community that supports Spoken Word. This program has grown so much within the district and especially in the middle schools from the three-day residency to five, the club and now this book. The Middle was a pipe dream of mine that became this mountainous project, thanks to the support of my director, my fellow teachers, and the students who made it possible. I credit the students as the main source because without their stories and willingness to share, this dream would’ve stayed as just that.
You’ll read a lot of different poems in The Middle and you’ll connect with so many stories and experiences, which is what poetry is all about. Often we are told young people do not know so much or have not experienced things and that is simply not true. I myself underestimated what my students would be writing about and what stories they would have to tell and I think a lot of that stemmed from my own experience as a middle-schooler. I remember being 12 and 13 and feeling so much and going through different things like heartbreak and moving and anxiety and happiness and change and joy, but there wasn’t a good time to talk about those things. Nor did I feel I had the space to do so. I wanted to showcase what I was hearing in the classroom and provide an opportunity to these young writers that I wish I had.
I wanted to do what had been done for me when I was in Spoken Word Club in high school: At the end of every year they collect the poems from all three showcases and create a chapbook. They published and praised and acknowledged the work and the writing we did and it was the first time we were being published. At least for me it was. And that’s an amazing opportunity to have your work out, to be seen and to be heard. Now this book and this program are all about that. It’s really important to me that my students feel heard and that they feel like someone’s listening; actively listening to them, not just that they are speaking and there’s another person in the room, but that this person is taking an interest in what they are saying.
I think it’s important to listen to one another, to offer space to speak your truth. I hope this book did that for the students.
A lot of them shared their stories with all of you, but it is important to know that a lot of them did not. Amongst all the things that got lost in COVID, Spoken Word was one of them. The Middle is not complete; it is missing the entirety of the sixth-grade poems from the Brooks Middle School students. Those poets put in just as much effort and time as every other writer did last year and I would like to take a moment to acknowledge them and honor them here — thank you.
The Middle took so much more than I thought and I realize now that the people who made my high school experience so wonderful made it look easy. It wasn’t just collecting poems and putting them in a book and there we go, let’s print. It was the teaching and the writing and the teamwork of countless teachers, folks from OPEF, parents and students and a lot of hours. This book is so much more than a collection of poems; it is the time, effort and experiences of the poets. It is truly one of the most beautiful things I will ever get to be a part of.
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OPEF teaching artist mo Santiago is a poet and self-studying photographer from Chicago. Their personal writing centers around their life as a survivor of sexual assault, their experience with heartbreak, and growing up in a Puerto Rican and Irish household. Through their online gallery, Ghoul Gang, artists submit work about the harassment and oversexualization experienced in everyday lives. Ghoul is a community project that also hosts resources for those seeking counseling, organizations that support mental and emotional well-being, and artists “just like us.” Santiago says, “I believe it’s OK to be uncomfortable and I hope my work brings that out in people so we may further these conversations and normalize them.”
To read “The Middle,” learn more about Spoken Word and see virtual poetry slams, go to: https://www.opef.org/programs/spoken-word/