"Mind-blowing" Poetry Experience at Lawrence High

Much rests on Amanda Torres’s thoughtful and energetic shoulders. As Mass Poetry’s leader of youth and spoken word programs, she’s busy. But when asked what her chief role is in all the programs she supervises, she replies, “Facing uncertainty.”

Amanda Torres and student

But in her uncertainty, she has accomplished a lot. Besides organizing last year’s Student Day of Poetry and Louder than a Bomb programs and getting ready for those programs in the coming year, she has she created Youth Spoken Word Teaching Institute and a Spoken Word summer camp. The teaching institute began with a three-day program this summer in which 22 artists met for training to go into the classroom. The institute continues with these same artists, meeting bi-monthly and sharing their experiences, their struggles and their solutions.

This group of artists has already been involved in the Massachusetts schools.

One such community involvement resulted when several organizations came together for a poetry day at Lawrence High School. Besides Mass Poetry and its outreach program MassLEAP, the coordination included working with Lou Bernieri of Andover Bread Loaf, an organization headquartered at Phillips Academy and affiliated with Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf program. Bernieri had been working with a Lawrence program for some time and invited Mass Poetry and its teaching artists to be involved. The day also had the support and financial backing of the Robert Frost Foundation, with Mark Schorr, its director, excited to be involved in a program for Frost’s alma mater, Lawrence High. And finally Rich Gorham, English teaching coach at Lawrence High, had wanted to do a poetry festival at school for years. This year he got his wish.

Torres’s description of the day is mind-blowing. “I was the observer, facilitator, and debriefer. I bore witness to the incredible teaching artists who have been working together now for several months. I sat back and watched it happen.” She describes the workshops full of many kids who came in hating poetry, many kids who were new to this country, many kids who may have come to their group thinking what is poetry going to do to stop the gunshots in my neighborhood? In these groups, teaching artists began to work their magic by investing in these students’ latent potential.

Teens were asked to write on the subject “What is your super power?” or “I saved the world today!” Suddenly with the special skills of the teaching artists, the workshops were on fire with energy and excitement. “You had to be there to believe it,” says Torres. In the afternoon when all the groups came together to read their poems Torres, who needed to run back stage to tell someone something, sneaked a look in front of the curtain and saw “an entire audience of happy smiles. And they listened to each other tell their poems in utter silence. They were interacting deeply with each other.”

Even Lawrence High teachers got involved. Mr. Reynolds signed up for the open mic and rapped about teaching. As he gathered steam, the whole audience was singing along with him. Afterward the students themselves were organizing their own Louder than a Bomb program, aflame from the excitement of the day.

“I feel blessed to be doing this important work,” says Torres. She sees herself in some of these students. “I couldn’t read as a small child, and so my mother, after a long hard day at work, would read to me, encouraging me, helping me to fall in love with words. My mother was an angel. She pushed me to do well and advocated for me.”

Torres feels as though the writing community has become her family, too, and she feels she could see those warm relationships developing between students in the Lawrence program. “That kind of caring support can do wonders for your life.”

So the writing programs for schools are not only about learning skills skills like reading and writing, they are about helping kids develop confidence in themselves – confidence enough to get up and read something personal before an auditorium full of peers. They are about developing that safety net where students feel accepted enough to risk uttering the revelations that came through their writing. They feel close enough to care for each other. It’s developing this kind of rapport that makes the Youth Spoken Word Teaching Institute a powerful organization.

Lawrence is not the only school the Mass Poetry outreach program has been involved in. It’s just the latest. And Torres is out there facing all the uncertainty about where to go next and how best to use the limited resources she has at her disposal.

Amanda Torres is a mexicana writer, singer, teacher, and organizer who likes ostriches and avocados. Winner of the National Brave New Voices Slam Competition & veteran of Louder Than Bomb Chicago, she showcased the first youth poetry slam in London. Amanda has received several awards for her writing and performance, including the Union League Civic Arts foundation Award for fiction. She has written articles for AREA magazine & Gozamos and has published work in several anthologies including the Garland Court Review.
In Chicago, Amanda founded and managed the first Youth Advisory Council at Young Chicago Authors and co-founded L@s Eloter@s, a socially engaged Latino/a writing teachers collective. Amanda continues to teach ESL and performance poetry though out the state of Massachusetts. She served as the Festival Director for the first Louder Than A Bomb Teen Poetry Slam in MA and co-founded Mass LEAP, the youth spoken word programming arm of MassPoetry where she  currently serves as Program Director.