Students explode onto poetry slam scene

San Miguel sent the youngest participants to the 'Louder than a Bomb' competition in the Loop, but they made a big impression.

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By ROBERT FELTON

Six students from San Miguel School-Gary Comer campus (located at 819 N. Leamington Ave.) presented their poetry at the "Louder than a Bomb" poetry competition on March 4.

The annual competition, which is in its fifth year, was organized by the Young Chicago Authors and allows teens from dozens of schools throughout Chicago to share experiences within their communities with their peers through spoken word.

San Miguel was not only the sole Austin area school competing in the competition, but it was also the only middle school, which especially impressed Adriana Rundle, public relations director of both San Miguel schools (the south side campus is located at 1949 W. 48th St.).

"I think they did a wonderful job," said Rundle, who attended the preliminary match at The Hothouse (31 E. Balbo), which pitted San Miguel against Campos High School, Niles West High School and Flipside High School. "They were the youngest poets at the competition but they were incredibly poised."

The students performed individual poems in the first four of the 5-round competition. Judges scored their pieces based on content, delivery and use of inflection.

Among the highlights from San Miguel's students was "Dance With Me," by Kayla Reese, an impressively inventive poem about her aspirations to become a Broadway dancer. The capacity crowd of close to 300 people enthusiastically received the poem. It was the first poem to score two 10s from the five judges.

Dekeshia Horne's poem, "Nature Makes History Out of Me," was also a crowd favorite. It name-checked legendary African Americans, such as Duke Ellington and Martin Luther King, to create a daisy-chain of black accomplishment and experience throughout history, and finally linking herself to the chain at the end with the proclamation: "I am making the history of the present." The poem was well received by the audience and scored 9.2 and above across the board.

Reggie Gee and Kiante Green performed their pieces "Wings" and "Never Give Up," respectively. These two poems essentially presented variations on similar themes: Belief equals ability to overcome life's obstacles and challengesâ€"including apparently, public speaking.

The students of San Miguel were at times rattled by the enormity of the event, but overall appeared quite self-assured at The Hothouse, which is a difficult venue to perform in, due to its enormous crowds, elevated room temperature (close to 85 degrees), and raucous atmosphere, which had earlier reached a fever pitch as the audience began to chant: "When I say poetry, you say rocks/poetry rocks!"

San Miguel middle school first opened in 1995 on Chicago's South Side in a convent dining room with 18 students, a staff of four, and a $50,000 pilot grant. It opened the Gary Comer campus in Austin in 2002. Since then, the middle school has offered year-round classes, longer days (8 a.m.-5 p.m.) and required after-school activities, such as poetry, which the six participants who volunteered to take part in the poetry slam were enrolled in.

There is a 9-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio at the school, with two teachers in every class. There is a lot of reading; students are expected to read books of their choosing for 80 minutes every day. The school measures their success in the fact that 87 percent of graduates eventually complete high school, despite coming from neighborhoods with statistically high dropout rates.

San Miguel was accepted to compete in the competition in January and the six 7th grade students, which also included Natosha Mables and Ivory Davis, volunteered to perform at the event. Davis and Mables didn't have individual poems, but they helped recite the group piece entitled "What's good about the Austin Community?" which the children all wrote together with the guidance of their teachers Jolleen Wagner, Joe Riehl, and Eboni Younger, who all gave the students feedback on preparing their poems and dealing with the pressure of public speaking.

"We told them, believe in yourself, be confident in your presentation and have fun," said teacher/coach Wagner. "I think the audience was great, which also helped them feel more comfortable."

The preliminaries sent the top four ranking schools who participated in the three-day competition to compete against one another at the final. Although the students did not advance to the finals, they did finish an impressive third and second in the Friday and Saturday preliminaries, giving them much reason to be proud.

With one year under their belt, who knows what's possible next year?

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