Creating a Sense of Belonging

Every day we hear from teachers and administrators whose budget for creative education has been cut, or worse, eliminated altogether.

Student spoken word presentations at Rochester STEM Academy

Student spoken word presentations at Rochester STEM Academy

We are in a constant battle to affirm what we know to be true – that creating art helps students learn and thrive in ways that traditional education can’t provide.

Leylo* would agree – she is part of a group of students in Rochester, MN who have experienced the incredible power of creativity while working with our teaching artist Frank Sentwali.

Leylo and her family immigrated from Somalia to Rochester when Leylo was very young.  Like many young girls, Leylo had done some writing before – mostly poetry and a few stories. She was proud of what she wrote, but kept her pieces tucked away and never shared them. What if someone laughed – or worse, thought they were boring? 

When she thought about what she should write, happy subjects came to mind – along with some sad ones. Even though she has lived in Minnesota most of her life, sometimes Leylo feels like she is not accepted. “I like to write poetry because I can express my feelings;” she said.

Frank quickly won over the whole class with his energetic and inspirational teaching style. Students began performing their written pieces in front of one another from the very first week. “Frank has high expectations, but he coaches us and helps us become more confident” said Leylo.

Student spoken word presentations at Rochester STEM Academy  

Student spoken word presentations at Rochester STEM Academy

 

“Students want to be understood,” said Leylo’s teacher, Jon. “The performance of spoken word poetry enhances learning on so many levels. It builds a sense of identity, fosters leadership skills and a sense of community, and helps students who are learning English as a second language.”

Over the course of the year, Leylo and her classmates each wrote more than 10 spoken word pieces to perform as part of their end of year celebration. And they had some help – students from previous years volunteered to stay late and help coach and mentor students through writing and performing their poems.

“This program creates an environment where students want to learn and know they can succeed;” said Jon.  Students grow in confidence, and their academics improve as they become more engaged in what they are doing at school.

Student spoken word presentations at Rochester STEM Academy

Student spoken word presentations at Rochester STEM Academy

A few months ago, Jon asked if some of the students in Frank’s class would be willing to perform their poem to a larger audience. Hundreds of Rochester residents would be gathering for a community event – would some of the students be willing to share their poetry? Leylo and several of her classmates agreed to go.

Soon it was time for them to perform. Leylo was nervous. As she approached the stage, she looked out on the hundreds of strangers gathered to hear her speak. She remembered some tips Frank gave her to feel more confident. “Take a deep breath, and remember all of our practice!” said Frank; “You can do this!” She took a deep breath and shared her poem, a story of the friendships she had built while living in Minnesota. Next thing she knew she was done – and thundering applause filled the room.

Frank was right! She did have the confidence and skill to share her story. As she listened to the applause, she felt something she hadn’t felt before – a sense of belonging.

by COMPAS staff member, Juliana Anderson Wilkins

* Not her real name.