The Power of Poetry

Johnston High English teacher makes poets out of school's urban immigrant youths

Johnston English teacher Camille DePrang (l) and senior Saray Rosales
Johnston English teacher Camille DePrang (l) and senior Saray Rosales (Photo By Michael May)

The five Johnston High School seniors met twice a week after school in the room of English teacher Camille DePrang and wrote poetry. These are not kids who have grown up thumbing through their parents' bound copies of Whitman and Dickinson. These poets are struggling with the same obstacles that face urban immigrant students across the country: single-parent homes, families that don't speak English, teen pregnancy, relatives and friends divided by borders.

The students' poetry provides an intimate look at the challenges these kids are facing and the way they cope. But there's more to be learned here. These seniors have spent their last four years in a school that has been rated "academically unacceptable" by the Texas accountability system, despite efforts to redesign and invest in the school. Those pervasive low Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test scores mean the Texas Education Agency could shut the school down this summer. The poetry produced in DePrang's classroom, however, shows that it might be hasty to judge Johnston simply by the numbers. It provides hope that the school's efforts to till the soil will bear fruit. These students know how to write.

Deprang began the poetry class in fall 2005, just as the district was implementing its "high school redesign" program at Johnston. She wanted to find poets who would inspire the kids to write about their lives, and she contacted Raúl Salinas, the poet and human-rights activist who founded Resistencia Bookstore. He and fellow activist Rene Valdez were already running writing clinics for juvenile offenders called Save Our Youth, or SOY, and they brought the project to Johnston. DePrang saw the workshop as a chance for students to write for fun – and work on the basics at the same time.

"I'm not a teacher who sets the world on fire," she says. "I find my role is to get back to basics. These students often aren't taught the foundations of grammar and how to edit. It's a form of institutional racism, and it can hold them back later when they're trying to get into college. I hope to open doors for creative things to happen."

Johnston senior Saray Rosales saw the open door and went running through it. The witty 17-year-old actually discovered her love for poetry through the TAKS test, but not in the way the test's designers intended. "I hate the TAKS, the writing prompts are so wack," says Rosales, referring to the directions given for the essay portion of the test. "The prompts would make you write something boring. Not cool. It puts you in a box. So I started just writing poetry in my tests instead."

So Rosales was intrigued when she heard about the poetry group. "I thought it was going to be hard, because I've never been one to write when someone tells me to write," she said. "But then they gave me a one-word prompt, like 'war' or 'family,' and I just went off. I liked what came out. So I thought, 'Hey, this is pretty cool. I should be a poet!'"

Her father is a Catholic deacon, and Rosales has lately been questioning her faith. Here's an excerpt from an untitled poem about her father:

He says I should pray

for patience, but I won't

I think I have far too much


but if it should ever

run out I hope my self-control

will be enough

My mom never tells me

to pray

It's always "tu papa dice"

One day, I hope she will.

Just so I can hear her talk.

For others, the poetry group has provided a place to confront painful experiences. When 17-year-old Mariama Konneh speaks, it's a whisper, and her classmates rarely hear her voice unless she's reading her poetry. She was born in Liberia in the midst of a civil war where children were trained to maim and kill by the indicted war criminal, Charles Taylor. Her family fled to Sierra Leone, until fighting broke out there. An aid organization found them in a refugee camp in Guinea, and she came to Johnston in 2005. One of her poems is about a field near her house where a massacre took place. The poem could be a metaphor for Mariama herself.

I wonder why

why the place is so quiet

And I think

what lies under settled water

is darker than what lies

under running water.

When Mariama reads her poems, you can hear the pride in her quiet voice. DePrang says she's seen a lot of these kids transform over the past two years. "It's a beautiful effect that I didn't anticipate," she says. "I've seen students who couldn't speak getting up and really delivering their words. It's given them a sense that their voice was important."

And these poems are important in a broader social sense, as well. It's one thing to understand that students at Johnston are dealing with difficult situations outside of school, but these poems provide a glimpse into how the students cope. Oscar Valenzuela writes poignantly about his relationship with his mother, who works every weekday from 7am to 4pm at Comfort Suites and then from 5pm to 1:30am as a janitor at UT.

Day by day, we have nothing to show,

On my own, it eats at me slow.

Each passing hour we grow farther apart,

Loving each other with barely a heart.

Minutes can't grasp on one another,

Just like us, we don't know each other.

Valenzuela has also written a series of poems about his brother, who got into drugs and was sent to live with his father in Mexico five years ago. Valenzuela hasn't seen him since. "The poetry allows me to put things out of my mind," he says. "Writing it down on paper makes me feel more relaxed."

But the writing isn't just a form of therapy. These are all motivated students who plan to go to college. And both the students and their teacher feel the poor test scores and bad press don't tell the full story about what's going on at Johnston. Senior Charlie Ramirez says the school has improved dramatically in the past four years. "There's a lot of good students here," he says. "And when the media paints a negative picture, it hits me personally." It's a theme that runs through his work.

You can't see the beauty in the rough

But the writing on the walls are now memories

The doors are pried open

The eyes of my comrades are vacant

I look in the mirror and see another

Statistic in the media

The students' poetry from last year has been published in a book called Beyond Blood Ties, which is available at Resistencia Bookstore, 1801 S. First. The volume from this year's work will be published shortly.

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Poetry, Johnston High School, Camille DePrang, TAKS, Raul Salinas, Resistencia Bookstore, Rene Valdez, Save Our Youth, Saray Rosales, Mariama Konneh, Oscar Valenzuela, Charlie Ramirez, Beyond Blood Ties

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