chalk talk

Teen poetry slam winner from Memphis shares why she writes

PHOTO: National Civil Rights Museum
Kyla Lewis, a senior at GRAD Academy of Memphis, performs her poem that won first place in the teen category at the National Civil Rights Museum "Drop the Mic" poetry slam on Aug. 13.

Writing poetry is more than cathartic to Kyla Lewis, a 17-year-old senior at GRAD Academy, a Memphis high school operated by the state-run Achievement School District.

It’s a way for her to connect with others and share her voice. And lately, her talent has paid off — literally.

Kyla won $1,000 this summer as the teen winner of the third annual Drop The Mic Poetry Slam at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The theme was “And Justice for All.” Participants had to submit audition videos, and finalists were chosen to perform. Kyla’s poem was titled “A New Pledge.” (Check out the video of her performance at the bottom of this page.)

Comparing herself to a bud ready to open, Kyla says she’s been nurtured by teachers and mentors including Timothy Moore, a GRAD Academy teacher and nationally recognized spoken word artist. She hopes that sharing her poetry will always be a part of her life.

Chalkbeat sat down recently with Kyla to talk about what she writes and why. Here are the highlights:

What got you writing?

I’ve been writing since I was little. I was brought up around great writers, but they never branched out on their talent. They stuck with Plan B. … And me, I guess it became a passion, an expression of all the energy I felt, whether it was positive or negative. It was my easiest way to stay sane in such a crazy world.

After I started working with Timothy Moore, it went from quick writing to long hours of writing and revising and editing, and days of memorizing to actually go perform. It’s a lot more than just how I feel now. It’s about how I can make the other people feel it. That’s where I’m at. I want to make everybody else feel it. That’s the thing as a writer. For people who don’t think like you or have the same thought processes as you, how can you make your thought process relatable to theirs?

How would you describe your style and the things you most enjoy writing about?

I’m developing my style. I started off as a punchline poet. The stuff I would write about would get those quick ooos or that dope thing to say. But now it’s more about how can I bring more similes, metaphors, personification, imagery? … How can I bring the entire recipe into a dope poem?

There are a lot of things I write about. I could be in the shower and think of a punchline and build a whole poem around it. But right now, it’s more about how I can morph other literary devices to make this one thing or idea.
I remember one time we were talking about (hair) bobs and weaves. We were talking about black culture and how all these girls got bobs and weaves. And I was like, you know what else is bob and weaving? Fighting. And then I thought about these boys out here bobbing and weaving and all these girls out here with bobs and weaves. And then I wrote a whole poem about my black generation from that one punchline.

Kyla Lewis
PHOTO: National Civil Rights Museum
Kyla Lewis

How many times had you performed before the Drop The Mic Poetry Slam?

Fifty-plus, I would say. I have experienced crowds of all sizes — from just a tiny crowd and making it a lively performance, to a large crowd and trying to control the snaps and the ooos and ahhs, to a timed performance. And a lot of those opportunities came from Timothy Moore.
I asked several (teachers) to sponsor a poetry team when I came to the school in 10th grade. Timothy Moore agreed, and it was a rocky start. But the next year, we competed and kicked butt in Nashville. It was a dream come true.

You said writing is a way to “stay sane in such a crazy world.” What do you mean by that?

Well, it’s the typical story of a black teen, right? Growing up in rough neighborhoods with a single parent. I’ve attended 10 schools since kindergarten because my family was moving around so much. So, with that, there’s a couple of questions I had. Religious questions. I always grew up next to a church but didn’t know the power of God or why he would let my family go through this. I experienced homelessness my sophomore year. Actually when I met Timothy Moore, I was homeless at the time. My only outlet was writing. I had went from a place where I had everything I needed to gradually becoming homeless as bills piled up and other people who lived with us moved out. I went from having my own room with my own design to living from house to house sharing with people.

Poetry was pretty much my voice. I didn’t really know how to ask people for help. I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling. But it seemed like once I got to a pen and paper or just even somewhere to type it out, I was better. That was a pathway to everything else. No matter what was going on around me, it helped me (say): I’m not going to let where I come from determine what I become. Poetry was the inspiration for me to have that mindset. This is going to be my future.

What are your plans after graduating?

I’m still deciding what major I want to do. When I got $1,000 for two minutes of performing, it got me thinking. I’m thinking about English to perfect my craft, or psychology or business if I want to do my own thing. I’ve also thought about starting my own nonprofit. But I want to be on the stage.

Editor’s note: Periodically, Chalkbeat conducts our Chalk Talk interviews with a leader, innovator, influential thinker, exceptional student, or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat with suggestions for future subjects to [email protected]

“A New Pledge” by Kyla Lewis from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Superintendent search

Ten things to know about Detroit superintendent candidate Nikolai Vitti

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., speaks in a district video.

The search for Detroit’s next schools superintendent enters the next stage on Wednesday with the first of two public interviews with the finalists for the job.

The candidate on the hot seat Wednesday is Nikolai Vitti, a Dearborn Heights native who is now superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla. The district is more than three times the size of the Detroit district, which now enrolls around 40,000 students.

Vitti will spend 12 hours interviewing in Detroit on Wednesday starting at 8 a.m. with a briefing on district finances and academics. His planned schedule for the day includes a visit to Thirkell Elementary Middle School to meet with students and educators, a lunch with school board members at the Breithaupt Career & Technical Center, and a series of public forums at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High @ Northwestern. That includes a 2:30 p.m. meeting with religious, labor and business leaders, a 4 p.m. meeting with parents and community leaders, and a 6 p.m. public interview with the school board.

A second finalist, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman, will go through a similar process on Monday. Despite community pressure, the district’s current interim superintendent is not a finalist and will not be interviewed.

Before the action begins, here are ten things to know about Vitti:

  1. He grew up in Dearborn Heights, the son of Italian immigrants.
  2. He played football at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, later getting graduate degrees in education at Harvard.
  3. His history as someone who has struggled with dyslexia a challenge also faced by his two sons — has led him to highlight the needs of students with learning disabilities. Those efforts earned him an award from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  4. Vitti presides over a district labeled the most dangerous in Florida but faces far fewer challenges than Detroit does.
  5. He appears to have found a middle ground in a polarized education reform landscape. On the one hand, he has invoked the language of teachers as “widgets” that came out of a seminal 2009 report that advocated for weighing student performance in teacher hiring, firing, and evaluation decisions, and he replaced 30 percent of principals early in his tenure in Duval County, saying that they were underperforming. But he has advocated for the arts and evaluating performance beyond test scores.
  6. He says he has learned a lesson that some hard-charging reformers took a while to absorb: that having a strong curriculum is as important as getting strong educators into the classroom. “This has been an evolution for me. I have traditionally put more of my eggs in the leadership-development category and in the direct support of teachers through coaching. That’s still a relevant investment,” he said in an October 2016 conversation with an education leader. “But as I’ve gone through this process and evolved as a leader and a thinker, I would put my eggs more in the curriculum basket than I ever would have before.” In Duval County, Vitti rolled out EngageNY, the free curriculum that New York State developed and now makes available to other states. EngageNY is also in use in some Detroit-area schools, including in those run by the state’s Education Achievement Authority, which will be returning to the main Detroit district this summer.
  7. Vitti has sparred with the local NAACP over test score disparities between white children and children of color. And a Duval school board member asked Vitti to resign last fall in part over the achievement gap, issuing an open letter explaining why. The local newspaper urged the board to keep him, saying the idea of firing him would be a “tragic mistake.”
  8. But the racial achievement gap is lower in Duval County than in many other urban districts. And low-income and minority students as well as students with disabilities in Jacksonville perform better on a national exam compared to their peers across the country. Vitti credits to Response to Intervention, an approach to helping struggling students fill in their skills gaps, with the strong results.
  9. Vitti believes that school systems can and should give children more than what’s necessary to hit learning goals. Duval County has a voluntary summer school to keep kids busy.
  10. His wife, Rachel, an educator and advocate, invoked the fact that she’s a black woman married to Vitti, who is white, on a poster to campaign “as a straight ally” for a local human rights ordinance. “The sobering fact is that less than 50 years ago, without the voice of allies, I would have been arrested and jailed for displaying my human right to love a man, who shares my heart, brings me to a poignant pause,” she was quoted as saying on the poster. “Less than 50 years ago, without the voice of allies, my four bi-racial children would have been deemed to be illegitimate and would not have been given the protections and privileges afforded to the children of lawfully wedded parents.”

education power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: Rep. Tim Brown

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos and Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 41, covering parts of Montgomery, Boone, and Tippecanoe counties. So far, has served 23 years in the House of Representatives. Brown had a career as an emergency room doctor in Crawfordsville, retiring in 2015.

Why he’s a power player: Brown is chairman of the influential House Ways & Means Committee, one of the main budget-writing bodies in the Indiana General Assembly. In addition to helping craft the state budget, which includes money for schools, Brown’s committee also considers bills that could have a financial impact on the state. Any proposal involving money — including testing, school choice and preschool — has to pass muster with him. In recent years, Brown has supported funding increases for students with special needs and virtual charter schools.

Money follows the child: Brown has pushed for changes over the years to how Indiana funds schools, favoring plans aimed at equalizing the base funding allocated for students across districts. Historically, the state had padded the budgets of districts that were losing large numbers of students — helping them adjust but leading to disparities between schools across the state.

Brown finally achieved his goal of having the same basic aid for each district in 2015. Enrollment is now the driving factor in how much money schools get, as opposed to where they are located or what kinds of students attend.

On school choice: Brown served on the House Education Committee in 2011, the year the legislature passed a number of major education reform measures dealing with charter schools, teacher evaluation and vouchers. Since then, Brown has continued to support school choice options, working on bills about “education savings accounts” and other choice programs that would let students take individual classes outside their public schools.

Who supports him: Brown has received campaign contributions from Education Networks of America, a private education technology company; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country; and Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers.

Given his support for choice-based reform, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education gave Brown an “F” in its 2016 legislative report card highlighting who it thinks has been supportive of public schools.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year and where they were halfway through the session.