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.

petition drive

School chiefs in Memphis, Nashville join education leaders urging protection of ‘Dreamers’ under Trump

The superintendents of Tennessee’s two largest school districts are among 1,500 education leaders to sign a petition asking for continued protection from deportation for “Dreamers,” young people brought to the U.S. as children.

Dorsey Hopson

Dorsey Hopson of Shelby County Schools and Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools are among chiefs of at least 15 urban districts to sign the letter. Also joining the campaign are at least 30 educators from mostly Memphis and Nashville, as well as leaders from charter and nonprofit organizations and teacher’s unions from across the nation.

The petition was released this week before Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday as the nation’s 45th president. During his presidential campaign, Trump vowed to do away with the federal policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Policy, or DACA, as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration. However, he recently told Time magazine that he would “work something out” for people known as “Dreamers,” so named for the failed DREAM Act legislation that would provide a path toward citizenship.

The petition calls DACA “crucially important to public education across the country” and also urges passage of the DREAM Act. The drive was organized by Stand for Children, a nonprofit group that advocates for education equity in 11 states, including Tennessee.

Cardell Orrin, director of Stand for Children in Memphis, said the signatures show that “leaders in Nashville and Memphis care about what’s happening with our kids and want to see the dream continue for Dreamers.”

He added that school leaders are mobilized to work together in behalf of students if Trump attempts to do away with DACA.

“There may not be as many undocumented students here as in some of the others states (such as) Texas or Arizona. But this could still have great impact on kids in Tennessee,” Orrin said.

Among other Tennesseans signing the petition as of Friday were:

  • Marcus Robinson chief executive officer, Memphis Education Fund
  • Maya Bugg, chief executive officer, Tennessee Charter School Center
  • Brian Gilson, chief people officer, Achievement Schools, Memphis
  • Sonji Branch, affiliate director, Communities in Schools of Tennessee
  • Sylvia Flowers, executive director of educator talent, Tennessee Department of Education
  • Ginnae Harley, federal programs director, Knox County Schools

Read what Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher.


 

moving on

Jeffco school board votes to launch search for new superintendent

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post
JeffCo Public Schools Superintendent Dan McMinimee, at his office, in 2014 during his second week on the job.

Citing a desire to seek out a more effective leader and denying that politics were at play, Jefferson County school board members voted unanimously Thursday to launch a search for a new superintendent.

The vote comes a little more than a year after all five board members were sworn in after a contentious recall election that ousted the members that hired current superintendent Dan McMinimee.

The governing board of the state’s second largest school district expressed its desire to let McMinimee serve out the six months left on his contract.

Last month, the board met twice in executive session, including once at a conference in Colorado Springs, to talk about whether to renew McMinimee’s contract.

Board members on Thursday each made statements, some reading prepared remarks, before the vote. The board members, seeking to address the community, denied that any decision was made behind closed doors, outlined what they value in a leader and insisted their decision was not political.

“It’s true we’ve been through difficulties, but children in our schools can’t afford for adults to just let things settle,” said board member Brad Rupert. “We’ve got problems to solve.”

Board members said they needed to see if there was another leader who might be more effective. In outlining their desires for qualities of a new leader, they talked about looking for someone with experience as an educator, who is inspiring and a good communicator.

Board member Susan Harmon said she struggled with the decision but pointed out that although McMinimee has done good work, some people still don’t trust him or the district.

“How do you shake distrust? How do you change perception?” Harmon asked. “Perception unfortunately matters.”

After the vote, a district spokeswoman said McMinimee had signed up to speak during a public comment period near the meeting’s end. But he did not take the microphone. McMinimee left the meeting without speaking with reporters.

Of seven people who spoke about the superintendent during public comment, four were against launching a search for a new superintendent. Three who spoke in support of a new superintendent said it was not based on McMinimee’s performance, but based on the original process in which he was hired.

One woman who supported the search for a new superintendent, said she “condemned” the past process in 2014 because she said it was “predetermined.”

One speaker, Jim Fernald, who supported retaining McMinimee, said McMinimee succeeded despite being put in an “impossible situation,” and said that justifying looking for a new leader because of a search process three years ago is not appropriate.

“I find this to be an incredibly weak argument,” Fernald said. “Everyone knows if you vote against retaining Dan that you’re doing it to spite the previous board and their supporters. This board should go on record as rising above the pettiness.”

John Ford, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, the teachers union, spoke in favor of launching a search for a new superintendent, saying that the process that led to McMinimee’s hiring was “one of the failures of the previous board.”

“We need a fair and open process,” Ford said. “JCEA looks forward to ensuring and entrusting you with that mission. Listen to the voice of the classroom teacher to help provide input for what our students deserve.”

McMinimee, who was the sole finalist for the job, was hired in the summer of 2014 by a board majority made up of the three members that were the target of a recall in 2015. During his time leading the district, McMinimee, among other things, has helped lead the work on the district’s new strategic plan, reorganized two groups of schools on the district’s eastern boundary and increased school level autonomy over budgets.

On Wednesday McMinimee told Chalkbeat he was puzzled about why the board was considering looking for a new superintendent, saying he had not been given any indication that they had a problem with his work.

He did not speak during the board discussion Thursday.

According to McMinimee’s contract language, the board will not need a separate vote to end his $220,000-a-year contract. If McMinimee doesn’t receive notification of a contract renewal by the end of March, the contract will automatically expire June 30.

If the board wanted to part ways with McMinimee before his contract expires without attempting to fire him with cause, the district would need to pay him the amount of one year’s base salary, according to his contract. If the superintendent wants to terminate the contract, he would have to give the board six months notice or be charged for damages.

The board directed the human resources chief to find a search firm that will create a process that allows for community input in the search process.

The new district leader will face the challenge of the district’s budget after county voters rejected two tax measures in November.

Three of five Jeffco school board members are up for re-election in November, meaning it’s possible the board majority might change again after that election.