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.

Movers and shakers

Memphis Raleigh-Egypt principal will return to Bolton High School

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
James "Bo" Griffin, who became principal of Raleigh-Egypt High School in 2014, will return to Bolton High School as its leader.

A principal who shepherded academic growth at a high-profile Memphis school will return to the school where he previously served as assistant principal.

James “Bo” Griffin has been tapped to lead Bolton High School after completing this school year at Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School, a spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools confirmed Wednesday.

District leaders have not yet announced his replacement at Raleigh-Egypt, which is set to enter the Innovation Zone this fall. Schools that join the district’s turnaround program often undergo major leadership and staffing changes.

Griffin took the helm of Raleigh-Egypt High in 2014 just as the state-run Achievement School District announced it would take over the high school because of chronically low test scores. Within the year, the school boasted some of the biggest gains in the district, sparing it from eligibility for state intervention.

Last fall, he led the school as middle school grades were added in response to the ASD’s takeover of the adjacent Raleigh-Egypt Middle. The changes created a unique campus with two schools run by separate districts.

Griffin was an administrator at Bolton High before coming to Raleigh-Egypt. His return there was decided before the district’s decision to transition Raleigh-Egypt to the iZone, said spokeswoman Natalia Powers.

He replaces Bolton High Principal Chad Stevens, whose removal sparked parent and student protest.

familiar face

Former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather ‘discussing’ new role in Detroit district under superintendent Nikolai Vitti

New Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti greets principals and job applicants with former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather at a district job fair.

When Nikolai Vitti worked a teacher hiring fair Tuesday night, the new Detroit superintendent brought a partner — a familiar face — to stand beside him.

It was Vitti’s first full day running the Detroit Public Schools Community District. And although he was the new guy in a room full of school principals, administrators and job applicants, he stood side-by-side with someone more well-known: Alycia Meriweather, the district veteran who served for 14 months as interim superintendent until Vitti took over this week.

Whether Meriweather’s presence at the hiring fair suggests a permanent role for her in Vitti’s administration hasn’t yet been decided, she said. “We’re discussing that right now. He has made it clear that there is a position for me and, right now, it’s just a matter of me having further dialog with him about what that might look like and figure out if it’s a good fit for me.”

The news of Meriweather possibly staying on in the district could be comforting to the teachers and staff who strongly urged the school board to consider Meriweather for the permanent post. Teachers circulated petitions and protested outside a board meeting during a finalist interview after Meriweather was dropped from consideration.

For now, Meriweather is officially a senior advisor to Vitti — a role that will last at least until the end of June.

“My main focus right now is making sure this transition is as smooth as possible,” Meriweather told Chalkbeat. “Dr. Vitti and I have had really good conversations. I think we see things very similarly and he’s made it very clear that his intention is to build on the work that’s been done, which is very affirming and encouraging.”

For now, Meriweather, who is a graduate of the district and has worked in Detroit as a classroom teacher and administrator throughout her career, said she’s focused on a smooth transition.

“I really, at the heart of hearts, just want the district to continue to evolve,” she said. “I need him to be successful because if he’s successful, the district is successful, which means my kids are taken care of.”