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.

More money

Aurora school board campaigns pulling in money from big names

Aurora's school board candidates at a candidate forum hosted by RISE Colorado. (Photo by Yesenia Robles)

New big names are stepping in to contribute to Aurora’s school board races this year, including some longtime contributors to some Denver school board candidates.

Daniel Ritchie, a Denver philanthropist, and Patrick Hamill, the founder and CEO of Oakwood Homes, contributed to some Aurora candidates this year, according to new campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday. State records show they had not in the past. Ritchie in 2012 did support an Aurora committee to pass a tax measure for the school district.

The contributions are further evidence of Aurora’s growing profile among education reform advocates. Over the last three years, the district’s school improvement work has attracted the attention of groups and think tanks that sense opportunity in a traditionally overlooked district with a large population of underserved students. A couple of Denver’s popular college-prep charter school operators, DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep, have put down roots in Aurora.

The new campaign finance reports show that eight school board candidates vying for one of four seats on the Aurora school board raised almost $50,000 so far. One candidate, incumbent Barbara Yamrick, had not filed a report as of Wednesday afternoon.

Because four of the school board’s seven seats are up for election, and only one incumbent is attempting re-election, November’s winners could align as a majority and point the district in a new direction.

The district’s profile has risen among education watchers as it attempts reforms of some of the lowest performing schools in the state. Its strategies include an innovation zone where five schools have new autonomy from district, union and state rules, and through an evolving new process for opening charter schools.

The candidates who have raised the most amount of money are Miguel In Suk Lovato, who reported $14,181 in donations, and Gail Pough, who reported $10,181.32.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $10,181.32; 6,533.24
  • Lea Steed, $1,355.00; 878.24
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $6,365.55; 3,019.81
  • Kevin Cox, $2,554.00; $2,291.93
  • Miguel Lovato, $14,181.00; $9,336.96
  • Jane Barber, $150.00; $988.10
  • Debbie Gerkin, $7,755.43; $2,350.24
  • Marques Ivey, $4,965.30; $2,791.84/li>
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

Both received donations from Ritchie, Hamill and Democrats for Education Reform. Lovato also reported donations from Linda Childears, the president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, and other Daniels Fund employees. Lovato works there as a senior grants program officer. Pough also reported donations from Denver school board candidate Jennifer Bacon, and Democratic state Rep. Rhonda Fields.

Candidate Lea Steed and Debbie Gerkin also received donations from Democrats for Education Reform.

The organization had contributed to Aurora candidates in the past, but on a smaller scale.

Union interests also have been active. Four candidates, Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Kevin Cox and Marques Ivey, are organized as a slate endorsed by Aurora’s teacher’s union. The Public Education Committee, which is a union funded committee, donated $1,125 directly to candidate campaigns. The same committee also reported in-kind donations, meaning non-monetary, of almost $3,000 to three of the slate members, for polling.

The candidates also reported their expenditures, which mostly consisted of consultant fees, advertising materials or yard signs and rental space or food for volunteers.
Reports filed earlier in the week from independent expenditure committees show Democrats for Education Reform and union groups have also spent money this year to advocate for some Aurora school board candidates on their own. Independent expenditure committees are not allowed to donate directly to candidates, but can campaign on their own for or against candidates. Their reports were due earlier this week.

Movers & shakers

Haslam names three West Tennesseans to State Board of Education    

PHOTO: TDOE
Members of the Tennessee State Board of Education listen to a July presentation about TNReady scores by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

A Memphis real estate executive, a Cordova lawyer and a Decatur County high school student are the newest members of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

Gov. Bill Haslam announced appointments this week to dozens of state boards and commissions, including the 11-member education panel, which sets policy for K-12 schools in Tennessee.

The new members are:

  • Darrell Cobbins

    Darrell Cobbins is a Memphis native and third-generation real estate professional who attended Catholic, public and private schools. He has degrees from Rhodes College and the University of Memphis and worked for the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce. He is president of Universal Commercial Real Estate, which he founded in 2007. Representing the ninth congressional district, he replaces William Troutt, who retired this year as president of Rhodes College and is moving out of state.

  • Lang Wiseman is an attorney in Cordova who graduated from Bolton High School in Arlington. He attended the University of Tennessee on a basketball scholarship and finished as the 24th leading scorer in the school’s history. Wiseman went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and is a partner at Wiseman Bray Attorneys. Representing the eighth congressional district, he replaces Cato Johnson, who accepted a position on the University of Memphis Board of Trustees.

  • Haden Bawcum, of Bath Springs, is the board’s student member, a position that changes annually. He is a senior at Riverside High School in Decatur County.

The appointments became effective in July and are expected to be confirmed by state lawmakers early next year. Board members are not paid.

B. Fielding Rolston is chairman of the board. A retired executive with Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, he was first appointed in 1996.

You can find answers to the board’s frequently asked questions here.