UC Davis Today: Giving voice to teens

  • Grant High graduate Adrian Gutierrez regales teachers, poet mentors and fellow youth poets with humor, word play and rhyme.

  • Gutierrez and Andre “Dre-T” Tillman, a music major at American River College, say they found their voices through UC Davis’ SAYS program.

  • During the workshop for high school teachers, Josh Healey, a poet from Oakland, links spoken-word poetry to academic content standards.

  • Teachers learn about performing, or “spitting” poetry, from Ronnee LaRae, a senior at Folsom Lake High.

  • Jennifer Vargas, a Sacramento City College broadcast journalism major, was on the same team with La Rae and Gutierrez at the International Brave New Voices competition in July.

  • SAYS poets are encouraged to share their latest work even if their performance is not polished. Teachers learn how to provide a safe environment for students.

  • Poet mentor Dre T credits SAYS with continuously feeding his hunger for knowledge. He now leads the poet mentor team that delivers the SAYS program.

  • Mutual respect, cooperation and confidentiality are key to SAYS’ success. Rules stipulate, for instance, that when someone performs, everyone else listens.

  • SAYS founder and director Vajra Watson, right, believes that giving students an outlet to express themselves outside the classroom provides a bridge to literacy.

Giving voice to teens 

Sacramento’s youth are being inspired to find their voice through the written and spoken word thanks to a partnership between the UC Davis School of Education and educators in the greater Sacramento region.

The goal is to strengthen literacy, especially among students at risk for dropping out. The university works with middle and high school teachers to engage 10,000 youths each year through Sacramento Area Youth Speaks, an innovative spoken-word poetry program. SAYS partners with school districts, teachers and community leaders to offer school assemblies, classroom residencies, after-school workshops and open-mic events.

Through their writing and poetry performances, students gain confidence and learn how their voices can be used to effect positive social change.

Each spring, hundreds of Sacramento area students compete in local poetry slams; ultimately, a six-student team from SAYS competes at the Brave New Voices competition. This summer, the Sacramento teenage poets traveled to Berkeley where they placed fifth among more than 100 teams.

“There is widespread evidence of disengagement and alienation among many low-achieving students in Sacramento area schools,” says Vajra Watson, founder of SAYS and director of research and policy for equity in the UC Davis School of Education. 

Using a philosophy of “education for liberation, ” she and other SAYS educators report that when students are encouraged to draw from their personal experiences, they connect to academics and their writing improves. 

Adrian Gutierrez, a freshman philosophy major at CSU Sacramento, performs his poem to SAYS mentors and teachers during a workshop in Sacramento. Gutierrez is a member of the 2012 SAYS team that competed at the International Brave New Voices, a festival featuring young poets from across the globe. Karin Higgins of UC Davis took this photo and all of the photos in the slideshow.

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