Never Enough Money For Education, But Chicago Always Finds Money For Incarceration

Every year, for the past 11 years that I have taught in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Chicago claims it doesn’t have enough money to properly fund its public schools. And every year there is some “justification” for not giving our students equitable funding.

 

In 2010, CPS didn’t have enough money and threatened to cut extracurricular programs and non-varsity sports.

 

In 2013, it was “necessary” to close more than 50 public schools, the most schools ever shut down at one time in our country’s history.

 

Now, every year our students watch as librarians, counselors, social workers, support staff, security and teachers are cut. They see how special education has been criminally mismanaged. They wonder why the technology in their school does not work, why paint is peeling off their classroom walls, why their track is unusable, why their heating and cooling vents spew out white clumps of powder, or why there are broken asbestos tiles in their classrooms.

 

Yet through all of this, Chicago always finds money for policing.

 

Throughout my time teaching in CPS, I have heard stories of the abusive nature of the Chicago Police Department (CPD) from my students. At first, due to my whiteness, I had a hard time believing my students, because what they were telling was so different from my own experiences. For me as a white person, the police are at worst a minor annoyance. But for my black students, the police can mean danger, abuse, harassment, brutality and death.

 

It has been well documented that CPD has been terrorizing Chicago’s black and brown communities for generations, going back to the 1960s, with the murder of Fred Hamptonwhile he slept, to the 1970s, with acts of torture led by Commander Jon Burge.

This year, Chicago Public Schools students will be learning through the Reparations WON curriculum of the standard torture practices during the Jon Burge era. For about a 20-year period, Commander Jon Burge and his officers would pick up innocent black men and force them into confessing to crimes that they did not commit. His standard methods of getting forced confessions was torture, which included suffocation, putting loaded weapons into mouths and electric shocks to the genital area.

 

Although the Burge torture era has ended, the corruption within the Chicago Police Department has not.

 

CPD has and continues to operate using a code of silence, with secret detention sites like Homan Square, the planting of evidence, falsifying reports and killing people of color in our city. All of these standard operating procedures are well documented.

Through all of this, the “union” representing the CPD ― the Fraternal Order of Police(FOP) ― proudly continues to justify these practices. This is the same FOP who is upset about the Reparations WON curriculum, because they want the curriculum to tell both sides. Both sides of torture?

 

Instead of working to improve policing to make sure acts of police torture, abuse and murder come to a stop, the FOP is working to make sure the mandates in the FOP contract protect cops who kill. Over the years, the FOP has negotiated items in the police contract that allows the police to make up stories and intimidate people who might file complaints against them, to name a just a few.

 

Now, Mayor Emanuel thinks the police are deserving of a new $95 million training facility. Just another example of Rahm using taxpayer money for anything and everything besides our students. Rahm will fund River Walks, Navy Pier, basketball stadiums and hotels while stealing TIF funds from the neighborhoods and schools that need them. His policies lead to the cutting of librarians, social workers, counselors, teachers, and support staff. School budgets continue to be cut. Parents go on hunger strikes to keep schools open. Still more schools are proposed to be closed, in Englewood.

You must survive on less.

 

At the same time schools and our students are having to operate with less, in conditions the mayor would never tolerate for his own children, Chicago is increasing funding to systems, like the police, that harshly punish black and brown children and families.

The Chicago Police Department costs taxpayers $4 million a day in operating costs, which makes up 40 percent of our city’s entire budget and totals up to $1.5 billion dollars per year. Police brutality cases in Chicago have cost our city more than $500 million dollars. To put this spending on policing in perspective, the daily cost of CPD is:

“… more than the city spends on the Departments of Public Health, Family and Support Services, Transportation, and Planning and Development combined. Mental-health spending receives $10 million per year, and only $2 million per year is allocated to violence-prevention services.”

Just recently, a case involving a Chicago police shooting and killing of Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson shows once again CPD planted evidence, showcasing continued corruption. Ronald was shot while running in 2014. It was claimed that he had a gun and, according to an image put out by CPD, it showed he had a gun. This was a claim his family has disputed. The officers weren’t charged. But now, after a forensic scientist reviewed the image, it has become evident that it is a false image.

 

Meaning Ronald didn’t have a gun. Meaning there is no justification for his death.

Before Rahm gives any money to the CPD, he should follow all of the recommendations of the Department of Justice report. In case you missed it, the DOJ investigation was the largest civil rights investigation into a police department in history. The DOJ findings included that CPD was responsible for the use of excessive and deadly force against people who pose no threat, use of force in health crises, exhibit racially discriminatory behavior, having officers with no accountability and who are poorly trained.

 

On top of addressing the DOJ concerns, Rahm should also have a democratically elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), as many community organizations have been advocating for years. (While he is at it, he should have an elected school board, too.)

 

Until the Chicago Police Department cleans up its act, it should not receive additional funding to build a new cop academy. Police can improve their training methods in their current training facilities. You don’t need a new building to teach police how not to be racist or why they should not kill innocent people.

 

If Rahm can’t find money for the education of our students, then there is no way he should find money for the incarceration of them#NoCopAcademy

 

Here is more information about the proposed cop academy, and here are ways to help pressure our elected officials to not support the cop academy.

 

Also consider donating and supporting the Chicago Torture Justice Center which, “seeks to address the traumas of police violence and institutionalized racism through access to healing and wellness services, trauma-informed resources, and community connection. The Center is a part of and supports a movement to end all forms of police violence.”

See this piece on Huff Post and Alternet

Both An NFL Player and Chicago Public Schools Teacher Punished for Fighting for Justice

How could an NFL player and a Chicago Public Schools Special Education teacher have anything in common? When they both are being punished for advocating for justice for others.

We are all familiar with the story of Colin Kaepernick who decided to peacefully protest the inequalities facing Black Americans, specifically in terms of police brutality. If you aren’t from Chicago then you may not be familiar with the story of Sarah Chambers. Sarah is an elementary special education teacher in Chicago who vocally advocates for the special education students she teaches at her school, as well as across the entire city. Chambers is now entering her 10th week of suspension. She is forbidden to teach her students and they have been forced to have a substitute teacher all of this time. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has not said why she is suspended. However, just as Colin Kaepernick is still unsigned because of his advocacy for justice, Sarah is suspended because of her willingness to vocally advocate for her students.

Colin Kaepernick and Sarah Chambers are both highly effective at their chosen professions. Colin Kaepernick has the 5th best touchdown to interception ratio of all time and last year he had 16 touchdowns as compared to only 4 interceptions. Sarah Chambers has consistently received distinguished ratings by her principals, the highest rating achievable in the current teacher evaluation system.

In addition to being highly effective at his profession, Colin Kaepernick is an active citizen who is committed to making our country better. As a social studies teacher myself, it is empowering to be able to show my students a celebrity who is aware of issues, makes others aware, donates to organizations trying to improve those issues and finally is willing to work to create change. Colin Kaepernick has pledged to donate $1 million of his own money to organizations working to improve our country. He also created an organization called Know Your Rights Camp, which he is intricately a part of.

While not a celebrity, Sarah Chambers is also an active citizen and an open LGBTQ teacher who created an LGBTQ club at her school to provide all of her students a safe space. She teaches her students about the gross underfunding of Special Education programs in Chicago, which directly impact their lives. She then educates the public about these issues and speaks to those in power in Chicago to bring about the change that will impact all students in CPS.

An unfortunate similarity is that Colin Kaepernick and Sarah Chambers both work for organizations run with nearly absolute control. To the head of the NFL Roger Goodell and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, being a civically engaged citizen like Chambers and Kaepernick is dangerous to their power structure. Many fans clearly like and support Kaepernick as evidenced by the fact of his top selling jersey last season and by the fact even though he is unsigned, his jersey is currently still one of the highest selling jerseys. His jersey (currently 17th most popular of any position) is outselling the starting quarterbacks of 24 teams. Sarah Chambers is also clearly respected as evidenced by the massive amount of support she has received from her students, parents, and teachers.

In Chicago, Rahm Emanuel forbids Democracy in our school system. Rahm appoints everyone involved in making decisions about education, from the CEO to the school board. Roger Goodell also wields similar power. He often suspends players and punishes teams without just cause. The NFL and Roger Goodell try to hide information from the players, like the league attempting to cover up the issues with concussions. Rahm Emanuel also engages in cover-ups. He tried to cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald by the Chicago Police for over a year.

The actions of Goodell and Emanuel may be supported by other power hungry elites, but their actions are clearly not liked by the masses they are supposed to represent. When either of them go out in public they consistently face booing fans/constituents. Rahm Emanuel got booed after a Chicago Blackhawks rally, at a street naming ceremony, at a basketball game, and most recently by school children.  Roger Goodell gets booed at every NFL Draft.

While there are many similarities between the Kaepernick and Chambers situations there are some major differences. One of the differences that I want to focus on is the vastly different levels of support from people within their profession, as well as the unions that are supposed to represent them. Sarah has support from her union, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). While Kaepernick does not have the same level of support of the National Football League Players Association.

There have been many rallies and protests to support Sarah, organized by the Chicago Teachers Union. But what help has the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) provided for Kaepernick? Certain NFL players like Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman, and Brandon Marshall have come out to question why Kaepernick has yet to be signed. Last season Kaepernick also had the support of his teammate Eric Reid as well as multiple NFL players and U.S. Women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who joined his protest.

But through all that, why is the National League Football Players Association staying quiet? The NFLPA should be visibly fighting against the obvious banishment of Kaepernick. It should be helping to organize rallies, release statements, and build a movement of NFL players who are willing to speak up. Other players should also speak up and push the NFLPA to act.

As of now only one white male athlete has supported Kapernick in any sport. Current Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long has been the only white male athlete to support Kaepernick. Many Military Veterans, the people who he was supposedly disrespecting, have come out to support Kaepernick, yet crickets from nearly all white male athletes.

The Chicago Teachers Union has encouraged its members to speak up in support of Sarah. The teachers who are willing to speak up for her, know that it is a risk to speak up, because Rahm Emanuel wants teachers to stay silent.

Silence is exactly what the NFL and other sports organizations want. Being outspoken got former Chicago Bulls sharp shooter Craig Hodges blacklisted from the NBA, as chronicled in his book “Long Shot”.

Power likes silence whether in sports or teaching. Power adores systems like blackballing. Colin Kaepernick is not the first athlete punished for being an active citizen. John Carlos and Tommie Smith were punished for raising their fists at the ’68 Olympics. Toni Smith a college basketball player faced severe repercussions for her protest in 2003.

Sarah Chambers is not the first teacher punished for being vocal. In fact, Chicago Public Schools is currently punishing many other teachers for being outspoken, here are the stories of 5 of them.

In the cases of Sarah Chambers and Colin Kaepernick my final question is, why would the powers in place be more upset about an actively engaged citizen then what is causing them to take a stand in the first place?

The NFL should be proud of someone like Kaepernick, who can play well and be socially aware and active, just like Chicago should be proud of someone like Sarah Chambers, who is a great teacher and an advocate to make our schools better for all our students.

Power thrives by fear. To improve our country, athletes, teachers, and citizens need to support the truth tellers who are willing to risk it all. These truth tellers are not in the spotlight for themselves, but for the betterment of everyone in society.

If you are interested in helping Sarah Chambers and other teachers who have been punished get their jobs back, whether you live in Chicago or not you can click here for information on whom to contact to help.

If you are interested in helping Kaepernick get signed, start pressuring your favorite NFL team’s front office and the NFLPA. As a Bear’s fan, I know Kaepernick could beat out all of our backups and most likely our starters. I imagine that the fans of many teams around the league are not happy with their quarterback situation either.

As Dave Zirin in writes in The Nation, “The NFL is denying Colin Kaepernick employment not because he isn’t “good enough” but because he is being shut out for the crime of using his platform to protest the killing of black kids by police.”

 

*Important things to note and question about this piece. I focused on Sarah Chambers because she is and has been very vocal about her punishment. I believe publicizing her struggle will continue to help shine a light on all the terrible policies that harm all teachers, special education students and students in general in Chicago. By focusing on Sarah Chambers, a white teacher, it does not shine a spotlight on the gross injustices that teachers of color and specifically Black teachers face(d) in CPS. Chicago Public Schools has a history of firing Black and Latino teachers in large numbers and of not hiring Black teachers as well.

 

To view this piece on Huff Post click here.

Through the Eyes of an Educator

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Photo: Rapper and activist FM Supreme (middle in red-shirt) after discussing ways to stop police brutality in Stieber’s Contemporary American History classes.

This piece is featured in the January-February edition of the Chicago Union Teacher magazine.

Two of our members discuss how they meet the challenge of helping students of all backgrounds better understand race and privilege.

Mayra Almaraz-De Santiago

I teach Ethnic Studies, a junior and senior year elective course at Taft High School. Taft is located in the far northwest side of the city in a mostly white, blue collar, city worker Chicago neighborhood. My first unit of ethnic studies is always the most difficult. In this unit, I introduce students to the concept of systemic racism and privilege. We use readings and ideas from James Baldwin, Paulo Freire, and Beverly Daniels Tatum. Tatum’s 1st chapter of her book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” informs students of a new definition of racism: In short, she states that racism is not being mean to someone based on the color of their skin, that is discrimination. She defines racism as a system of advantage based on race. Tatum believes this definition is best because it holds people responsible for the systems in place that contribute to inequality and privilege, even if you’re not aware that you are benefiting. To better understand the chapter and concepts, I hold a Socratic Seminar and ask students to discuss if her definition helps or hurts our society. For many of my students this is a liberating conversation. This is where many of my students of color open up to the class about the ways in which they’ve felt that the color of their skin, ethnic background, or religion made them feel less than. For many of my white students, this conversation is hurtful. Students have shared that when they first read this definition, they feel sad because they’ve never realized they have certain benefits or privileges that their peers don’t have.  The discussions that emerge between my students during this difficult conversation are messy, tough, raw with emotion, but so full of hope. And they are necessary.

“Ms. Almaraz, I’m not going to lie, when I first read Tatum, I was very mad at you. But after hearing my classmates’ experiences, I got it. I’m getting it. I’m still not there. But please be patient with me.” A student shared this with the class.

In this chapter, Tatum describes the importance of being actively anti-racist. “I have never looked at racism this way before. And it makes great sense to me. I get it. But Ms. Almaraz, I need help. How can I be anti-racist? I don’t have opportunities to be anti-racist. And I want to make a difference.”

My student’s words resonated with me. As a teacher of color, I am conscious of the fact that my experiences and realities are not my students, especially those that have a different ethnic background from me. I try hard to incorporate what I teach my students in my everyday life and I struggled with my student’s request. How can I teach my white students to be anti-racist? Then I remembered an experience with my white friend and teaching colleague, Dave Stieber.

One evening, during our National Board Certification class, I mentioned that I was asked to write something for an online publication about the importance of having Latinx teachers. Unfortunately, because I took too long in turning in my piece, the publication’s deadline of Hispanic Heritage month was over. They would no longer need my piece. Dave asked me to send him my writing, and through one of his contacts, my piece got published. I will never forget the words he said to me, “I’m able to get my work published whenever I have something, I don’t have to wait for a specific month to publish it. Everyone should have this privilege.”

To me, this was an example of my colleague using his white privilege to help someone without this benefit. So naturally, because of this experience and conversations with him regarding his work around racism, I thought about him when my student asked what she could do to be anti-racist.

Dave Stieber

I teach at Chicago Vocational on the South Side of the city. I love my students and work to make strong connections with them by the curriculum I create, content I teach, and the way in which I get to know my students. Over my ten years of teaching in CPS I have always worked hard to create a space where my students feel comfortable sharing their stories. I’ve learned from them about their experiences with the police, violence, and what life is like for a kid growing up in the city. I’ve learned that the privileges and experiences I had growing up white were not the same as my students. Based on the education my students give me, I have been working on not only trying to be anti-racist in my life, but also create a class that challenges the system of white supremacy. One of the ways that I do this is by bringing in guest speakers who work to change the systems in place in our city. I’ve found bringing in guest speakers to be very beneficial for my students and myself. A guest speaker further makes the learning real and relevant, it exposes students to more viewpoints that may differ from or complement our curriculum. It also shakes class up and lets the students hear a voice besides their teacher.

The day after guest speakers my students always say something to the effect of, “the guest speaker we had yesterday was amazing, when are they coming back?” As the teacher, I tend to  envy the novelty of the guest speakers.  Their fresh voice captivates my students and they are excited to have them in the room.

It wasn’t until this year that the opportunity to be a guest speaker myself became an option. Mayra knew I had written articles for the Huffington Post about race and she asked me if I would be willing to come in and talk to her students about my experiences understanding whiteness and privilege.

I was nervous to speak at Taft, I was used to being in front of a room of students, but I had never spoke with white students about working to overcome their privileges. When I got off the expressway near Taft there were blue ribbons everywhere in support of Blue Lives Matter, increasing my anxiety. I had been writing a lot recently about why white people should support the Movement for Black Lives. But regardless I knew the work Mayra had been doing with her classes and I was excited.

I knew her students read an article that I wrote about ways in which white people could help with systemic racism. I decided to open my guest speaking experience by saying, “Be wary of a white person speaking to you about race. Meaning, know that while working to be anti-racist, I am still operating in a place of privilege and so please call me out if necessary.”

The classes went really well. Students asked questions. Many asked ways in which they themselves could work to be anti-racist. Some challenged some of my comments. Some arranged to come back to a later period that I was speaking at.

Among the many great questions and comments there were two that really resonated with me. One student who very quietly asked me in front of the whole class, “My parents are racist. What can I do?” Mayra created such a safe and respectful environment that her student felt comfortable enough to ask that question and be honest amongst her peers. I admitted that I had racist family members too (I would contend all white people do). I told her I did not know what it was like to have blatantly racist parents, but by her knowing this about her parents and being willing to work to challenge this, was already a brave step.

Another student stated in front of the entire group, “I want to be like you.” I have to be honest, I’ve never had anyone tell me that before (remember what I said about guest speakers, students love them). Both of these comments blew me away. I gave both these students some advice after class, such as listen to People of Color, read books that will push your thinking like Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and A People’s History of the United States, read about Black Youth Project 100 and Assata’s Daughters.

The work that Mayra does in her Ethnic Studies class challenges racism, white supremacy, and privilege daily. I am thankful for the opportunity to be a part of her work. As teachers, we should not only be inviting guest speakers into our classrooms more often, but we should actually be inviting other teachers to come speak to our students. We teachers know how brilliant and amazing many of our colleagues are. Rather than using a PB day to go speak to students in other schools like I had to, CPS should encourage collaboration and provide professional development days to work together.

Here are a few of the reflections from Mayra’s students about my visit:

“I really liked the way he talked about how he was working to make a change. It made me think more about what I want to do to help make a difference.”

“I liked how he shared that he has different views than some of his family members because I have different views than my mother.”

“I believe Ms. Almaraz invited Mr. Stieber because she wanted us to understand the perspective of a white male who (tries to) understand(s) racism and does his best to fight against it in his own life.”

“What impacted me the most was when he said he would just listen, instead of trying to figure out what to say next and that’s how he learned a lot of the pain others went through.”

“ I understand that Mr. Stieber acted as both an alternate perspective and an example of how to cause an effect while being a somewhat “small scaled” (i.e. not a politician, political speaker, civil rights leader”) influence.

“I really liked that he said he is raising his children to be aware of the problems of the world and providing the necessary tools to help them deal with it.”

“Stieber impacted me because his understanding and honesty of today’s society blew me away.”

“You asked him to come because he speaks about a topic that some hate to believe is true and still going on.”

“To get the perspective of someone with privilege to show us how he’s trying to use his advantages to help others.”

Mayra Almaraz-De Santiago is a wife and mother of two boys, is a proud Chicagoan, born and raised in the Northwest Side. Her teaching career began 14 years ago in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood and she is now back to her Northwest Side roots, teaching high school history for CPS. Mayra has a deep passion for social justice and for helping students critically examine the world so they can change it. She is a Golden Apple Scholar, and received her Secondary Education in History degree from DePaul University. She is currently a candidate for National Board Certification.

Dave Stieber is in his 10th year of teaching Social Studies in CPS. He is working to become National Board Certified. He has a Masters in Urban Education Policy Studies from UIC. He is an occasional blogger for the Huffington Post. His partner Stephanie Stieber is also a CPS teacher and together they have two children. Their school-aged child attends a CPS neighborhood school.

 

Why Should We Believe You? The Inner Workings of White America

I discussed the term emotional trigger with my students today before having a discussion on police brutality.  I shared with them that every autumn, especially when leaves are falling it triggers the day that my wife and I found out that we lost what would’ve been our second child.

I told them how every time I hear of someone getting killed by violence it makes me think of Trevell and Lawrence, two former students I taught, both lives cut short by violence.

I chose to discuss these very personal things with my students because news of, or actual experiences with police brutality combined with all the violence in our society is triggering emotions in my students that they might not even be aware of.

How can you feel safe in a society when you are afraid of the police?

How can you feel safe when white people criticize you for speaking up, protesting peacefully, and/or becoming upset?

It seems as if many white people only care when property is damaged, a knee is taken, a fist is raised or if someone happens to mention white privilege, but don’t give a damn if a Black person is killed.

We white people deflect accusations of police brutality with, “what about ‘black on black’ crime”?

We actually don’t care about “black on black crime”, it just sounds scary to us. No matter that white on white crime is a thing. No matter that every race due to governmental segregation policies lives primarily by people who look like them, so violence is almost always against people who like them.

We deflect accusations of police brutality with, “Colin Kaepernick’s actions are unAmerican and offensive.”

Even though protests are part of Democracy, we don’t care. Women vote because of protests, many people have a 40 hour work week because of protests, that doesn’t matter. Just don’t protest while Black.

We  deflect anything having to do with race with, “Martin Luther King wouldn’t support the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Our history classes sucked in high school in terms of teaching about Black and Brown people. We spent some time in February learning the mess out of the white washed de-radicalized version of King and we can quote “I Have a Dream” all day.

As a white person who is trying to be anti-racist I have a responsibility to speak up. I promised myself if someone responds to me on Facebook or Twitter I will respond to them no matter what.

It’s hard.

It’s tiring.

I don’t know if it’s worth it.

But,

Racism exists because me and every other white person allows it to.

And that pisses me off.

I refuse to raise my sons to be racist.

But it’s hard.

Racist ideology envelopes us.

It’s constant.

This country was founded on racist ideology. It has passed from generation to generation because white people are so fragile we can’t handle mentioning racism. When racism is mentioned, we immediately get so uncomfortable that we get tired of hearing about it and then try to silence the people talking about it because speaking about racism seems so divisive to us: just let things be, everything is good, we are white.

We don’t worry about the police, they won’t kill our children, friends, relatives, neighbors or people who look like us out of fear. So why should we believe that they would do that to another race.

Don’t talk about whiteness.

Don’t talk about privilege.

Don’t talk about race.

Just be white.

Err, just be Italian (insert other European ancestry) American.

Even better, just be American.

Just be white but don’t refer to ourselves as white.

Just wave the flag, don’t question, be proud, be American.

View this piece on Huffington Post

 

Conversation Week: The Power of Spoken Word Poetry

I was interviewed by BTR Today about my experiences with spoken word poetry. To read the original article click here.

Conversation Week: The Power of Spoken Word Poetry

by Brittany Tedesco | Theme Week | Jun 29, 2016

Controversy continues to surround the role that the arts play in school systems, with many who believe that such creative outlets are far less important than more concrete subjects like math and science. More specifically, poetry is regarded as less and less significant, even in literary studies.

However, poetry is an important subject for a diversity of students across the nation. The age-old craft is a useful medium for promoting literacy and creativity, all the while building a sense of community and strengthening emotional resilience.

While traditional poetry can feel archaic to contemporary audiences who find the dated subject matter dull or confusing, spoken word poetry can be powerful and relevant for audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

BTRtoday speaks with Dave Stieber, a teacher and spoken word poetry coach in Chicago. He has coached this form of poetry for six years, taking only the past two years off due to a change in schools. He’s currently on hiatus to focus on attaining his National Board Certification for teaching, but plans on coaching again next school year.

Stieber admits that growing up he was entirely uninterested in poetry.

“It always seemed pretty dry to me in school,” he says. “I was never exposed to spoken word. I was always exposed to very traditional poetry in books. The content didn’t appeal to me, and the style didn’t appeal to me.”

It was not until Stieber’s wife invited him to attend Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB), an event in Chicago which happens to be the largest youth poetry festival in the world, that he realized the impact poetry can have on its audiences.

LTAB is a month-long competition featuring 120 Chicago high schools competing in Olympic-style poetry slams. Hosted by Young Chicago Authors, LTAB celebrates youth voices by providing a safe space for poets to come together and share their stories.

“It was amazing to hear students performing totally different types of poetry than I had ever heard, sharing their stories, and seeing other kids support them,” Stieber describes.

Spoken word poetry allows participants to express themselves, while simultaneously inspiring listeners. The arts in general–albeit writing, performing, painting, playing music, or any other artistic expression–allow artists to expose themselves on a deep and personal level, and encourage others to empathize with them.

Spoken word events also provide a comfortable space free of judgment, where poets are unafraid to reveal even the most hidden parts of themselves. Everyone there has a story to tell, and that is why they have gathered together to share their messages.

“The whole premise of Spoken Word poetry, in my opinion, is it allows them to share their stories and provides a space for other students who want to hear those stories. So it’s pretty powerful,” Stieber supports.

Furthermore, it forms a sense of community. It doesn’t matter where participants come from when they are in such a shared space. No matter the race, gender, class, or background, their voices matter and their stories will be heard.

Stieber explains, “You’ve got kids from different parts of the city, and Chicago, like most big cities, is super segregated by race and by class. So when you can bring kids together who have the same interest in poetry, and they share their stories… it opens a lot of doors for the kid who’s performing it, as well as the audience who’s listening.”

Feeling inspired after attending LTAB, Stieber began coaching spoken word poetry at the school he was teaching. On Fridays, he would host an open mic where students could read their own spoken word pieces. He eventually formed a spoken word poetry group consisting of six freshman to participate at LTAB.

“A couple kids performed [in class], and we were like, wow this is amazing– you guys are going be on our poetry team. And they were like, what does that mean? And we were like, we don’t really know either,” he admits. “From there we all learned together.”

While poetry is something that comes from the heart, as any artistic expression, written poetry skills can still use some refining. Working alongside a spoken word poetry coach or teacher allows students to receive feedback on their work and reflect on their pieces in a new light.

“Basically we just got them to express their stories, whatever they wanted to share,” says Stieber. “Then we kind of helped them write it in ways that maybe they didn’t know before, just refine their ideas a little bit.”

Through spoken word, poets can use their work as a form of release to escape from reality. It allows them to immerse themselves in their expression. However, it can also be used to cope with reality, as the writer is able to express their raw and honest emotions in a way they might not be comfortable with otherwise.

“Students have a lot of stuff that they need to say and need to express, and I don’t think schools do a very effective job at allowing them to express what they need to say, and care what they see and experience in the world,” Stieber says.

As a result, it is incredibly important for students to participate in arts programs. Even the Senate has acknowledged the importance of the arts as they recently passed an act that regards them as core subjects in school systems.

The arts stimulate the imagination, improve cognitive and creative skills, and strengthen problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Therefore art courses are able to help children develop skills needed for other core subjects.

Stieber describes the impact he has seen spoken word have on his students.

“Just by being able to first get their story on paper and get that off their chest, then being able to perform it and have other people listen to it, and after they say it, they come off stage and people are like, wow that was really powerful, and talk about how they felt about the poem, and the interaction that comes with it, it’s a very powerful whole event… the writing, the performing, and the reaction to it.”

For anyone who has never experienced spoken word poetry before, do yourself a favor and find a nearby event. There are powerful messages just waiting to be heard, and at least one of them is bound to move even the most apathetic listener.