WATCH: Using poetry to inspire students behind bars

Drawing on years of experience with youth, "All Day" author Liza Jessie Peterson reflects on their creativity

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 6, 2017 6:45PM (EDT)

Most people would agree that Rikers Island is a torturous place that needs to be shut down. That's especially true after viewing Spike TV’s "Time: The Kalief Browder Story" about a young man who served three years, mostly in solitary confinement for a crime that he did not commit. During that stretch, he endured beatings, death threats and frequently was denied basic things like food and sunlight. In short, it was hell on earth.

Unfortunately many people turn their backs on our incarcerated brothers and sisters, almost forgetting they exist. But poet Liza Jessie Peterson couldn’t imagine doing such a thing, especially during the 18 years she taught adolescents at Rikers, where many of her students were black or Latino.

For a recent episode of "Salon Talks," Peterson shared her experiences as a teaching artist and described how it informed her new book "All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island."

As Peterson explained, “My whole teaching technique was to smash those narratives,” a response to schools teaching with books whose black characters never seem to extend beyond the slave ones.. “I'm going to start with narratives that address the warrior in them because they're warriors, but they're misguided warriors; they're wayward warriors," she said of her students. "So let me go with the warrior; let me start with the Black Panthers, let me start with Malcolm X. Let me hit them with the Tupac and then we can get around to going back a little further into how we were turned into slaves."

Said Peterson: "I got a different way of approaching knowledge of self and teaching our youth.”

Peterson also shared how success can be the result if students are given the opportunity to learn about themselves — and when black history and art are put into the proper context.

She cited an example of one of her students who had been troubled but a 16-year-old who came alive in her poetry class and was transformed: "I stayed in contact with his grandmother," Peterson recalled. "He  did a five-year bid upstate and he came home." She attended his graduation from the City University of New York. “I saw him take that knowledge of self and he's just become like a phenomenal leader in his community." Now "he wants to do the same with other youth.”

Watch more of the conversation for more of Peterson's insights about education that matters.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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