Students at Visible Men Academy are finding their voice

Visible MEN ACADEMY student Austin Person reads his poem about "mistakes I've made," during class on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO / DAN WAGNER

Visible MEN ACADEMY student Austin Person reads his poem about "mistakes I've made," during class on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO / DAN WAGNER

Cedric Hameed in the fourth grade. He starts writing poems. And then throwing them away. Pen. Paper. Trash can. Repeat. He's going to be a basketball player, he tells himself, not a poet.

Hameed at 23. It's his first time on the stage. He's there to pay his brother back for a favor. Only his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Jana, has ever read his words on the page. Palms are sweating. Check your pocket, Cedric. The poem's not in your pocket, Cedric. The poem's not in your pocket?! Feel the sudden urge to throw up all over the microphone. Feel the eyes of eight people on you (you had invited 90). Feel the eyes of your father on you. You hadn't seen him in a while (of all the times to show up, Dad, you pick now?).

It was trial by fire.

Intrinsic benefits

When Hameed, now 36, started teaching spoken word poetry to third, fourth and fifth graders at Visible Men Academy the boys would moan and groan, “We have to write today?”

As the school year came to a close, Hameed was more likely to hear “Why are we not writing today?”

VMA has a different approach to teaching boys.

The K-8 public charter school in Bradenton is big on energy, the arts and self-expression. The school’s philosophy is based on a holistic approach to education. Their SHINE principles evaluate students on selflessness, honesty, integrity, “niceness” and excellence. And its two-generation approach invests in kids as much as it does in their families. The school’s Parent Success Program supports parents who are focusing on personal, professional and educational goals.

Yet this model is not doing VMA too many favors with the Florida Department of Education. When the department released school grades on Friday, VMA had again received an “F.” Despite making gains in reading and math, students had not scored sufficiently high on standardized tests. Because this is its second consecutive F, the school runs the risk of having its charter revoked by the state.

Critics of school grades argue that the system is too focused on quantitative rather than qualitative factors. The measures used for grading schools are mostly related to student scores on statewide standardized tests.

Other critics note that due to socioeconomic factors, schools with higher numbers of low-income students are much more likely to earn Cs, Ds and Fs. At VMA, 100 percent of students come from low-income homes, and 90 percent of them are minorities.

Since it opened in 2013, the school has taken in dozens of struggling students halfway through their elementary school years. Advocates for the school say it’s simply too early to make sweeping statements. Parents remain steadfastly supportive of the school. One father tearfully stated that his son had gone from being labeled just a troublemaker at another school, to becoming an honor roll student at VMA. Students echo this sentiment. In the halls, you meet energetic boys who tell you how much they disliked their old schools, and how much they love learning at VMA.

Despite the negative feedback from the state, VMA has remained undeterred in its education philosophy. When co-founders Neil and Shannon Phillips approached teacher Cedric Hameed last year about a writing class, they were looking for something that would teach the boys to be effective communicators, and to dream big.

Spoken word, also known as slam poetry, is a poetic style meant to be performed orally. It has links to hip hop music, jazz and theater. In Hameed's classroom, boys learn to use their voice, and to fall in love with the pen and the pad.

Incorporating the arts in schools is hardly a new trend. But according to the education news website Edutopia, its benefits are often overlooked. Brain-based studies indicate that creative tasks are effective at helping students retain material by activating parts of the brain that improve memory. The arts also are particularly effective at helping students tap into their emotions, which in turn can make them more interested and disciplined in the classroom.

“You see kids start out writing one or two sentences and then they keep going and see their peers stressing over the same topic,” Hameed said. “That's when you see education working because they're learning from their peers and you start seeing the walls come down.”

After he started to perform poems regularly, Hameed opened up a poetry café in New York. He's had his work televised and recognized. He's also worked with high school students and seen firsthand how spoken word helped teens find their own voice and turn their lives around.

Slam poetry started to become popular on YouTube just a few years back. It's caught on. Global Writes, a Bronx-based nonprofit, pairs working poets with local schools. The organization's mission is to promote literacy through spoken word poetry. They've received multiple grants including two from the National Endowment for the Arts, one of which is a research award that will study the impact of the Global Writes model on students in New York City schools.

In Hameed's classroom, the writing is a culmination of the discussions the kids have. Many of the boys at VMA have been touched by poverty or trauma. In the poetry class, they learn to rewrite the narrative. Growing up amidst adversity doesn't have to be a disadvantage. It can be a test of resilience, and an opportunity for growth.

“When I was in school I had a lot of emotional holes that nobody could see,” Hameed said. “I went to school and did my work but there was probably a lot more that I could've accomplished or other ways that I could've come out of my shell had I not constantly been trying to patch up my day with the emotions I didn't want to let out.

“A lot of these boys have the same emotional holes.”

Hameed encourages them to talk openly about themselves and to get in touch with their feelings. He throws writing topics at them: What are some mistakes you've made and how can you avoid them? What is self love? What kind of father would you be? The boys perform and talk about each other's work.

There's praise for each other (“That was super hot fire!”) and claps on the back. One boy gives a shout out to a classmate. “What I like about him is that whenever he makes a mistake he corrects it at the moment,” he says. “If he hurts somebody's feelings he says sorry right away.”

They also listen to Hameed's feedback. The class gets them talking about language in a creative way. “Everybody wants to be heard,” Hameed said. “If you can ignite that fire, literacy is second nature.”

He saw their confidence improve, and the walls come tumbling.

Then, Hameed started teaching their fathers.

Inspired by the lack of minority-led fatherhood groups in the country, Hameed helped initiate a peer group for dads at VMA. The group meets weekly on Tuesday evenings. Their aim is to change the narrative and combat stereotypes about African-American and Hispanic fathers.

“According to the media and public opinion it's like we don't exist,” said Frankie Clark, a father of two boys at VMA. He calls them the unspoken words. “We still have a lot of broken homes but there are a lot of us out here that people don't talk about.”

While parenting groups exist nationwide, you're more likely to find mothers in attendance. Fathers have untapped potential, researchers say. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that children with more involved fathers experienced fewer behavioral problems and scored higher on reading achievement.

“We've seen a change in the students whose fathers come to the group,” says Hameed.

The fathers have seen a change in themselves.

Jose Martinez has three sons at VMA. Martinez said the group has improved his communication with the boys. At the close-knit fatherhood group, he said he feels comfortable opening up to the all-male group about the challenges of being a dad and about his own childhood.

Hameed made them write, too. One assignment had the dads write a letter to their sons. They later performed, reading the letters aloud at a school event.

“What I want for you is really quite simple,” Clark wrote to his two sons. “I just want you to have an opportunity. I know that as long as you have an opportunity you will succeed.”