The weather on Wednesday, January 23rd was dreadful with raging snow and frigid temperatures. But when I received news that the Media Arts Coffee House at Hillcrest High School was still on, I was determined to take the wintery trek, unsure of what sort of turnout to expect from this group of secondary students, presenting their newly learned skills in spoken word poetry creation and performance. They had worked so thoughtfully over a semester, building their skills and preparing for this moment, this time to be really heard. Through partnership with Youth Ottawa, the students in the Media Arts class at Hillcrest were introduced to spoken word poetry by Ottawa-based spoken word artists Jamaal Jackson Rogers (a.k.a. Just Jamaal the Poet) and Maya Basudde (MayaSpoken)

Due to the weather, I arrived apologetically late, frustrated by my tardiness, though no fault of my own. I planned on arriving early, introducing myself and seeking permission to be in this safe space, privileged to be a witness to this art. But it didn’t go that way. Instead I crept through the doors and slid into an empty seat, desperate to go unnoticed, to not break the ambiance that filled the room. From where I was seated I could feel the power in that room. I could taste these students’ hunger for life, for truth and for change. Their stories echoed through me like a brisk wind, robbing me of breath, unveiling the raw beauty of their souls. The confidence in their calculated speech, the aesthetics of their purposeful language and the strength through their voices, led me through their lived experiences and opened them to the vulnerability of truth—their truth. 

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This space is where meaningful learning begins. As I navigate through my own research space working with narratives and storytelling and the relation to student experience, I am humbled to witness theory in practice. I watched the social emergence amongst the students and the teacher, supporting and encouraging each other to speak their truths, and to be free through their art. One by one as they took the stage, it was not silent, but was rather filled with acknowledgement of their bravery, and a connected support system that was clearly built over time. They not only listened to the carefully crafted poems of their colleagues and fellow students, but they offered support, understanding and encouragement to one another. This was truly a safe space. 

If meaningful learning is our goal, how can we achieve this without first seeking understanding of the foundation on which we intend to build? In our life continuum, we enter new learning spaces with a breadth of knowledge and a flurry of experiences that we carry with us on our journey. I want to be a part of the journey of my students; however, I cannot do this without them first understanding what that journey is, and who they really are. But to know who they are, they must first be given the time and space to sort that out. To support students in where they want to go, we must first see where they have been. What I was privileged to witness at this coffee house on that cold, blustery day, were the inspirational results that can occur when students are given the tools, are guided, and are encouraged to tell their stories and break down the barriers of discrimination and oppression that they battle every day. What I witnessed was what meaningful learning can look like.

Written by Jessica Sokolowski

Jessica Sokolowski

PhD Candidate in Education, University of Ottawa