Change at a ‘Rapid Fire’ Pace

A group of talented young poets has emerged at my school, Life Academy, over the last three years. They call themselves “Rapid Fire.” When they speak, there is heat, and their words do catch. They’ve met critical success in district and area slam competitions. This year, the team placed second in the preliminary Unified District Poetry Slam sponsored by Youth Speaks and went on to place second in the finals. Not only are their words deliberately beautiful, but their messages can transform and teach tolerance.

At a recent “spoken word” event, senior Monica Mendoza performed her poem Faggot. With steady determination backed up by thoughtful research, Mendoza explained why people should never use the word. Her crescendo invoked the names of young gay men who lost their lives because of their sexuality. “Every time you use the word faggot…tell me if you hear Bobby Griffith’s prayers begging for God to forgive him for being gay/ tell me if you heard the truck smash him to death…/ tell me if you hear the fence rattling after Matthew Shepard was tied and tortured.”

Her peers inspired Mendoza to write this poem. She was hanging out with immature boys who constantly used the word. “It really annoyed the hell out of me,” she said, “especially because around that time a friend had just come out to me but wanted to keep it a secret. I know he feels uncomfortable when they say that word, and I’m pretty sure that there's a lot of other gay men that feel that way as well.”

Providing LGBT-inclusive curriculum should be common. Discussing gay issues and having teachers who are “out” can combat homophobia. But students have leverage to shift the culture in ways that no teacher-initiated movement can. Mendoza felt compelled to advocate for gay men because she noticed a double standard in school culture. “I feel like [gay men are] looked down on more then lesbians,” Mendoza said. “I know there are people that find two girls making out ‘sexy’ and freak out seeing two men kissing.”

Similarly, Rapid Fire poets Bryant Phan and Marielle Garcia wanted to address young men in their poem called Player Boys. Like Mendoza’s piece, Player Boys is a call for change. In tandem, they urged young men to alter their opinions about women. “These women you toy with are not Barbies/ They are daughters and sisters/ Humans that you can’t claim as property/ Their bodies are queendoms/ and you are not royal.”

Phan, now a senior, is the founding member of Rapid Fire. He transferred to Life Academy as a sophomore and quickly formed the poetry group. “I wanted to expose the school to spoken word [poetry] and encourage the student body to use its voice,” he said. “Spoken word has equipped me with so many helpful tools, and I wanted to do the same for other students.” Phan appeared on HBO’s Brave New Voices. 

Through poetry Mendoza, Phan, and Garcia have found their political voice. “I learned to get involved in social issues that affect me, like immigration and gangs,” Mendoza said. “Through poetry I realized that I wanted to major in women and gender studies for college. It's just completely transformed me and helped me grow.”

As these three seniors leave Life Academy for college, they gift the school the legacy of poetry, the message of change. They also leave big footsteps to be filled by their younger classmates, the next generation of poets.

Thomas is an English teacher in California.


I'm organizing a "Peace Day"

Submitted by AsaleSol Young on 13 July 2011 - 3:19pm.

I'm organizing a "Peace Day" for all incoming freshman at a school that I work with. The purpose of the day is to build connections,understanding and support across different identity lines - to allow the students to see the true beauty in the vast diversity of their school, and each other.

I'm wondering if it's possible to get copies of the pieces that Mendoza and Phan wrote. I know the powerful words of youth have great capacity to reach the hearts and minds of any, but particularly other youth... Even if there is a clear, audible video somewhere that would also be very helpful.


Did you see the links to the

Submitted by Jill Thomas on 30 July 2011 - 1:30pm.

Did you see the links to the videos? I think they are pretty clear and audible. I could send you the text, but I know all of the youth poets would argue that their words are meant to be heard rather than read. Please let me know if you need further help, as I would love for these words to be spread!

Jill, Another incisive and

Submitted by Bruce Greene on 12 July 2011 - 2:17pm.

Another incisive and important piece. I'm sure you are aware of the work of Daniel Beaty. I had the opportunity to see him in action when he did a workshop for the Oregon Writing Project. Perhaps others unfamiliar with his work might check him out on You Tube. This upcoming school year would be a great time to bring his work and ideas into Language Arts classes of all kinds. Beaty has a series of steps he uses to help teachers feel comfortable using his ideas. Linda Christensen has also written in Rethinking Schools and her own books as well on using this type slam poetry with students. As you suggest, the times and issues we're dealing with today certainly provide ample material to engage students and encourage them to voice their ideas.

I applaud all you are doing

Submitted by Marc Mostransky on 28 June 2011 - 6:32pm.

I applaud all you are doing with these students. After watching The NY Knicks Poetry Slam three years ago, I was inspired to start workshops and a slam in my district. With three years under our wing, we hope to continue our growth and bud into something larger! Here is a link to a story from this past year's slam that attests to much of what you put in your article. So glad we have teachers like you!

Marc Mostransky

Hi Marc, I'm glad you enjoyed

Submitted by Jill E. Thomas on 29 June 2011 - 9:53am.

Hi Marc,

I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I just want to clarify that I merely documented the work the students did. I had nothing to do with the creation of their work. The club they are a part of was a student-initiated group spear-headed by Bryant Phan. Both Kimberly Young and Julio Magana, two educators at my school should be credited with advising these young poets.

Keep up your good work!


Thank you for this story. I

Submitted by Deb Wheeler on 28 June 2011 - 5:03pm.

Thank you for this story. I couldn't stop reading and went to YouTube for more - thank you