Nine Northside High School seniors are taking their education to the next level with an online poetry course through Harvard University, in an aim to better both themselves and their school community.

The course is offered through a partnership between the National Education Equity Lab, the Harvard Extension School and Poetry in America at no cost to the students. The aim is to bring poetry and advanced educational opportunities to underserved high school students around the country.

Northside High was one of 29 schools selected for the nationwide pilot and one of four schools in Louisiana, alongside Opelousas High School, Fisher Middle High School in Lafitte and McKinley Senior High School in Baton Rouge.

The course, Poetry in America: The City from Whitman to Hip Hop, explores depictions of cities and city life from Walt Whitman’s works in the 1800s to contemporary hip hop and spoken-word poetry. The seniors said the diverse content is challenging them to think differently about poetry.

“It opens your mind to the things you see on a daily basis,” Northside student Nina Porter said.

Porter, 17, said she never thought of rapper Kendrick Lamar as a poet, but after seeing his raps included in the course materials her view of what constitutes poetry expanded. Her classmate Kammie Flugence, 17, said it’s interesting to see the diversity of topics covered, from deep romance to gun violence. It shows that anything can be expressed through poetry. 

Chyrean Charles, 17, said she’s excited about the exposure to college-level instruction and student expectations. Students are more prone to giving up when they don’t know what to expect, and the Harvard course is showing her and her peers what it takes to be successful, she said.

“High school is nothing like college. You don’t have teachers reminding you every day when things are due. If we didn’t have this experience, we’d probably walk in and say, ‘That’s not fair, nobody told us it was going to be like that,’ and start putting the blame on other people. I feel like [this class] will help make us accountable,” Charles said.

Haylen Mallery, 17, said the class is helping him prepare for the academic rigor of college. The senior is expanding his vocabulary and learning how to break down difficult topics and assignments, a skill crucial for success, he said.

Beyond the immediate benefits to them, the students are hopeful the class can help raise the school’s profile and change its perception within the community. The seniors said they often hear disparaging comments about the school from outside friends, and even family members, and they want the community to recognize the positive strides the school is making.

When people talk down about the school, it diminishes the students’ self-esteem and makes some question the value of completing their education. That needs to end, they said.

“I hope it lifts the school’s name up because right now people outside the school that don’t come here and see what’s happening look at Northside like a bad place,” Porter said.

In addition to the Harvard course, students are also earning dual enrollment credits in math and history. They’re working hard for their grades and for opportunities to improve, the seniors said. Classes like the Harvard partnership serve to give students and community members hope, Charles said.

Jonaisha Pennamon, 17, said she’s proud of her high school. She hopes the younger students see the course’s benefits and the doors it can open for them. She wants them to recognize if she and her classmates can do it, they can do it, too.

“We really do have some good stuff going on,” Pennamon said.

Northside High teacher Elizabeth Sonnier is taking the course alongside the students and guiding them through the process. The English teacher joined Northside’s staff in January after roughly 10 years working and teaching at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

She said the Harvard course is a chance for the students to showcase their talents and receive the positive academic recognition they deserve.

“I’m already proud of these kids, but it’s something that other people can actually appreciate because it carries a lot of prestige with it and these kids deserve that,” Sonnier said. 

The classwork is fast paced and demanding, she said.

Sonnier and the students complete a themed unit each week and receive new course materials every Friday. They’re expected to read a selection of poems over the weekend and be ready to discuss the work the following Monday. In addition, the students watch recorded course lectures and read textbook-style course materials for each unit, she said.

Once they’ve worked through the material, the students complete a writing prompt using Yellowdig, a social media-style discussion platform for students. They then converse about their writing online with students at the other pilot high schools to explore more angles and challenging one another’s ideas, Sonnier said. At the end of the week they take a quiz on the unit materials and lectures.

It’s been a difficult balance, especially since many of the students participate in band, dance team, cheerleading and other extracurriculars, but they’re working hard, she said.

“If you’re in your comfort zone you’re not really learning anything, so pushing them in that regard is really forcing them to grow. There are growing pains, but I’ve been so impressed with where they can take these ideas,” Sonnier said. “They come from a perspective that not a lot of people share. They’re bringing to Walt Whitman things nobody else could.”

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