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          Front Page  education

A lifeline in language

By Aurelio Sanchez
Journal Staff Writer
          Freddie Gurule has a story to tell.
        "It's a story about blood, about truth, about being Hispanic, about wanting respect," the 16-year-old South Valley resident says.
        Gurule tells his story to explain why he's taking part in a literacy workshop conducted by acclaimed poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, who is an example to at-risk kids of the amazing possibilities in life.
        "He's from the South Valley, like a lot of us, and he knows what kids go through," Gurule says. "He's going to tell us like it is."
        Luis Arreola has seen his homies shot; he's been shot at himself.
        "When you're running from bullets, it makes you think, why am I doing this?" says Arreola, 17. "That's not what I want to do for the rest of my life."
        A onetime South Valley street tough and prison ex-con who has won prestigious literary awards, Baca demonstrates to kids that literacy is freedom, and everyone has something worthwhile to say.
        Assisted by a handful of streetwise volunteers, including a former San Diego policewoman, Baca recently conducted a three-day workshop at La Academia de Esperanza, a charter school in the South Valley for at-risk kids in the middle and secondary school levels.
        Called Adolescents on the Edge, the workshop uses stories from Baca's life contained in a like-named book to teach about conflict and life-changing choices. It's designed to help kids make better decisions.
        Through Baca's poetry and stories, and their own, students learn the power of literacy and how it can change their lives, too.
        ReLeah Cossett Lent, a nationally recognized educational consultant, said that in Baca she recognized a way to get through to kids, who are otherwise frequently unreachable.
        "A master storyteller, Jimmy weaves threads of tales that can be tragic, funny, exciting, poignant — often all at the same time," Lent says. "But it is not only the narrative that will hook students, because his stories are intended to do more than entertain; his convictions will move them to introspection.
        "His insistence that every single person can make choices, even under the most horrendous circumstances, will empower them to believe that they, too, can succeed."
        Lent and Baca collaborated on the book "Adolescents on the Edge," published by Heinemann Books, which uses personal stories by Baca, augmented by learning activities and teaching suggestions from Lent.
        During the recent workshop in Albuquerque, about 20 students were rapt, listening to Baca tell his story of a South Valley tough going to prison illiterate, then emerging five years later not only able to read, but with skills that enabled him to become a renowned poet.
        Kids are in turn encouraged to tell their stories, verbally and in poems. That unleashes a stream of repressed emotion and energy, beginning with Mario Nuñez, a 17-year-old whose poem of pain and loss elicits a comforting pat on the back from Baca.
        Katrina Mendoza, wearing a Metallica shirt and a ring through her lower lip, reads from her poem: "If you look into my eyes/ you will see a sweet girl.../But if you pull up my (shirt), /you will see the (bruises)/ What did I do so wrong?/"
        To reduce writing anxiety, Baca encourages students to write poems as letters. Then he subtly introduces some of the bones of poetry, explaining end rhyme, internal rhyme, rhythm, imagery and symbolism.
        "You don't always have to rhyme the lines at the end. Rhyme them inside the lines, put your words into motion, give them a rhythm, with a cadence like a drum, we are all made of sound, give it your own rhythm, like when you dance," he says.
        Though he says it's OK to reveal the sadness in their lives, it's also good to write about the joy. "I want to you look deep inside and find that joy, because it's there," he says.
        There's an unrestrained energy in the room as students work on their own poetic epiphanies, some converting the poet's words into artistic sketches or other works of art, guided by presenter Karin Heshast Smith, a professional artist.
        Annette Abeita, 17, says poetry helps her express her feelings about losing some friends and the near loss of some family members. It allows her to focus on the possibility of a better life.
        "I want to go to college. I don't think I'd be in school without this school, without the poetry," she says. "Now I feel some hope."
        Baca said he's talking to APS officials about introducing the book and curriculum to classes in at least six middle and high schools.
        "The beauty of this program is that with the right kind of approach, the right kind of education, we can turn these kids' lives completely around," he says. "That's good for everybody."

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