There is a lot of activity when I step into Neela Banerjee's class at Del Rey Continuation High School. It's the last few days of school before the holiday break and students are a bit restless. They slowly return to their tables as class is called back into session after a short break. They are handed a poem to read out loud;
If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon,
It could be for a wedding, or it could be for you.
Always enter a home with your right foot;
The left is for cemeteries and unclean places.
O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.
It means Stop! Or I'll shoot.
Sabah el Khair is effective.
It means Good morning.
The poem, entitled "What Every Soldier Should Know," is part of a collection of poetry written by Brian Turner that details his experiences as a soldier in Iraq. Neela is sharing the poem with the students to have them consider what tips would be useful for someone traveling in their Los Angeles neighborhood. What would they recommend? What warnings would they issue? Students were quick to offer suggestions, such as "If you hear a helicopter...run," or various recommendations on where to eat, crash, or hang out.
The assignment is part of the ongoing collaboration between The HeArt Project, Departures Youth Voices and La Plaza de Cultura y Arte. The project, with its theme "Mapping the Metropolis: Finding the Heart of the City," encourages students to share their insights and perspectives on the city through various expressions of art.
The students in Neela's class are creating life maps that detail key moments in their lives, along with writing poetry to bring these experiences and feelings together. The memories of these events and feelings come to life on the page. Neela explains, "by using drawings to have the students make symbolic representations of their lives, it was a short step to having them write about those same incidences through creative wordplay." (read Neela's article on her work with the HeArt Project students)
The mood is light as the students share their thoughts about a neighborhood survival guide. The students are enthusiastic to discuss their experiences and comment on what they know. Neela and Cole James, the HeArt Project coordinator, facilitate and steer the discussion to further encourage all the student's participation. Their support allows the students to reflect on what it's like to walk through their neighborhood; the sounds and words they hear, and what they see and feel. The students then take what they have discussed and proceed to write. The poems they come up with are open, thoughtful, and offer a complex view of the city and their lives.
When the students return from their holiday break they will continue their exploration of the city, examining their connection to the history, culture and geography of Los Angeles. They will have more opportunities to expand on their personal maps and writings to create a final project that will be exhibited in February at La Plaza de Cultura y Arte.