The Power of the Pen:  Poetry as the Bridge to Liberation


This post is written by Darius Phelps. You can read more about Darius at the bottom of this post.

As bell hooks argued, some forms of writing create “a space where we are able to confront reality in such a way that we live more fully.” Having been an educator for thirteen years, I believe that teaching students to write should be a practice that comes from the soul, especially if we want to foster a true connection between ourselves, our students, and the intimacy of writing. For me, growing up, poetry had been a sanctuary, the space in which words were the only thing that brought me comfort. As a young man of color, I found solace in the work of Korean rapper, and author, TABLO of the Korean hip-hop group Epik High who spoke out on issues such as struggling with mental health, depression, assimilation, and even struggling to experience joy as a young man. Inspired and enamored by his work, I began to write poetry myself, letting the words and emotions flow as they came, without restriction.

Dr. Maxine Greene (2000) argues that we must advocate for the inclusion of arts in the classroom in order to help foster a deep understanding and foundation for imagination. She stresses that there are multiple voices and multiple realities for, “We must now allow the enthusiasm for publicity about changed methods of reading instruction to obscure the facts of exclusion and neglect.” (p 36) Writing is part of the conversation,  and through these crucial conversations, we foster dialogue.  In Chapter 9 of Releasing the Imagination, titled “Writing to Learn”, Greene (2000) reinforces this idea When teaching writing, more specifically narrative writing, I use my own personal narrative as a guide/model for my students, showing them that there is power in being vulnerable and sharing what lies on their hearts. I remember the days when I was a student, especially in elementary school; I didn’t have a connection with writing inside of school because I didn’t see myself reflected in the prompts or discussions we would regularly have.

Once I became a classroom teacher, I discovered that diving into writing and teaching as a way to express ourselves via social-emotional learning helps us become better teachers for our students, even challenging us to face our own struggles head-on. With it, we learn to speak well and with emotion, to emulate that emotion, and to be more attentive to words and the emotions that they convey. (Storey, 2019) The power of the pen is one that is truly immaculate, and I feel that can be combined with the implementation of SEL. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a lifelong process for both the teacher and the student. In order to develop self-awareness, self-control, interpersonal skills, and all the intangibles that are paramount of work, school, and life, both adult and child must be willing to do the inner work that is necessary to allow these areas to manifest into something that they can apply to real-life, everyday situations. I believe that the process of doing that inner work requires honest self-examination, painful self-excavation, and restorative healing.

Effective educators use various strategies to improve their pedagogy and to reach their students. It is crucial for teachers to not only understand where their students come from culturally but also truly see them as individuals.  Anyone can be/become a culturally relevant teacher no matter what age group, area, or subject you are teaching.  Ladson Billings (2009) stresses that the key is to go in with an open mindset and see your students for who they are and what they are capable of doing; don’t focus on the negative. As we instruct them in both literature and writing, we must truly believe each and every one of our students can and will succeed. In order to transform them as students, we must be willing to instill this in them and show that we care, and I believe that poetry can be that bridge to vulnerability.

In My Shoes”

by Darius Phelps

If you only knew

what it was like

to walk in my shoes

You’d know my steps 

marched to the beat

of different tunes

Music, art, and poetry

all different clues

Pieces of the puzzle

to my past

The weight of the world

heavy like a stack

of cement bricks 

But nothing

and no one

would hold me back

from overcoming life’s tricks and turns



but never… burned

In my shoes,

You wouldn’t last a day

Surviving Hell’s fire

Like a blistering summer in May

No matter the trauma, the heartache, or the pain

I’ve come out stronger, better, and wiser with much more to gain

For even flowers bloom, after April’s rain

If you only knew

what it was like

to walk in my shoes

When we share our emotions, we foster meaningful discussions that are applicable in students’ day to day lives. I encourage teachers to challenge their students to think critically and outside the box, encouraging them to tackle emotions such as depression, grief, perfectionism, and even abandonment with various forms of discussion. Each person comes with a unique understanding of life, love, freedom, and emotions. Emotions equal freedom because you can’t control when a certain emotion washes over you or rises up, within you. If schools are built on deep relationships, and consent is embedded in the framework of relationship-building, we truly learn how to be self-aware, to recognize how others want to engage with us, and to face our own demons. (Hooks, 2021)

“Where I Am from” 

By Darius Phelps

I am from the pages of battered book

From fiery passion and grit

I am from the daily prayers of my grandmother

Loved endlessly, protected, and cared for

I am from the falling petals of a sunflower

radiant, yellow, and soft like the sun

I am from dinner on Sunday’s and hard work

From Mattie and Eddie, raised by my grandparents

I am from their loving and selfless hearts, the purest love I’ve ever know

From playing outside and using my imagination to dream endlessly

I am from the early Sunday mornings at church and praying before bed

I am from Riverdale, Georgia

From chocolate cake and sweet potato pie

From the endless nights watching grandma bake

The early mornings watching mom leave for work

photograph by photograph

Snapshots of my childhood memories

That slowly fade as time passes by

These are the memories that I hold closest

Where I am from, appreciating what is now gone, remembering that place I used to call home

Where I am from, will never compare to where I am headed

I am Darius Phelps

In the classroom, teachers can utilize poetry prompts such as Georga Ella Lyons “I Am” or “Where I am From” or even ask students to write about their experiences with a day in their life of being in “In Their Shoes.”  In doing so, we both create and provide a safe space for students to come openly with their trauma, pain, and grief and freely express their significant losses in their writing while paying homage to where they come from and light the path to where they are here.

The world of poetry opens our minds to explore our own voice and even find a new one in the process, especially when using it to discuss a wide variety of topics.  Poetry can teach us about ourselves and others in a deep and meaningful way. Instead of writing or reading a generic story about us or someone else, poetry provides the freedom for the writer to not only feel but to fully experience exactly what the writer went through, in a way that honors both their voice and experience. During that journey, the reader’s experience becomes enhanced with the use of similes, metaphors, alliterations, imagery, foreshadowing, and other literary devices. These factors that poetry can offer are what makes our writing that much more personal, and what’s personal for us can end up being a universal message for our readers and our students, allowing them to give their ancestors’ stories a voice, a reason, and a platform to be shared, heard, and acknowledged by all.

We must prioritize freedom of expression through writing opportunities moving forward both in the home and school settings so that children can begin to form relationships, especially the ones with themselves. Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop’s significant framing of multicultural literature as providing windows and mirrors into lived experiences and Morrell’s (2005) call for critical English education open opportunities for excavation in the classroom. I believe that with vulnerability comes authenticity for “Understanding and identifying trauma among students should be grounded in the context, while also considering the range of experiences for diverse individuals within the context.” (Alvarez, 2017)

To do so, we must lead by example, meaning, we as educators must be open and honest about our trauma, struggles, and grief for students to write and formulate their own personal narratives through whatever method speaks to them.  It is through our vulnerability that they will lead towards the liberation of their own respective experiences. If there is anything I want my students to know, it is that writing is about freedom of expression. Be you, regardless of anyone else’s opinion. You are destined to change the world, don’t ever forget that, and let your let shine.

Darius Phelps is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is an adjunct professor at CUNY Queens, Hunter College, Teachers College, and intern at Brooklyn Poets.  An educator, poet, spoken word artist, and activist, Darius writes poems about grief, liberation, emancipation, reflection through the lens of a teacher of color and experiencing Black boy joy. His poems have appeared in the NY English Record, NCTE English Journal, Pearl Press Magazine, and ëëN Magazine’s The 2023 Valentine Issue.  Recently, he was featured on WCBS and highlighted the importance of Black male educators in the classroom. Darius can be contacted via email at:

Nurturing Key Critical Literacies Through Visual Arts Pedagogy


This post is written by Linda Cato. You can find out more about Linda at the bottom of this post.

The classroom is charged with an energy of quiet focus: ten students patiently mixing rainbows of watercolor on paint trays and carefully painting in rows of squares on pieces of large, gridded paper. The students work around one large “studio table” created by pushing together several desks, which allows for ease as they assist and encourage each other through what was initially seen as a painstaking task, but is now met with curiosity and reflection.

“I never knew I could mix so many colors with just three! And I never knew that I could see my feelings!” says one student.

“To be honest, I thought I was gonna hate this, but I feel so calm right now,” says another.

Visual arts pedagogy holds the inherent potential to foster literacy across disciplines, while also nurturing key critical literacies such as hope. Art making (and all creative work) is, in its greatest sense, an act of hope, a powerful pathway by which we bring forward what lies beyond words, engage in bold envisioning, and exercise the right to dream. Educator and scholar Jeff Duncan-Andrade defines critical hope as the ability to assess one’s environment through a lens of equity and justice while also envisioning the possibility of a better future (Dugan, 2017; Duncan- Andrade, 2009 as cited in Bishundat, Philip, and Gore, 2018). Following my curiosity regarding the classroom as an incubator of personal and community well-being, creativity, and literacy, I have been striving to design projects which nurture both critical literacy and critical hope, with a nod to SEL and visual art standards. My goal is to walk a path of discovery alongside my students, whereby we build the capacity and language to craft essential and provoking questions and invite expansive answers through our creative journeying, while laying the foundations for personal and collective transformation and growth.

The unit, based on watercolor technique and color theory, set us on a path of self-reflection and connection. Introduced towards the end of the term, it bridges what we have seen and heard from the artists explored in this course (Kusama, Wiley, Butler, Glinsky, Gee’s Bend Quilters, among others), linking their experiences to the students themselves, with a focus on the storytelling power of color. Color, along with other forms of creative expression, is a powerful tool that can be used to express personal narrative, work with challenging emotions, and foster positive states of mind. (The Foundation for Art and Healing, 2022).

We began by looking at and responding to art that emphasizes the color red. Students offered insights as to what the red felt like to them, and what stories the red was telling in each painting. For some students, red felt like agitation or anger, for others, celebration and love. From their discussions, it was clear that they understood the personal nature of color as well as its potential to evoke emotion.

After our initial discussion, I passed out large sheets of watercolor paper and asked each student to create a grid on the paper, using rulers and pencils. I then began a demonstration of how color families can be mixed from three root primary colors – red, yellow, and blue – modeling the creation of a watercolor rainbow of colors of varying brightness, intensity, and opacity. I used the demonstration as a think-aloud, reflecting out loud as I worked, using vocabulary specific to the visual arts discipline and this lesson (“I see that mixing complementary colors has a specific effect on the value of color”) and taking time to pause and look at my work in order to offer reflective questions,”I wonder how the story of this orange will change if I add two drops of green?” and “Ohhhh that looks a little more like a shadow color, gives me a low-energy feel”…. I also note that “As I fill in this grid with all these colors, I am reminded of how many emotions arise throughout my day, one after the other….. “, connecting the activity to wider learning and laying important groundwork for the individual reflections and class discussions to come.

After completing about a quarter of my grid, I invited students into the process, continuing to work alongside them for several minutes. Pausing my work, I circulated around the room, engaging students in reflection and inviting questions. Once students had filled in the grids, we paused for a mindful reflection on the process and on the myriad of colors that covered the table. Referring to the Feeling Wheel (Wilcox, 1982) they named their colors with the corresponding feeling, writing the emotion on each square. We closed the session with students sharing their completed grids along with insights into their experiences and learning, acknowledging not only how different the grids are from each other, but also how beautiful and satisfying it is to see them all together.

Example of completed color grid: all colors are mixed from a root primary triad, and each color named based on the connection of color/emotion, specific to the student artist.

The next step in our exploration was to create a self-portrait using the color mixing techniques. We began with a group share, with students identifying and sharing the dominant moods they have experienced over the past week. Most students reported feeling tired, sad, bored, and stressed. I invited the students to consider how we might use color to connect to states of joy, peace, calm, and ease while demonstrating some techniques they might use to sketch out the silhouette of a head and neck, which I then divided in half by drawing a line down the middle of the face from top to bottom. Once all students had completed their drawings, we referred back to the Feelings Wheel. I invited the students to choose one emotion they had felt in the past days, and then identify a contrasting emotion and to write them on their drawings, on either side of the face. Next, students were guided to mix two different palettes, each representing one of the emotions they chose to express. Using their mixed colors, they painted in the portrait, one half at a time.

Joy/Sadness by D.W., 2022
Tired/Playful by S.J., 2022

As the class worked with care and focus, I circulated around the room, responding to questions and comments. When all the portraits were finished, we shared the art and some words about the overall experience. Some expressed surprise at how their mood lifted as they worked on this project, and overall the class agreed that they experienced feelings of hope after representing themselves in colors connected with positive emotions. The group share was definitely a moment of connection for the entire group: we had touched a moment of collective critical hope. Through the shared creative experience and dialogue, students understood multiple perspectives while still connecting to self.

Given the concerning statistics regarding adolescent mental health, it is imperative that we are supporting our students in their awareness and understanding of their emotions, helping them develop the skills and tools they can use throughout their lives. In this particular instance, creative work is the vehicle of exploration. Creative expression supports the development of emotional literacy by inviting curiosity and reflection. Emotional literacy is directly tied to critical literacy in that it empowers individuals to deepen their own self-awareness while equipping them with tools of self-advocacy. Critical literacy in turn lays the foundation for critical hope as students find courage to envision, engage in new ways of experiencing, and exercise their self-efficacy.


Bishundat, D., Phillip, D. V., & Gore, W. (2018). Cultivating critical hope: The too often forgotten dimension of critical leadership development. New directions for student leadership2018(159), 91-102.

The Foundation for Art and Healing, 2022

Willcox, G. (1982). The Feeling Wheel: A Tool for Expanding Awareness of Emotions and Increasing Spontaneity and Intimacy. Transactional Analysis Journal, 12(4), 274-276.

This post is written by Linda Cato. You can follow Linda on Instagram at

Linda currently serves as a high school visual arts instructor with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School District, after relocating to NC from the desert Southwest. Following a strong interest in schools as spaces of wellness and healing, Linda recently completed certification in Social Emotional Arts through the UCLArts and Healing program. Linda’s wish for all students who pass through the classroom is that they touch joy and possibility, and experience the power of inquiry and bold imagining. Linda is also also a mixed-media visual artist with an active studio practice. The created art is grounded in observation and experimentation, and considers the interconnectedness of human experience, spirit, and the natural world. 

Cover image credits.