Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

The Social Work of Poetry: Youth Writing, Empowerment, and Action


This study explores the post–high school lives and literacies of a group of student poets who attended an alternative high school. Using mixed qualitative methods including participant observation, survey, focus groups, and case study interviews, this research followed this group of poets for up to six years after they took the poetry class in order to illustrate how they activated the writing tools gleaned in their in–school poetry class. With a strong reliance on participant voice, this study explores (a) participants' memories of the poetry class that they reported as having a positive impact on their lives; (b) the evolution of these young-­–adults as writers and the functions of literacy in their post-­–high school lives; and (c) the lasting impact of memorable poems produced in the context of the poetry class. Findings illuminated how this group of students valued what they described as a family–like community in poetry class where they felt they could break through personal and institutional silence. Through this process, they grew as individual writers by pulling on the strength of the tight community of poets, internalizing the voices of the group, and refracting them through their own prismatic representations of themselves and their worlds. The social learning that unfolded in the poetry class through the discussion, critique, and development of each poet's voice paved the way for the development of individual writers and for changing attitudes toward schooled learning. Regardless of the frequency of their writing post–high school practice they all understood writing as a critical tool for overcoming life challenges. Participants identified touchstone poems produced in the context of poetry class that resulted in moments of development and altered their life paths. My work argues that for students who have experienced failure or disengagement in schools, positive literacy–;learning spaces that nurture trust, tolerance, and the breaking of silence along with the fostering of written communication and story–telling have the potential help students develop agentive identities and to be armed with literacy as a life skill or social tool.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View