If like me, you're burnt out on all the Waiting for Superman hype, I've got the perfect antidote. Go see Louder Than A Bomb, a brilliant and powerful documentary that is nothing less than eye poetry. I was lucky enough to score a couple of tickets to a sold-out showing at Chicago's International Film Festival but had to watch from the packed theater's second row. However, the tears running down my face weren't caused by my proximity to the screen, but from the power of spoken-word poetry and the stories behind the Chicago high school kids performing it.
No, there are no superheroes in this film, no Michelle Rhee or Geoffrey Canada. No power philanthropists searching for instant (no waiting) solutions to the complex problems facing inner city schools. Instead we hear the much more compelling stories about kids often consigned to the bottom tier of the school system, those who are the main, often passive or unwilling targets of current top-down school-reform policies. The stars are a diverse mix of students, teachers and parents, acting powerfully as agents of their own teaching and learning, making meaning of their own (and others') lives, struggles, and stories through the power of hip-hop and spoken word.
The film folds itself around the annual Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam competition, a Chicago original, which has grown into a national movement. LTAB was started a decade ago by Young Chicago Authors, a youth-oriented creative writing and literacy organization that attracts kids from every corner of the city.
The competition is intense and loaded with contradictions. How is a judge supposed to rate a poem on a scale of 1 to 10? I've been a volunteer judge at several of these slam competitions, torn between wanting to give every poem, every performance a 10 and trying, at the same time, to act in the spirit of the competition. The operating slogan is, "The Point Is Not The Points, The Point Is The Poetry." But do the the kids really buy it? The fun for me is seeing how each performer draws on the energy of the audience. They in turn, respond to a judge's low score with chants of, "Listen to the poem! Listen to the poem!"
LTAB follows four groups of young poets through the months leading up to the big event. They dig deep within themselves to create stunning statements about their lives, their politics, their schools, and world as they see it. They're driven to learn and create in ways difficult to capture within the walls of high school English classes. It all starts from reflection -- who am I in the world? -- and grows from there with the guidance of skilled and artful teachers and coaches.
Equally important for me as an educator, was the story of authentic teaching and personalized interaction between teacher and student under the most difficult of conditions -- the very things we were trying to capture in the early days of Chicago's small-schools movement more than a decade ago. They're the things that get lost in the current test-driven. teacher-proof reforms envisioned by the Waiting for Superman crowd who view poverty and racism as mere "excuses" for low test scores.
LTAB is co-produced and directed by two Emmy-winning TV documentary producers, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel. After the Film Festival showing, Siskel held a Q & A with an enthusiastic audience where he described his experience driving by a local theater and seeing "Louder Than A Bomb" on the marquee, with a big, diverse crowd of teenagers gathered outside. After coming back and sitting in the audience, he knew exactly the film that he and his partner Jacobs had to make.
Local poet and Young Chicago Authors Artistic Director Kevin Coval, described the pair's struggle to win trust and confidence in order to capture the authentic voices of the young poets. We we were then treated to a live performance by the (now graduated) team from Steinmetz High School, sharing a version of their now acclaimed, "Counting Graves."
I can't wait to see Louder Than A Bomb again, this time from a better vantage point. You should do the same.