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By Patricia Corrigan
Of The Post-Dispatch
April 21, 2004

The hip-hop look doesn't do it for Dale Davis, who is in her late 50s, but she is a fan of rap. Earlier this month, Davis conducted a weeklong hip-hop poetry workshop at the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center. Meeting for the first time with students at the center's Griscom School, Davis said, "There is a stereotype you have to get over. I'm old, and I'm white. Now . . . we're moving on."

That they did. At week's end, Davis had 20 pages of hip-hop poetry penned by the 40 teens. She also had a rough cut of the young poets reading their work, and soon each participant will have the finished CD.

"Mainstream society neglects rhyme books full of hip-hop poetry, but enabling students to speak for themselves in their own language is increasingly important today, because too many of our students are alienated," Davis said in an interview before class.

A writer and educator based in Rochester, N.Y., Davis is vice president of the Association of Teaching Artists. She is convinced that using rap in the classroom raises literacy levels, encourages self-expression and motivates students, maybe even keeps them in school.

Calling rap "among the most important influences in American youth culture today," Davis uses the rhyming poetry to motivate troubled adole scents to think, write and learn. "I'm telling the students that, if an epic poem is a guide to civilization, the CD we are writing here will be a guide to St. Louis."

Midweek, eight young men barely old enough to drive -- all dressed in identical red sweats and and all awaiting hearings on crimes they have allegedly committed - filed into the library of the center, which is at 3847 Enright Avenue. Davis greeted them, handed out the lyrics to "Moment of Clarity" by rapper Jay-Z and then played the recording of the same name.

"This is the time for your moment of clarity," Davis said afterward. "When you're in the Juvenile Detention Facility, you have time to think, time to reflect. What do you see clearly? Later, we're going to write about that."

Davis told the students that DMX taught himself to write while in detention facilities in New York and that Black Ice learned to write at Rykers Island Prison, also in New York. She talked about the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation's arts camp in Georgia.

Then Davis brought out an anthology of poetry by one of her former students, one of some 500 books Davis has published through the New York State Literary Center. Davis said she sells the books and gives the profits to the authors. She read aloud "The Message" and "Ghetto Girl" by Starmeisha Jones. The first poem begins: "I don't feel a part of anything. I am unattached. I have no sense of belonging or security."

Nodding in appreciation - or maybe recognition - one young man said, "That's nice."

Addressing a student in the front row, Davis said, "You've got a book in you, maybe many books. You know that, right?" Slouched in his chair and fiddling with a pencil, he allowed himself a small grin of pleasure. Another teen commented that poetry books by peers inspire other students. Everyone nodded.

Then, calling for silence in the room, Davis said, "You must respect people when they read, because it's your heart and soul on the page."

One by one, pride triumphing over shyness, the young men moved to the front of the room to read work completed earlier in the week. The students applauded after each reading.

One poem, written by a student who said this was his first writing class, began like this: "Small time gangsta doing wrong living out on the streets. Do you see a child, or do you see a man to be?"

Another wrote: "Life taught me to sell drugs, smoke, and show love, and run from the law, and if I get caught not to tell what I saw."

One teen penned a prayer in rhyme. Another's poem asked, "Would I have been so messed up if a teacher hadn't told me to shut up, had listened to me, had helped me to read instead of seeing only hate?"

This work is not new to Davis. As a founder of the New York State Poets in the Schools program, Davis was asked in the late 1980s to write a play using writing by high school students. "First I read their work. Then I started listening to their music," said Davis. "I loved Public Enemy, and I started buying rap CDs and playing them in my car." That led to her develop the hip-hop poetry workshops 11 years ago.

Back in the classroom, Davis occasionally asked for a second reading, as this was a rehearsal for taping sessions scheduled later in the week. Sometimes, she encouraged "bigger voices" from the young men, who tended to speak softly. Some of them understood and complied, as some have taken part in "I'm an Actor," an arts education program offered at the center through Prison Performing Arts, a local organization that works with incarcerated adults and children throughout Missouri.

Visitor Agnes Wilcox, artistic director of Prison Performing Arts, said, "This hip-hop workshop has it all - literacy training, presentation skills, poetry exploration. It helps students gain a sense of accomplishment and self-respect."

Wilcox joined forces with Debbie Corson, arts education director at Young Audiences of St. Louis, to bring Davis to St. Louis. Their efforts were met with much enthusiasm. Allen Irving, superintendent of the Juvenile Detention Center, noted that Davis' program "builds listening skills at the same time it taps into the students' talents."

Next, Davis asked the teens to think back to Jay-Z's "Moment of Clarity" and to consider what they see clearly. She handed out paper, and, for 20 minutes, most of the teens wrote steadily.

One young man put down his pencil and said he couldn't do the assignment. In a simple exchange that is a measure of the workshop's success, a fellow student looked over at him and said, "Try."