Uncommon Core: What a Bunch of Teens Can Teach Schools about What they Want in School


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For nearly all of our 16 year history, Neutral Zone has been engaging teens in unique literary arts programs, starting with VOLUME – our weekly and summer youth poetry project and weekly Short Story Writing workshops.   In these programs teens create their own original works and have authentic opportunities to perform at community readings and poetry slams.

A little over three years ago, Neutral Zone took teens’ passion for writing, and developed it into an emerging youth-driven social enterprise, Red Beard Press.  Red Beard is a collective of teens which publishes both emerging writers and professional authors.    Their mission is to serve as an independent, youth-driven publishing company dedicated to creating cutting-edge literary arts projects, publishing emerging voices, and inspiring passionate literary communities.  In addition to learning entrepreneurial skills, youth involved in the revenue-generating publishing company act as cultural curators, looking to influence the literary arts scene locally, state-wide and nationally.

This past year , under the tutelage of NZ Creative Arts Director and Pioneer High School teacher Jeff Kass, Red Beard Press published and distributed an anthology entitled Uncommon Core: Poems for Learning and Living a project which aims to become the ultimate collection of contemporary poems for classroom use in high school. Although Ann Arbor has had a vibrant youth poetry scene, students here continue to articulate their dismay about the dearth of contemporary poetry in their high school curriculum. With that in mind, Red Beard’s editorial board took on the task of creating this anthology not only for teachers in Ann Arbor, but for others throughout the country.

The project stated by surveying over 40 teachers to gauge what they would want included in such a publication.  Red Beard then created a national call for submissions tailored to the needs of the teachers surveyed. The response was overwhelming.  Hundreds of poems from elite, established and emerging writers flooded in.  Over the course of five months, the teen-board spent hours each week reading submissions, debating their merits and selecting poems for the collection based on their aim to create a book that teachers would use and that would inspire students.  The result is Uncommon Core.

In the spring, Clara Kaul, one of Red Beard’s chief editors, had the opportunity to present Red Beard’s work to business leaders from around the country at the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organization’s inaugural conference.  To a packed room of 300 people, Clara told the story of Red Beard and their quest to be a successful, youth-driven publishing company creating cutting-edge literary arts projects.  She shared their vision for Uncommon Core to be in “every high school classroom in the nation.”  The group was inspired by Clara’s commitment and enthusiasm and gave her a standing ovation (the only one of the conference, by the way).

This spring Red Beard Press is creating Uncommon Core II, which will feature cutting edge short fiction. Again, they hope it to be a useful resource for high school classrooms all over the country. (BTW submissions can be made NOW to redbeardfiction@gmai.com)

Contemporary literary arts, specifically poetry and spoken-word performance, holds enormous potential to enhance student learning and are powerful ways to help students develop their writing.   The works published through Red Beard Press opens the door to allow more contemporary poetry into the curriculum thereby providing engaging subject matter for students.    Red Beard teens believe that by by offering relevant publications that inspire students, they can help student excel academically while enhancing their creativity and imaginative energy.

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