"I may not be fit and lean," Sara Alhadeff recites on stage. "But if being fit means fitting into your hand-me-down, cookie-cutter boyfriend jeans / Well, I'd rather weigh a million pounds." The crowd snaps in approval.
Alhadeff, then an Alhambra High School senior, was competing in a poetry slam with the Alhambra Moors Poetry Society. The teachers behind the spoken word and poetry club — Spanish teacher Joshua Moreno and English teacher Dorothy Burkhart — help students perform original and classic poetry by coaching them on emphasis, speed, and volume. Along the way, they also teach young people how to connect to poetry, a form of art that can get lost in students' assignments and busy life.
The club sprang from Moreno's own love of poetry and his desire to share that passion with his students. "I remember in college we had to memorize and recite a poem for a class and that was when I fell in love with poetry. I wanted my students to have the same experience," said Moreno, who started AMPS five years ago. Then his students gave him a lesson in poetry not too long after. "They told me about 'poetry slams' — which I had no idea about."
Moreno started to look for local poetry slams — competitions where poets recite their work — and performance venues, and now arranges and hosts events. Burkhart joined the group in 2012 after running a spoken word curriculum in her own classroom, and leads a majority of the creative work. "She has made poetry even more accessible to students and is transforming their lives," Moreno says of his co-advisor.
Other than fostering a love of poetry, Moreno and Burkhart also wanted to create a space for growth and confidence. The group of eight students from all grade levels meets in Moreno's classroom once a week during lunch to write and read aloud poems. "I feel spoken word/poetry is a safe place where youth can express who they are without fear of rejection," Moreno says. "And after they perform, they feel empowered and can cause real positive change with themselves and others."
Alhambra High senior and AMPS president Melissa Maldonado says the club has helped her creatively and personally. "I've been able to meet and befriend so many young talented poets," she says. "Every poem of theirs is a new story, a new opinion, a new take on the world. And they allow me to expand my perspective on not only the creative process, but about life as well."
Maldonado, who says joining AMPS was the best decision she made in high school, attributes her and her fellow poets' growth to Moreno and Burkhart. "I don't think they fully understand what they have done for myself and for the entire AMPS team," she says. "They are two very special people. I love them."
AMPS will be peforming at Honey Badger Cafe on April 4 from 6:30-8 p.m., Holy Grounds Cafe on April 11 and 25 from 4-6 p.m, and Pasadena Public Library Allendale Branch on April 17 at 3:30 p.m.