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These high school students are poets – and now they know it

Local poet Phillip Larrea guest editing a poem with a student.
Local poet Phillip Larrea guest editing a poem with a student. Courtesy of the artist

Until recently, Luther Burbank High School student Trevino Thomas never considered himself a writer. His classmate, Juliana Ayala-Tellez, hadn’t discovered a safe space in which to express her innermost thoughts and feelings, while Nadeline Schaaf was surprised at just how much she came to enjoy stretching her imagination and experimenting with words.

As of Tuesday , the three freshmen students will be newly published authors along with at least 27 of their peers, thanks to a partnership between the school and 916 Ink, an art-based literacy nonprofit. Tuesday night, Luther Burbank students will perform a live poetry reading at Capitol Stage, and celebrate the release of “Stones in the Road,” a collection of more than 50 original student works.

916 Ink, the organization behind the trio’s captivation with writing, sends “word slingers” into schools, libraries, nonprofits and youth detention facilities to run creative writing workshops. Over the past six years, more than 800 Sacramento youths have become published authors, and the organization will soon release its 100th book.

Using the Amherst Writers & Artists’ method as a core philosophy, 916 Ink defines writing as an art form available to all: Everyone has a strong, unique voice and everyone is born with creative genius.

The result is quite powerful. Thomas discovered he could not only write about a subject that has been “very touchy” to him, but agree to publish those writings – and feel good about it.

“I didn’t think I would be proud of something I wrote about my dad … and I am,” he said. “This program made me feel comfortable enough to let some of that out.”

Schaaf said the program helped her dig into why she wants to study medicine and learn about other things she could excel at in life.

“I think this really benefits us kids to get out of our comfort zone and be able to try new things we’ve never thought of,” she said. “I never thought of writing as something I’d want to major in or something that’s a personal hobby.”

The word slingers 916 Ink brings into the classrooms are all teaching artists – writers in their own right, whether they are well-known, published authors or English Language Arts teachers. The organization runs about 20-30 workshops a year; most take place at schools, though some are held at its campus, The Imaginarium, 3301 37th Ave.

Though programming reaches those ages 5-25 throughout the Sacramento region, 916 Ink strives to address what it calls a literacy crisis impacting the area, and reach the most under-resourced student populations in neighborhoods with some of the lowest literacy achievement rates or the least access to arts education.

According to the 2017 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress standardized test results, more than half of Sacramento County students third through eighth grades did not meet the achievement standard in English Language Arts and Literacy.

Ian Hadley, 916 Ink’s executive director, said the nonprofit's work is “transformational,” increasing students' literacy skills, self-esteem and social-emotional skills.

Hadley recalled working with a child at Rancho Cordova’s A.M. Winn Public Waldorf Elementary School. The boy couldn’t seem to sit in his seat for more than five minutes when they met. During the workshops, Hadley served as an “inspirator,” a community volunteer 916 Ink brings in during workshops to encourage the kids.

He encouraged the student to draw how he would respond to creative writing prompts. The student found a topic that interested him enough to write almost a full page.

“That, for me, was a major win,” he said. “Every single kid in that class came a long way.”

Luther Burbank character and scene teacher Tom McElheney said the program fits right in with what he teaches his students but offers something he cannot: publication.

“It’s very fulfilling to know that by inviting 916 in, these professional writers can take my kids to great places,” McElheney said. “Being published is an accomplishment that lots of writers aspire to, and my students are given a wonderful chance to write in the comfort of their classroom and see their work appear in a book.”

Ayala-Tellez, one of McElheney’s students, said few people understand how get out of their own bubbles to communicate with others.

“I never really thought writing could be so beautiful,” she said. “Now I write more regularly – it’s a better way of getting feelings out and keeping them put away in a better way than just having anger build up.”

McElheney said the program has given his students “the green light” to talk about things they were afraid to mention before. He has seen their writing abilities, as well as their confidence, improve.

“It’s all about making kids believe in the power of words,” he said, “and I’ve seen that.”

Stones in the Road live poetry reading

When: 6 p.m., Tuesday .

Where: Capitol Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento