The scene was set with a billowy red backdrop and dimmed lamps, tall paper-cutouts of a jazz musician and a dancer, soft jazz music playing in the background and hot bowls of homemade gumbo set out nearby, and Ketchikan High School students mingled, enjoying the atmosphere of their very own Harlem Renaissance poetry party while they waited to read aloud a poem to their class.
The party was an opportunity for Sarah Campbell's English II class to read poems written by writers during the Harlem Renaissance (a period in the 1920s and 1930s defined by the cultural movement in African-American art, music, literature and other arts), as a learning exercise to cement the concepts the students had learned in class.
The idea to put on a poetry party came from Sara Orozco, a student-teacher in Campbell's class.
"April is national poetry month," Orozco said in a recent interview with the Daily News. "But also we're moving towards the end of the school year, and students had worked the previous unit leading up to this. ... They learned to identify literary devices in poetry and write an analytical essay, ultimately, about poems from the Harlem Renaissance."
"And so they were exploring the parts of how can voice empower an individual community, and I really didn't want it to just end with analytical essays because that's not something that's necessarily going to excite or stick with students in the long run," she continued.
To bring an element of realism and authenticity to poetry for the students, Orozco decided to turn their studies into an experience — "I wanted to make it real," she explained. "Especially because a lot of all these kids have been through so much digital education."
So, a party was held during fifth period English. Each student was tasked with reading a piece by a poet from the Harlem Renaissance era.
"I had pulled a whole collection of poems from different (poets), making sure I had male and female poets, kind of quintessential people from the Harlem Renaissance," she said. "And (the students) got to choose their poems."
There was some initial hesitance from the students to dive deeper into poetry.
"At first there was a lot of resistance in the poetry; 'Oh, no, not poetry,'" Orozco said.
The students were engaged as they warmed to the environment of the party, and several incorporated hand gestures and practiced changing their intonation during their readings.
And after the party, they "were all kind of enthused and ready to write their own work," the next step in their study of poetry, she said.
That work came in quite the variety, Orozco said.
"Some of them were writing about family members and kind of the importance of those relationships, some of them, it was about relationships with friends," she explained. "Some of them it was about work. I was really excited to see a poem about seining, in particular. ... Some of them wrote about death and kind of bigger picture, abstract concepts."
The entire learning experience allowed students to put themselves in the place of a poet and connect with their classmates, which is something that Orozco said she received a lot of student feedback about in post-party reflections.
"They said that they thought that brought them close together as a class, basically," she said.
The students also provided feedback to each other about their readings.
"And everybody had plenty to say in acknowledging peers and what they did well, acknowledging people they weren't even really close friends with was something that I really appreciated," Orozco said.
Sophomore Emilee Caskey read "Harlem Night Song" by Langston Hughes at the party, the student told the Daily News during a Monday afternoon phone interview.
About her thoughts regarding poetry before the unit, Caskey said, "I loved it, and I still love poetry."
She wrote several of her own poems during the unit. One was titled "The Immortality of Grim Reapers," which she said was about the question: "Do grim reapers need a purpose to live?"
Caskey noted that she liked how her poem made her classmates think deeply.
She described the poetry party as a "great opportunity."
Colin Elliot, another sophomore student in Campbell's class, wrote to the Daily News that he "thought it was just another assignment, but it was so much more then that."
He read Langston Hughes' "The Weary Blues."
"It was a great way for me and my partners to have fun and learn about poetry," he wrote. "By being put on the spot and performing in front of people, I think (it) helped our class to laugh as a whole and brought us just a little bit closer."
Elliot wrote that elements like the gumbo and life-size cutouts helped him "feel the real groove of poetry."
Meg Miranda read "Two Edged Sword" by poet Gwendolyn Bennett during the poetry party, he told the Daily News during a phone call after school on Tuesday.
"I'd already been writing my own poems and stuff with friends, nothing, like, serious, just for fun," he said.
Miranda said that he's learned more about history through his studies at Kayhi.