The chairman of the Board of Education on Monday voiced his support for a spoken word poetry presentation and workshop at New Canaan High School that’s generated some questions and criticism.
Held last month, the presentation from Carlos Andrés Goméz was designed to help participants learn about and experience spoken word poetry, district officials have said, and most of the feedback from students and staff has been positive.
Yet some viewed the presentation as political and slanted, promoting Board of Ed Chairman Brendan Hayes to say that he “spent some time looking at the situation and the poems that he put forth and presented and I didn’t see any political issues at all.”
Goméz’s presentation was designed to “focus on the issue of empathy and mutual respect and really just understanding various perspectives,” Hayes said during the Board’s regular meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School.
“I saw an effort to teach kids and present in an impactful way what empathy means, what mutual respect means and I think that is very important for us to teach whether that’s part of this ‘emotional intelligence’ initiative specifically or not and I think it gets kids talking about their various interests and their various concerns and probably in a way they would not necessarily do had that speaker not come to school and given that presentation. So I think that is the type of thing that we should be doing.”
Though no video recording of the presentation exists—district officials said that’s because of copyright restrictions—Board of Ed member Maria Naughton said “it was a little edgy,” with poems addressing “controversial topics” such as “toxic masculinity” and racial profiling.
“They were definitely controversial topics, so if we are allowing artists to come in and perform about topics that are seen as controversial, I do believe that there is a policy on that—that it should be impartial or it should be both sides—so are we opening up the door for any artist to discuss and address or introduce any possible controversial topic?” she said. “The topics were partisan for sure. They had a slant one side so there wasn’t the other side.”
Hayes said he disagreed with Naughton about the topics, and that the presentation was meant to get students “ to understand each other’s differences and respect them.”
“And to do that we cannot just talk about 20 kids going to a class every day and not having any sort of conflict,” he said. “You have to talk about some controversial issues in some circumstances, because those are the things that actually create issue as it relates to mutual respect. So I do not personally view it as ‘political.’ It’s just simply raising issues and outlining how you as an individual should react.”
Naughton responded that it appeared there was no “debrief” or “moment for all students to give feedback to share their thoughts” on the presentation after it was over.
“It sounded like it was a performance and then they went to their next class,” she said. “So I don’t see how it’s an empathy lesson and the topics were definitely controversial, so I’m not sure how balanced it was.”
Parents were notified of the presentation in a March 8 newsletter, district officials said at the meeting, and Gomez’s was paid for by a local parent organization.
Board of Ed Vice Chair Dionna Carlson that after the performance, she reviewed Gomez’s YouTube videos and that she understood “how some parents might view certain things as more problematic for they belief structures.”
“But I then went back and asked what poems were brought forward to the kids and seeing both what he does in other venues and what was discussed in the schools, it sounded like he modified his address to be more appropriate to a high school audience,” she said. “I think if parents just looked at a YouTube video of some of his performances and just looked, they may get a different perspective on what was brought into the schools.”
She said the district “did the right thing” in terms of communicating with both parents and Goméz ahead of his appearance.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi said the high school had a contemporary spoken word poet come to perform for the students in 2012-13 and that it was hugely successful.
Addressing Naughton’s specific concern that one poem had to do with “toxic masculinity,” Luizzi said, “I think what he’s talking about was a narrow definition of ‘appropriate.’ ”
“Masculinity can be toxic, so it’s about how the stereotypes can narrow our accepted behaviors. And then everything outside of that can be seen as wrong and then trying to conform to a definition of masculinity can be toxic to people who don’t naturally feel or act that way. So I don’t think saying masculinity can be toxic.”
He added that “the intent and the purpose of it shouldn’t be lost in the conversation.”
“Which I think is the idea that spoken word poetry is itself an art form and it was to expose our students to spoken word poetry,” he said.
The poems themselves “have to have context,” Luizzi said.
“Something has to happen, and it generally is related to individual experience, so with this performer it was related to his experience growing up. He is a Colombian-American growing up and the experiences that he had, the language and poetry tell stories.”
Here’s a Goméz spoken word performance from three years ago: