DENVER -- Montbello High School junior Neftali Bardales -- or "Nef" as he is called -- was the first to volunteer to perform his poem in front of his classmates, using lyrics to describe the rush he gets when he dives into the swimming pool for competition.
The student-wordsmiths have been coached by University of Colorado associate professor Adam Bradley, a scholarly authority on hip-hop and author or editor of several books. Most recently, he's collaborated with Common on the actor and musician's memoir, "One day it'll all make sense."
With Bradley's help, the students learned poetic techniques such as repetition, imagery and parallelism, which they then turned around and used in their poems and raps.
"It takes bravery to write," Bradley told the students. "It's just you and the piece of paper. It forces you to be honest."
Their task: Write about what they'll miss about Montbello High -- not just because they'll be graduating soon, but because they'll be among the last graduates of the beleaguered school. At the end of next year, their school, which has been challenged by high dropout rates, will shut down as a traditional high school.
The school in far northeast Denver is part of a massive turnaround program, and Montbello High is being phased out and replaced with new programs such as a college prep academy and a high-tech early college.
With rhythm reverberating through his voice, Bardales performed his piece, "The Ocean Within," which reminisces on his time swimming in the school's pool and using his imagination to transform it into an ocean.
"I'll tell you what I'll miss, what I'll really, really miss. I'll miss the rush of running into the pool, the pain in my lungs, time in the air, the whistle at the starting line, the anxiety to get in," he said.
One by one, other students followed his lead and made their way to the front of the classroom. Some were eager, and others needed a little nudging and words of encouragement from their peers.
But once there, they unleashed their poetry by rapping their lyrics or using the kind of dramatic tones of a slam poetry event. One shy young woman surprised the classroom when she used her usually soft voice to belt out a tribute to her favorite teacher.
A half dozen times throughout the semester, Bradley has visited the Montbello classroom, made up of bright Advanced Placement language students.
The class is taught by Alison Corbett, a teacher in the second year of a commitment to the Teach for America corps. The program places teachers in struggling school districts in urban or rural areas where resources are short.
Corbett is enthusiastic about making sure her students have every chance to excel and are adequately prepped for college.
Through a grant, the students in her course have a copy of Bradley's book "The Anthology of Rap," which covers the poetic tradition of hip-hop and schools youngsters on some of the classic lyrics defining the genre, such as those from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message."
Through another grant Corbett helped secure, the students have been able to use Nikon digital cameras to shoot images of the school to help inspire their poems. And over winter break, she's worked a deal with the Denver Art Museum so she can take her students to see the "Becoming Van Gogh" exhibit at no cost to them.
After next year, Montbello High School -- where roughly only five out of every 100 freshmen who start go on to graduate and attend college without remediation -- will effectively shut down and be reconfigured, a contentious decision made in 2010 by the school board.
The students' poems were raw assessments of their school. There was the good: their proud memories of being part of Junior ROTC; or hitting a game-winning three-point shot. And there was the bad: teen pregnancies; violence.
Corbett said having Bradley in the classroom teaching the poetics and foundation of hip-hop is relevant to her students, who, she said, often are listening to music through their headphones.
On a recent afternoon, Bradley explained the word "ekphrasis" to the students.
"This word simply means a work of literature that's composed in response to art -- a photograph, painting."
He referenced famous examples such as John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and the more contemporary example of the influence Jean-Michel Basquiat's painting had on rapper Jay-Z's songs such as "Grammy Family Freestyle" and "Most Kingz."
As the students performed their pieces, the photos they took with their digital cameras were displayed in the background.
"Y'all are in a tradition here," Bradley told them. "Let's celebrate this moment and the energy we've created in this class."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or firstname.lastname@example.org.