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Pioneer writing teacher sparks youth literary arts around the city

RELATED STORY BELOW: 6 Ann Arbor youth poets head for Los Angeles and national event

By Carlina Duan
AAPSNews Service

Growing up in White Plains, New York, Jeff Kass visualized becoming a professional baseball player in his near future. An avid Yankees fan, Kass devoted his summers to playing baseball, watching baseball, dreaming baseball – and reading volumes upon volumes of novels.

Pioneer High School creative writing teacher Jeff Kass, who encourages student creativity and individual thinking in the classroom and at local poetry slams.

Although his plans never made it to the big leagues his childhood love for the literary arts blossomed into a larger passion.

Kass is Pioneer High School’s Creative Writing teacher and has taught at the school since 1998. He has not only managed to raise the profile of spoken word projects at Pioneer, but the radar of such projects in the city and nation, as well.

He works with teens as the Creative Arts Director at the Neutral Zone, Ann Arbor’s youth center, where he leads the Volume Youth Poetry Project and Red Beard Press printing project. Kass also helped form the district-wide high school poetry slams, Ann Arbor’s national poetry slam team, Ann Arbor Poetry Night, Ann Arbor Wordworks and the Overtones literary magazine at Pioneer High School.

Neutral Zone Executive Director John Weiss said he admires Kass’s dedication to students and his passion for literacy and the spoken word.

Kass has a “ commitment for young people, for his students, for his community, for spoken word, for the Neutral Zone,” Weiss said. “He just has this enduring quality and commitment to getting people passionate about writing and poetry. It’s an incredible quality that he has – being so committed to spoken word and providing (so many) opportunities for teens.”

Pioneer high school junior Lauren Gaboury said her Creative Writing II with Kass is open and inviting.

“I think that Mr. Kass is really good at instructing on specifics, as well as giving general rules for writing. He teaches you how to critique things stronger as well,” she said. “His strongest quality as a teacher is his acceptance of his students as equals. He doesn’t look down on anyone and he’s very open to all ideas.

“I think that that environment that he provides makes it so much easier for people to write about anything they want to or however they want.”

After graduating from college, Kass aspired to be a sports writer. He wrote freelance sports stories; worked as a radio producer in Seattle and hosted his own sports radio talk show in California where he also taught for three years.

“I’ve always loved reading and writing, and in the back of my mind I always thought I’d try to be a writer,” Kass said. “I never thought I’d be a teacher.”

He was led toward education by the dissatisfaction that he experienced taking literature classes at his own school.

“I was always very frustrated in my own English classes at school. I didn’t mind the books, for the most part – but I was really frustrated with how every time, all we ever did was write an analytical essay on the books. Just a response to literature in a very (boring) way,” he said.

“We were never able to do any creative lessons in my classes. We never had the chance to write a story, or write a poem. I always liked my English teachers. I thought they were good, but they were never really quite going towards what I wanted.”

And for Kass, the definition of “want” is embodied in how he teaches Creative Writing. “To me, teaching is trying to give students the tools they need to go the places they want to go,” he explained. “It’s not about me having a whole bunch of knowledge that I have to pass on; it’s about me looking at students and seeing what it is they’re trying to accomplish as writers, and how I can help them reach the areas that they want to reach.”

He said Creative Writing is a class for every student to explore. “I think it’s important to have a class where young people can really dig into what’s important in their lives, what’s happening to them, and that they’re not bound by restrictions or censorship or anything like that,” he said. “I feel like their words are bringing them together in (this) class.”

As a child, Kass developed his voice in a household full of books. With his father a lawyer and his mother a foreign language teacher, both Kass and his younger brother developed a respect for the written word. “I used to love reading comic books, fantasy novels, like ‘Lord of the Rings’,” says Kass, “I’ve always loved Charles Dickens, too.”

Kass experienced an epiphany about literature on a summer trip. “The summer before eighth grade, I went canoeing with my dad and I pulled a muscle,” he says. “I was really afraid that if I went to sleep I’d have a heart attack; so that whole summer, I stayed up all night reading. I feel like those books saved me.”

Some believe Kass has helped to turn the city into a flourishing center for youth-driven literary arts. Prior to 1999, Ann Arbor had a poetry slam for adults, but nothing for high schoolers. Kass has not only helped to organize youth poetry, but has also created an Ann Arbor Youth Slam team that attends the Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam Festival competition each year (see related story below). The youth slam team of 2008 was featured on an HBO television documentary series, “Brave New Voices”, that showcased Kass’s and the youth poets’ works.

Additionally, Kass has formed a spoken word group, the Volume Youth Poetry Project, at The Neutral Zone. The group meets weekly to read, write, critique, and perform their pieces. Similar is Ann Arbor Wordworks, a group of college poets who read and perform to audiences around town.

Kass was also instrumental in founding Ann Arbor Poetry Night, an annual community event that features professional poet performances. Kass also periodically visits schools across the state for “poetry assemblies,” where he stages poetry readings for students. Kass blogs about these and other educational experiences in a weekly column he writes during the school year at AnnArbor.com.

Weiss said Kass first worked as a volunteer at the Neutral Zone’s Volume Youth Poetry Project where he helped to popularize the youth center and its programs.

Kass “has definitely put literary arts, especially for teens, on the map for Ann Arbor,” added Weiss. “I also think that part of my appreciation for spoken word came through him and his work with teens at the Neutral Zone, and in the community. I have a super great appreciation for spoken word and what a great medium it is and I really didn’t know much about until (Kass) stepped in.”

Although he never imagined being a teacher while growing up, Kass finds his occupation enriching. “The most rewarding thing is watching people begin to develop a voice, and an interest in writing and reading in ways that tells you it’s becoming more of a passion,” Kass says. “It’s watching students realize how important their words are, and how much people want to hear them, to realize that their writing will have an impact on people.”

In addition to teaching, Kass has written and published several books; including “The Invisible Staircase” and a soon-to-be released short story collection titled, “Knuckleheads.”

Carlina Duan is the News Editor for The Optimist, Pioneer High School’s student newspaper. She also reports and writes for the AAPSNews Service.

Jeff Kass
Occupation: Creative Writing teacher at Pioneer High School.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from Yale University (minor in Creative Writing); Journalism degree from Columbia University; Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the Stoneocoast Low-Residency program at the University of Southern Maine.
Residence: Ann Arbor.
Age: 43
Family: Married to Karen, who coaches crew at the University of Michigan. They have a daughter Sam, 8, and a son, Julius, 4.
Hobbies: Read, write and watch the New York Yankees.
Community service: Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors; heading programs at the Neutral Zone; blogger on AnnArbor.com (“From the Front of the Room.”)
Favorite meal: “I love all kinds of foods, but I especially love Indian food and Mexican food … For Indian food, I love the spicy, vegetarian and fish stuff. As for Mexican food, I just like a really great seafood burrito.”
Favorite book(s): Works by Junot Diaz and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon.
Life philosophy: “I like to be happy, and to make other people happy.”

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6 Ann Arbor youth poets head for Los Angeles and national event

By Carlina Duan
AAPSNews Service

The Neutral Zone stage is lit with the glow of 32 youth poets’ voices, all in the midst of preparations for the annual Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slam Finals.

The top six teen poets in Ann Arbor are about to be chosen for the Ann Arbor Poetry Slam team, which competes in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival (www.bravenewvoices.org/) each year.

The Finals have taken place in Ann Arbor each spring since 1999; this year’s local Youth Poetry Slam Finals were hosted on March 25 at The Neutral Zone. Judges included former slam participants and team members and Ann Arbor Wordworks poets.

“I was in euphoria after the slam,” said Allison Kennedy, who represented Pioneer High School in the Finals and was one of those selected for the Ann Arbor Poetry Slam team. “Poetry slams are really all I want from anyone. Everyone just opens up so easily in a poem, and they’re able to communicate in such interesting and exciting ways that just makes every other form of language – the way we speak – seem so horrible.”

Top student poets from Pioneer, Huron, Skyline and Community high schools represented their spoken word communities after winning in each school’s semi-final rounds.

Ranging from somber to comical, poems in the Finals featured contemporary issues such as modern feminists, to more solemn matters such as those of family bonds. Poets could choose to write about any topic they wished, with no censorship or time limit. Regardless of the topic, audience members were impressed.

“I think (the high school) spoken word talent in Ann Arbor is exceptional,” said Pioneer junior Adam DesJardins, who attended the slam to support friends.. “I loved the slam, it was great to just see all the young writers of the city.”

The slam commenced in two rounds. The top six poets were selected for the city slam team, which will compete in July at the 13th annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival.

Among the most memorable parts of Finals night this year was the unusual “slam-off” between Pioneer High School poet Clare Riesterer and Huron High School poet Allison Punch, to compete for the sixth spot on the team. The two ended the second round of the Finals with the same scores, and were instructed to perform a third poem for judges to evaluate. Riesterer made the team, yet attendees of the slam agree that both poets were especially talented.

The Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slam champion this year was Community High School’s Alia Persico-Shammas. Second place went to Community’s Glenna Benitez; third place to Huron’s Isaiah Peet-Blakeney; fourth place a tie to Pioneer’s Kennedy and Huron’s Haley Patail; and sixth place to Pioneer’s Riesterer.

All will travel to Los Angeles this summer for Brave New Voices, scheduled to take placer July 19-25.

In addition to competing in the national slam, the team also will perform at the Neutral Zone’s generational poetry slam on May 14 and will meet several times throughout the year to discuss their work. Each member will prepare two poems for Brave New Voices, as well as have two group pieces (performed between members of the team) ready.

Kennedy said she is thrilled to compete this summer. “I’m so excited about getting constant critique and being around [the other team members],” she said. “They have beautiful language and ideas. I’m looking forward to just being with the people, and improving my writing.”

Carlina Duan is the News Editor for The Optimist, the Pioneer High School student newspaper. She also reports and writes for the AAPSNews Service.