Barbara Biber Convocation Welcomes Poet Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander, Cecelia Traugh, Wendi Williams, and Shael Polakow-Suransky
Kwame Alexander, Dean Cecelia Traugh, Associate Dean Wendi Williams, and President Shael Polakow-Suransky

On September 4, Bank Street Graduate School of Education welcomed prolific poet and award-winning children’s author Kwame Alexander to speak at the College’s annual Barbara Biber Convocation. The esteemed lecture, which is the centerpiece of the Graduate School’s orientation each year and a welcome for incoming graduate students, creates a space for the College community to engage with seminal scholars on leading issues in education.

Alexander, 2015 Newbery Medalist for his book, The Crossover, has been a guest of honor at Bank Street events in years past and served as the School for Children’s inaugural Dorothy A. Carter Writer-in-Residence in the Spring of 2015. He was invited to return to the College as the speaker for the this year’s Barbara Biber Convocation to share with Graduate School students the many lessons he has learned throughout his celebrated journey as a writer and educator.

During his talk, Alexander captured the audience with stories of people who have had the most profound impact on helping him become who he was meant to be, which has inspired him to do the same in his life and work. He began with his mother, whom he credits with helping him develop his “love of words” at an early age. According to Alexander, she regularly read him tales of poetry, African Folklore, and books by Dr. Seuss that exposed him to the beauty of rhyme, repetition, and melody. “She was my first teacher,” said Alexander of his mother. “She made words dance off the page and into my imagination. She taught me the appreciation of language and literature.”

Alexander notes that it was his parents who set him on the path toward finding his voice. He described how his father, Dr. E. Curtis Alexander, GSE ‘70, helped him recognize what was most important to him. He recalled the day his father brought him to a march across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest police brutality. Frightened at the idea of crossing a bridge, Alexander arrived at the protest engulfed in fear. But when Dr. Alexander began chanting “We’re fired up, we can’t take no more!” with the other protestors, Kwame became inspired. “The shaking stopped,” he said. “And the tears dried. And in that moment, my voice lifted me up. I was okay. I was invincible.”

Alexander also told the ironic story of his turbulent relationship with black poet Nikki Giovanni, who taught his advanced poetry class at Virginia Tech. He expressed that Giovanni was deeply critical of his work, repeatedly marking his papers with C grades. He mimicked her harsh words, “You’re a good poet, Kwame, and I can teach you the tools. But I cannot teach you how to be interesting.” Later in college, Alexander wrote a play about how terrible of a professor she was, which was cast before a standing-room-only audience at Virginia Tech. What happened between the two down the line was nothing Alexander could have imagined.

“Two years later, I wrote my first book of poems,” Alexander recalled. “I was on a 30-day tour and a woman asked if she could buy two copies of my book. She said, ‘Please sign it to Nikki.”

Alexander was shocked. Another few years down the line, he was even more surprised to receive a letter in the mail from Giovanni, who asked him to submit a poem for a book she was writing for Henry Holt & Co. He obliged, and wrote a poem about his grandfather Albert Alexander. “And all of a sudden, I’m a poet!” Alexander laughs. “And I feel legitimized, incredible.”

A recurring figure in Alexander’s lecture, Giovanni grew to become both a literary mentor and a close friend of the budding poet, teaching him unforgettable lessons along the way despite a rocky beginning. Alexander imitated her words on stage: “My job as your teacher was to help you become who you were meant to be. Children are apt to become what we expect them to become. You have the capacity to empower students or destroy them.”

Alexander went on to spotlight others who deeply influenced his life and work, like his daughter, whose experiences with love and heartbreak as a teenager inspired his book, Crush: Love Poems for Teenagers. He also shared a look at his program Bookinaday, which teaches students in one single day the fundamentals of creative writing and book publishing. The program has produced nearly 5,000 K-12 authors in 76 schools across the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.

Alexander wrapped up his talk with the humorous and moving tales of his experience teaching poetry to high school students who are incarcerated in the DC area, which he described as “one of the most difficult but probably the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.” He spent six months teaching them how to connect with poetry. Shortly after his work wrapped up, a student in the program named Sloan, who had been released from prison and was living in a halfway house, called on Alexander to help him publish a poetry book with his housemates. And so, Concrete Dreams was born.

Of Sloan, Alexander says, “He’s now working at Starbucks, and he’s still writing.” He goes on, “And there’s a smile on his face. He’s alive, he’s free, and he seems to be discovering his purpose and facing his challenges in a beautifully constructed way.”

And this is exactly what Alexander strives for in his work. What shone through his powerful talk was his desire to pay it forward—to help people find their voice in the same way that his “teachers” helped him along his journey. And this is what he implored incoming Bank Street graduate students to do with their students.

“Education is about learning for sure. It’s about developing skill. It’s about asking questions and seeking answers. But more than any of that, it’s about preparing children, encouraging them to become who they are meant to be. And you are a huge role in shaping that, in molding that. Ultimately, it’s about becoming more human.”