Clint Smith’s booming voice has grabbed the attention of the poetry world, but as a teacher at Parkdale High School, he lets his students do the talking.
Smith — a finalist in the 2012 Individual World Poetry Slam — is an English teacher at the Riverdale Park school who is using spoken word in and out of the classroom to spark social justice.
Smith, named the 2013 Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Humanities Council, said he wants to use literature and poetry to get students to play an active role in the democratic process.
“Literature is one of the best ways to learn about empathy and to learn about what it’s like stepping in someone else’s shoes,” said Smith, whose students increased their reading levels in 2012-13 by an average of 2.3 years.
Smith, 25, was one of 50 teachers featured in California-based author Katrina Fried’s “American Teacher: Heroes in the Classroom,” released Oct. 12.
“He’s really trying to unlock the potential for the students to see what education can be for the rest of their lives,” said Fried, who discovered Smith through another teacher in the book.
Smith’s 12th-grade English class is learning about South Africa.
The third-year teacher moderated an Oct. 17 discussion and asked students what they would do if they were president of the country. Many suggested education reform and the conversation shifted back to the United States’ education system.
“He understands what’s relevant to us culturally. He can bring that perspective to our discussions,” said Charles Rozario of Berwyn Heights, one of Smith’s students.
In 2013, Smith launched “Collective Voices For Justice,” a club training students in the principles of community organizing and activism. Last school year, students collected 450 signatures for a petition supporting immigration reform that they sent to government officials.
Smith is also a co-sponsor of Lyrikal Storm, Parkdale’s poetry group.
Smith said Parkdale’s diverse environment allows for thoughtful discussions.
Ninety-six percent of the Parkdale’s 2,083 students are minorities, according to the 2012-13 Maryland State Report Card.
“It is very diverse in a non-traditionally diverse way,” Smith said. “Our students are in a unique position to learn from people who are different from them in different ways.”
Djellza Ramadani of New Carrollton is a student in Smith’s class and a member of Lyrikal Storm.
She said Smith incorporates his poetry expertise in the classroom, referring to a previous class when students wrote poems about what it was like living in South Africa under apartheid.
“He does a good job of encouraging us to speak out and advocate what we believe in. Poetry’s a good way to do that,” Ramadani said.
Ramadani said she enjoys Smith’s teaching style and his openness in the classroom.
“He will tell us what he believes in,” Ramadani said. “He shares that with us, along with encouraging us to discover our own opinions.”
Cheryl Logan, a former Parkdale principal who is now an assistant superintendent in the School District of Philadelphia, said Smith had an exceptional ability to connect with students. “He has a vision for how he sees the kids’ futures. He’s terrific in every way,” Logan said.