About Emily Southerton

Emily Southerton (Delta '10) is a teacher and poet who created and runs The Poet Warriors Project. Emily is currently traveling across the country teaching poetry writing in low-income public middle schools and collecting original student poems for publication. In doing so, she hopes to empower students as community and self-advocates and highlight student voices in the American dialogue of change. Emily is a native of Mifflinburg, a small farming town in central PA, and a poet herself. She graduated as Class Poet from Villanova University in '10 and went on to teach English and Music in Jackson, MS, where the poems, songs, and powerful voices of Rowan middle-schoolers were so compelling, she had to create a project through which to publish them.

Stories From Native Students

It’s Native Heritage Month! Celebrate by turning an ear to the voices of our native students across the country.

We’ve compiled thirteen autobiographical poems by some of TFA’s Native Hawaiian, Navajo, and Lakota students involved in our student voices initiative, the Poet Warriors Project. Enjoy the teaser excerpts, click to read the full poems on the Poet Warriors site, print and share these stories with your students, and if you’re interested in publishing your classes with the Poet Warriors Project, find out more here!

1. “I don’t act like a Navajo
But on the inside of me, there is a true blood of Dine girl” -Odessa Begay


2. “He is struggling to get loose
The starry black night being splashed
With the color orange yellow

Painted like a painted canvas.” -Te-Mya Running Hawk


3. “A little girl waking
up with her family on a ranch.
A pink house full with a stove
and wood. Cooking blue corn mush
with my light in their eyes” 
-Talia Garmendez


4. “Seen evolution
Through an old man’s eyes
Sometimes I feel that it’s disguise
No one notices

The tide rolling in” -Cloe Parks


5. “I remember my brother well” -Sheridan James


6. “The mesas are golden,
And the landscape is orange.
The sun sees our Navajo Nation reservation.” 
-Lain Johnson


7. “As I look at the bright beautiful sunset in the reservation,
I see the bright sun go down
I hear the chirping and the laughter of
Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, and cousins.” 
-Michael Toldeo

8. “When she walks
And a Gary Stewart song is on,
It matches here.
When she was young,
She use to go to the Rez dances,
And used to dance with all
The cowboys” -Selvina Pletero


9. “When they came
They took our land.
They took aloha.
They took the queen.” -Shayla


10. “I remember
When I used to watch her weave
small rectangular Navajo rugs
I remember
When she laughed so hard that she cried” -Nathania Tom


11. “My dad believes I could do anything in my life
And get out of the reservation.” -Dallason Davis


12. “I don’t know any other place that I would like to be
I am not ashamed about where I come from” -Alec Lewis

1313. “The Navajo Reservation, it has brown flat land
And in the distance, red mesas.
While I sit in the old tower I see a stampede of brown, white, and black
-Taneika Ashley


Photos by Poet Warriors creator, Emily Southerton.  Photography taken while collecting poems from Teach For America students in Kailua Kona, HI, the Navajo Nation in Crownpoint, NM, and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Kyle, SD.

Zombie Army Burns Bridges & 6 Spooky Writing Starters

train crash 3

We’re trick or treat-ing you to some wicked ideas! Happy Halloween!

Without a doubt, it’s an exciting time of year to be a kid. But Halloween is a great opportunity for teachers to connect with students and have some fun as well with a few spook-inspired lessons!

In running the Poet Warriors Project, TFA’s initiative to publish our students’ voices across the country, I’ve come across thousands of powerful student poems aimed at creating change. However, one of my all-time favorite submissions is actually one that just playfully indulges in ghoulish imagining and is perfect to revisit this time of year.

“Train Crash” was penned and published by Kydell Begaye, a 7th grader in Ms. Katrina Turner’s (New Mexico ’13) ELA classes. It is an abbreviated Civil War epic that follows a silver train’s untimely fall into hell at the hands of a bridge-burning zombie Confederate army. Amazing. I know. “Train Crash” is republished below, and is a good reminder that creativity thrives this time of year with the help of some inspiration and a cool teacher.

This Halloween, I want to urge all teachers to try a creative lesson with their students. The holiday lands nicely on a Friday, and I’ve written six spooky starters to get your kids’ brains brewing that morning. Please feel free to share more ideas in the comments section!

  1. My heart races as my feet pound on the dirt road. I look back, and see a hand reach out of the open grave…
  2. I wake up on the pavement, and feel the two deep bite marks on my neck…
  3. It’s just past midnight, when I hear her howl…
  4. I tighten the last bolt on the monster’s neck, take my lab gloves off, and step back…
  5. I take a deep breath, and begin interviewing the ghost of my great great great grandmother…
  6. From behind the bushes, I see him stir the boiling cauldron, and throw in the last few ingredients…

Don’t hesitate to get in contact with me if you’re interested in getting some of your kids’ creative responses published on our site, or if you’re interested in running our usual Poet Warriors curriculum.

Train Crash
by Kydell Begaye

On a cold night,
a steam train loaded with silver
going to Gettysburg.
80 miles away,
the wheels roll,
the loaded silver train runs to Gettysburg.

Union Soldiers fight with the Confederate.
But don’t know
they’re fighting with the undead.

The engine steam puffing to
40 miles per hour.
Heading over a dam,
the undead soldiers burn
down the bridge to flames.

One-by-one cars uncouple
from falling rails. The engine
moves faster, 10 feet away
from the cliff. The rails
snap causing the engine
to slip. The heavy tender
of coal pulls back the Engine.
The engine falls into the fire of

The silver makes it to Gettysburg.
The train
loaded with silver was loaded
with sandstone.

Banned Poems: 10 Students Write About Alcohol, Homosexuality, And Other Banned Topics




our lives begin to end

Note: The content in this post addresses violence, suicide, and rape.

It’s Banned Books Week! Together with the American Library Association, we are supporting the freedom for our students to seek and express truths in the classroom and beyond, even if those ideas are considered controversial.

According to the American Library Association’s stats on banned books, literature is often challenged when it deals with themes like drugs, alcohol, gambling, gangs, violence, suicide, homosexuality, or contains offensive language, political viewpoints, religious viewpoints, or content that is sexually explicit.

challenges by reasons 1990-99 and 2000-09_0


However, in “The Students’ Right to Read,” the National Council of Teacher of English stresses that these topics reflect the reality of our society, and worry that censorship distorts students’ exploration of truths and by its nature counters the essence of education, “Censorship leaves students with an inadequate and distorted picture of the ideals, values, and problems of their culture.”

Today, we’re amplifying our students who have dared to write autobiographically about topics that many have tried to keep out of classrooms. These students have published poems in order to teach others about the truths of their lives through the Poet Warriors Project, and while many of these poems deal with heavy topics, we celebrate the teachers who have not banned our students’ stories from their classrooms.

“I’m just telling you like it is,
And if you mad?
I don’t give a damn.”
Excerpt from “Real” by Jermyron Rice


1)     Profanity
“I had to stop crying,
so he won’t hear me.
His eyes were red as a wild hog.
I could smell the beer off him.
He yelled to his wife,
‘Where the hell is that girl.’”
Excerpt from “The Rumble” by T.M.

2)      Alcohol
I heard glass shattering
And saw mother cleaning
As he chuckled and laughed as if he were king”
Excerpt from “A Late Night with Alcohol” by Anonymous

3)      Gangs
On the streets of MLK
You can hear the screams of horror
Along with gunshots
Blood covering the ground
His mama laying down next to his bleeding body
Pouring her eyes out asking ‘Why?’”
Excerpt from “Memphis” by Morgan Williams

4)      Violence

I See Red

I see a mother carrying her 10 year old son.
I see a hole through his head.
I see rain, red rain, coming down his face.
I see darkness. I see red.
Excerpt from “I See Red” by Deion Edison

5)      Gambling
“When my auntie awakes
She runs to the casino
With Jacksons in her pockets
With no worries of tomorrow.”
Excerpt from “The Gambler” by Rishawnda Begay

6)      Homosexuality
“I know that some of you may find is strange or disgusting for
Me to choose to be this way
This was not my choice
Just as you did not choose to be straight
I did not choose to be gay
And even if I could, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Excerpt from “Breaking the Silence” by Emery Vela

7)      Suicide
“Her blood is dark red like red wine.
The blade and razor she just used are on her side.
She can still hear her parents screaming and fighting.
She can still remember the hatred in the words her classmates said to her.”
Excerpt from “BLOOD” by America Ambriz

8)      Rape
“They think it’s easy
But those Ten Seconds
Showed the true fights we black women go through”
Excerpt from “Ten Seconds,” by Taylor Hayes

9)      Religion
“If I can see my family so does god.
If I can touch the rose in my house so
does god.”
Excerpt from “Michoacan,” by Evaristo Granados

10)   “Unsuitable” for kids
“Come take a look
behind the curtain
peer under the surface
to see things that are dark for certain
Beneath the coat of smiles and jokes
Is a dark abyss with the humanity being choked
Yes, I tend to do things sometimes
That seem like I’m not correct in the mind
It’s because I’m so lost and confused
Sanity is so hard to find.”
Excerpt from “Sanity is so Hard to Find,” by Levontaye Ellington

Students Speak: 7 Poems About the Stars

Whether we’re looking up from a front porch on a warm June evening or watching from the beach as people dance around, there’s no better time for stargazing than in the summer. This week, we’ve compiled seven Poet Warriors poems about the stars; take a moment to read through them, look up, and step into the summertime dreamings of our students.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Read the full poems:

Student Poetry: 6 Summertime Poems

Summer is finally here! Like other kids across the country, our Poet Warriors anticipated this day all school year, so today we look back on six summertime poems written by kids daydreaming out the classroom window. Grab your surfboard and soak up some sunny stanzas!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Read the full poems:

Father’s Day Poetry: Students Write About Their Dads

(Photo credit: Pascal)

(Photo credit: Pascal)

Sitting in a classroom in Sanders, Arizona, 7th grader Onajae Betoney put her pencil to the page. Her teacher, Katrina Turner (New Mexico, ’13), gave her the freedom to write about whatever she wanted, and so Onajae wrote “Loving My Daddy.”

Like so many of the students who write for Teach For America’s Poet Warriors Project, Onajae was told she could write what matters the most and could publish a poem for the nation to see, and she chose to proudly share the story of her dad. In the past few months alone, at least 70 other Poet Warriors have published poems about their fathers. On this Father’s Day, we want to share a few excerpts. (Click the links to see the full poems on poetwarriorsproject.org.)

 Phoua can only describe his father using the most beautiful metaphors:

He’s the leaves that reach so high,

which sits right on the tree tops.

He’s those fences

that guards the flowers.

He’s those hopes

that keeps us believing…

My dad is the sun

that shines through the hardships.

Excerpt from “Family,” by Phoua Lee

4 Reasons Why Poetry Should Be Celebrated All Year

Image from "To This Day," one of the poems featured in "4 Poems for Making Your Students Love Poetry."

Image from “To This Day,” one of the poems featured in “4 Poems for Making Your Students Love Poetry.”

April was National Poetry Month, and TeacherPop celebrated weekly by featuring four poetry selections from teachers who have participated in Teach For America’s Poet Warriors Project. Here, Emily Southerton, the founder of the Poet Warriors Project, looks back on the four successes that defined the month and offers insight on ways that teachers can encourage students to continue to speak—and be heard.

1) Our students spoke out, and broke the silence. As teachers, we get to hear and learn from our students daily—but within the national dialogue, we recognize the fact that our students’ voices go largely unheard. This National Poetry Month, our students spoke out against the silence, fought to be heard, and claimed their place in a larger movement:

[This place is] dark and it’s lonesome and it’s not at all where
I want to be,
But most of all,
Most of all it’s silent
It’s hushed down to a nearly inaudible whisper,
Just waiting for that door to burst open and let light come in…

But I’ll take a chance.

With one heart-wrenching throwback of this closet,
I’ll say the words I’ve been meaning to say
My whole life.

Christine Vela, 14-year-old Poet Warrior, Denver, CO
Excerpt from “Breaking the Silence”

What It Means To Teach: Get Your Students Heard

“Can I be

The girl to change the world

With just one piece of writing?”

–excerpt from “Who Am I?” by Nassara Jean (teacher: Anna Katter’s classroom (Miami ’11)

I hated poetry until I was a junior in college and met Daisy Fried.

Day one of her writing workshop, this wild-haired poet stood in front of the room glowing, and asked the poets in the room to raise their hands. I definitely kept mine in my lap along with about half the room, to which she smiled and replied, “Well starting today, we’re all poets.”

Though I didn’t believe it then, by the end of her course, I was a dedicated, purposeful, and published poet, along with many others who kept their hands down that first day. Daisy pushed her students to use their voices in the world in a real and affecting way, and made simple the tools that would help us get there. A year later, despite my Middle East Politics major, I’d graduate “Class Poet,” and read my work as last parting words to my graduating class. Because I had a teacher whose passion and confidence in her students was ridiculously contagious, I had the honor of sharing my thoughts with thousands, when otherwise I’d have remained quiet.

It’s corny to say this, but Daisy gave me my own powerful voice. I’m pretty sure THAT’s what teaching is all about.

Daisy’s infectious passion and confidence in her students’ abilities is what I’ve been trying to emulate as a music and ELA teacher (Delta ’10), specifically in my poetry instruction for the last three years. For the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to drive across the country teaching week-long poetry writing workshops heavily influenced by Daisy’s methods to over 1,200 students in fifteen TFA regions. The result was over 6,000 original student poems aimed at creating change in the world. Students like Nassara became Poet Warriors and explored their own identity and purpose, explored the life-lessons they’ve learned and have to teach, looked at their families, communities, and place, and then boldly spoke out for themselves, and poetically told their stories for others to hear and understand. They were pushed to ask big questions of themselves and then in turn, asked them of us.

This year, I’ve seen poetry become not just a subject to tackle, but I’ve seen it become for students a life-changer, a driving force, a relief, or a freedom to be passed on:

“Poetry is like a person seeing the sun for the first time”

–Genesis Carreon, Denver, CO (teacher: Hannah Wright, Colorado ’11)

“It’s me running in a dark hall, and I’m running with tigers,”

–Anaya Seeley, Detroit, MI (teacher: Taylor Staffort, Detroit, ’11)

“Poetry is forgiveness,”

–Mason K. Loa, Kailua-Kona, HI (teacher: Lia-Lucine Cary, Hawaii ’11)

“Poetry is freedom. Poetry is a song. A song to sing out loud.”

–Nette Young, Crownpoint NM (teacher: Sophie Rane, New Mexico ’12)

Thanks to digital self-publishing at the Poet Warriors Project tumblr, “Poetry Is,” and Studio One’s video series, this past year our students’ stories and poems were able to reach thousands of readers in all 50 states across the country and around the world as far as India and the Republic of Georgia, Argentina and France. As magazines, blogs, and public radio began to pick up and publish our students’ poems, as Obama’s inauguration poet Richard Blanco and publications like Poetry Magazine (the largest, oldest poetry magazine in the US) started following the project and sharing our students’ poems, our students continued to speak louder understanding the importance and breadth of their voices.

This coming year, with your help, I’m hoping our students will be heard more loudly, more clearly than ever before. I’d like to invite you to participate in the Poet Warriors Project in your own classroom this year.

If you’d be interested in hearing more about how to get involved, send me an e-mail at poetwarriorsproject@gmail.com by October 25th just saying you’re interested, and more info will be sent your way.