006: What Poetry, Prison and Algorithms have in common

using the Whole Whale PodcastWe talk with Roland Legiardi-Laura the ED of PowerPoetry.org about how they became the largest teen poetry site in the US. Find out what the literacy gap has to do with incarceration in the US and how we can use algorithms to begin to quantify poetry.

To Be Heard – Documentary that inspired PowerPoetry.org

Please check out the full documentary of To Be Heard – it’s incredible.

Additional resources


Episode 6

Speaker 1: This is Using the Whole Whale. The podcast that brings you stories about data and technology in the nonprofit world. My name is George Weiner, your host and the Chief Whaler of wholewhale.com. Thanks for joining us.

Today we’re doing something very brave. We’re leaving the borough of Brooklyn. That’s right. We’re traveling all the way to Manhattan today. In order to talk to an amazing guy named Roland. He is a documentary film maker. He is a poet. He is a teacher in the Bronx and he is also the founder of powerpoetry.org, which is how I know him. Listen to this interview.

I’m really excited because I am a huge fan of Power Poetry. Whole Whale’s been working with you guys for a couple of years now but I really want to hear and tell our audience the whole story of what you guys do, how you got there. So take it away, Roland.

Speaker 2: Power Poetry, the beginning of the story starts in 2002, when we had nothing to do with technology. We were a small writing program, hidden in a dark room off to one side of a public high school in the South Bronx. The program then was called Power Writing. The concept really has been the same since we started it. The idea was to get young kids, in those days it was truly disadvantaged kids, to empower themselves by mastering literacy. By literacy, I think there’s four components to literacy. Reading, writing, public speaking and listening.

So our work was around developing acuity, developing skills within those four areas. The delivery system we chose or was chosen for us, was poetry because kids, ever since the 1980’s, ever since rap, hip-hop and poetry slams, have been madly in love with this means of self-expression.

From that project, we evolved to the point where people wanted us to share the work well beyond the small number of schools and the small number of students we were working with. So we were sponsored by PBS starting in 2008. We produced a film called, To Be Heard. It was an award winning film, the New York Times called it the best documentary of the year. It’s the story of three of our young power writers who learn to use poetry as means to change their own lives and change the world.

In the course of making that film, we came upon a really interesting conundrum. How do you really develop a meaningful force multiplier? Something that goes beyond even what documentaries could do. Because documentaries, while they spread the word beyond what a classroom, a real boots on the ground classroom would be like, they are still limited in their audience. PBS supported us in the development of a digital form, a digital platform that would take the themes of Power Writing and inculcate this methodology in the digital space. So, we developed something called Power Poetry and it’s the world’s….

Speaker 1: Wait a minute! Why didn’t you just build an app? Don’t kids just have phones?

Speaker 2: The thing was this, the guy I worked with told me building an app would be the worst possible thing in the world to build. It would be very costly, it would have no efficiency. What we came across was the concept that kids, with the teenagers we were working with, lived on their cell phones. This was their means of communication. When we began the writing process, kids were happy to write their poems in beautiful journals and share them with us. As the years passed, the journals disappeared. They were replaced by this beautiful tool, which was an anathema in the school system but for us it was a golden gift. The cell phone.

On the cell phone the kids were able to compose directly, store their work, share their work with their peers and recite in the tiny text that would come up. Why not take that idea and give that idea a global and national component. So with our support from PBS, ITVS, the National Endowment for the Arts Center, the Fledgling Foundation and the Bay and Paul Foundation and a great team of developers called Whole Whale, we came up with a form that we launched in the spring of 2012.

So that’s just about two years now. We launched it in honor of National Poetry Month. Starting out from that point till today, we have grown to 140,000 registered users, over 136,000 poems posted and tens of thousands of comments where the kids comment on each other’s work. We have online poetry slams that are sponsored and we generate scholarships for these young poets. We have a series of incredible resources, tip guides on how to improve specific poetry forms, resource guides on how to search and learn about the themes you’re inspired to write about and get engaged and involved in working on these themes. So taking your words to the next level, actually doing something with your words to change the world. From that, has come a whole new fascinating and somewhat scary aspect or potential.

Speaker 1: Yeah, because you have this amazing online community. So many people are like great, that is the goal. We hit it, we hit the home run! But you, were not satisfied with that. You’re like so what we’ve got 140,000 poets, we’ve got over 130,000 poems being created. You were talking about you started as this idea of literacy. So how can you prove that teens creating poems actually mattered toward literacy.

Speaker 2: Yes. So this becomes fascinating because while I love poetry and I’m a poet. You’ve got to be able to do something with poetry. It has to be a useful tool in the world. In this country, in the United States, we have a phenomenally scary literacy crisis. Two thirds of everybody who’s involved in the prison industrial complex are functionally illiterate. That’s why they are in prison.

Speaker 1: How many thirds?

Speaker 2: Two thirds. So that’s…

Speaker 1: That’s absurd.

Speaker 2: It is absurd. So of the 7.2 million people who are either locked up, on parole or on probation, two thirds of them cannot read beyond a third grade level. Many of that group are completely illiterate. That’s their ticket to jail. At the other end of the spectrum, only one out of eight US adults reads well enough to understand our founding documents. So if you understand it, only 13% of American adults can read and understand the Constitution. You understand why we don’t have a functioning democracy. We have a dysfunctional democracy. Literacy is not just some interesting perk you get because you’ve spent 12 years torturing yourself in school. Literacy is an essential life skill.

For me, the value of Power Poetry was to push beyond sharing your work but using that platform as a literacy engine. Now, the question becomes tricky and is way above my pay grade. How do you technologically assess if the 140,000 kids who are coming on to the site, many of them come repeatedly and post their poems, are actually learning and improving their literacy skill set. So we were very lucky and we teamed up with Big Data Analysis Firm which has a foundation arm called The Sum All Foundation.

Those guys dove into our database of 140,000 users and 135,000 poems and developed a series of algorithms that analyzed the progress of these young poets from the first poem they posted to let’s say the tenth poem they posted over time. I can’t get into all the details, it’s incredibly complex for me and probably for most of us. This has been a revelation in the ability to use poetry as a skill generating tool. It is not really used as a skill generating tool in school. Schools don’t talk about poetry about something that is a primarily important skill set. But if you analyze all the things you have to know as a speaker and a writer and a reader to be a competent poet understand immediately how important it is and how mastering poetry can lead to profound competence in literacy.

Speaker 1: You’re leaving me hanging here. What is the outcome? You go through, you create this algorithm…

Speaker 2: Yes. Well, okay. They’ve done two massive studies of our work. The first one was a kind of proof of concept study and they determined by looking at all these algorithms that with a 70% degree of accuracy, the poets who are posting regularly on our site were showing marked measurable improvement in their literacy skills.

Then we did another study more recently with a larger data base and what we’ve come up with here is that there’s a concept called the literacy gap. This is fairly simple. Poor kids who are disadvantaged with their access to language tools develop their literacy skills at a slower rate. So how can you impact that? Well, what we determined with this study is that the kids that come from the poorest zip codes versus the kids who come from the wealthiest zip codes, if you look at how they improve over time, through use of these algorithms, the gap is cut in half. That’s a pretty extraordinary finding.

I’m hoping that what we are doing here will lead to the development of some very interesting, sophisticated, self-assessment tools. That we can embed in our site and help young writers not just assess the level they are at with literacy competencies but also advise them and help them. Give them a set of curriculum based tasks that will speed up their mastering of literacy. For me this is not a small thing. This is essential if this country is going to move forward.

Speaker 1: Absolutely. The algorithm though, I know you’re not super familiar with the nuts and bolts but if you could just describe how you do it. if you took a training set and you chose some attributes. What does it look like?

Speaker 2: Yes, okay. Alright. So our database guys developed nine different categories that they used to analyze words. One was a raw competency on the compassion, the emotion that was driven into a word. Something simple like spelling, was part of this. Something that they used was the use of certain kinds of rhymes, showing mastery in different kinds of full rhyme, half rhyme, slant rhyme. These things also indicate a kind of mastery. There were.. There’s something called a trigram, I can’t really explain that but it has to do with the way the words are strung together, the length of the words, the vocabulary used.

So these are the beginning stages of what I imagine and I’m hoping and I’m planning, are a much more sophisticated set of perhaps maybe 100 or 200 algorithms that eventually make up a very powerful analytical tool. A tool that can be used by kids themselves, by parents, by educators, by anybody who wants to take control of their lives through language.

Speaker 1: So this is crazy because Power Poetry is run on a shoestring. You guys are wildly efficient with every bit of your both dollar and time. You thought it was important, a priority really, to say we are doing all of this work but does it matter? It must have been a little bit scary to be like what if the algorithms are saying we are doing a lousy job?

Speaker 2: Right. Well then you load up the shotgun and air out your cranium.

Speaker 1: [Laughing]

Speaker 2: You know, I have to say that while I am not a computer data analyst, I know from my own boots on the ground experience with kids. If you create a safe space for them, which Power Poetry is, and you support them in a non-judgmental way, they will find a path to their own powerful self-expression. That in and of itself will lead to measurable improvements. So while I can’t say that I would’ve bet the ranch on this, I’m pretty sure that this is a natural outcome of the simple product of the exuberance of youth and it’s needed to express itself and refine its expression.

Speaker 1: Yeah, more poems over more time was a very brilliant predictive outcome. To assume that you have the ultimate, predictive output I should say, that you have the ultimate outcome of increased literacy. You’ve actually now taken it to the next level. I definitely solute you.

Speaker 2: I really don’t know how brilliant it is. If you want to become a good basketball player, how do you get good? You stand in front of the Goddamn hoop and you throw more balls over time into the hoop. The better you get, the more balls you throw in, theoretically you’re going to get better in hooping those balls, right? So, that to me is what we’re doing. We’re just providing the basketball court for our young writers to toss their…

Speaker 1: Sure, but you actually went to that next level. Folks have been tossing basketballs into baskets for quite some time. It’s not till you get to the levels of players like Lebron James, who actually switched to a midrange jump shooter and not anywhere on the court. If you look at a statistically distribution of where he shoots from the court, it’s not one place. He has found several places on this court based on where he is more highly probable to get open and have shots being taken. What they did was they actually looked at his data the same way you could’ve just blindly wandered off saying more poets over more time with more poems is a thing. Now you actually have a benchmark to say look, if somebody comes on board and you want to implement mentors, I don’t know, if you want to implement a new training tool, we actually have a way of quantifying does this actually make a difference.

Speaker 2: That’s what big data amazes me about. You know, I am very dismissive and trepidatious about the concept of metrics. I can see that metrics are often used to manipulate and abuse people. The obsession with metrics in our school system to me is criminal. But I don’t believe that the metrics themselves are evil. If you can find a way to quantify the creative expression and creative output then share that quantification in a way that is helpful to kids. Not shaming, or demeaning or categorizing. Then I think we’ve got something that is truly valuable.

Speaker 1: I agree. I can talk to you for actually ever. I may continue to anyway after I shut this off but as a final take away, how do people find you? And how do people help powerpoetry.org?

Speaker 2: Well, gosh, those are great questions. We are located, We are optimized for mobile thanks to our great whaling team. We are located on the internet at www.powerpoetry.org. Easy to find us. We now have a cool Twitter app game called Poetry Wars. #PoetryWars I think you can find that.

How can you help us? Well, you can spread the word about what we’re doing. You can share this idea and invite young writers to come post their work on our site. Even though we are lean and mean, we are not lean and stupid. We need more money so that we can become slightly less lean and even meaner so that we can do more stuff. If you happen to be sitting on a giant trust fund, if you are a hedge fund kajillionaire, if you are a little old lady who is about to go to another astral plane, write us a check! Support us anyway you like! We love that!

We do not take sponsorship, we are not interested in plastering ads all over our site. We’re not trying to extract money from our kids. We realize that they’re struggling to make ends meet. So we really need as much support as we can get.

Speaker 1: Thank you so much for taking the time. Good luck. Hopefully, we’ll be talking in another year where we’re dealing with another set of issues of someone’s given you a ton of money and now what have you done with it. I’m going to be coming back and seeing.

Speaker 2: I hope we can have that chat sooner than one year. Thanks George.

Speaker 1: I always enjoy talking to Roland. We continued like that for another several hours. Thank you for staying with us. I want to remind you you can always find the resources from this episode at wholewhale.com/podcast. I’m going to leave you with a clip from the trailer of To Be Heard, tobeheard.org is where you can find that documentary film that Power Poetry was based on. Again, thanks.

Speaker 3: This isn’t a political poem but broken sidewalks remind me of simple bodega dreams and…

Speaker 4: I want to shed my skin so that I can become a man but this cocoon doesn’t have any exit signs.

Speaker 5: I live to connect. To love. I am a poet.

Speaker 2: This class is called power writing. The most simple and basic way you empower yourselves is through self-awareness.

Speaker 6: We need to hear your perceptions.

Speaker 7: Sometimes there are very terrible things that need to be said…

This has been using the whole whale, the podcast. for more information on the topics covered in today’s please check out wholewhale.com or consider following us on twitter @wholewhale.