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Middle, high school English students to speak up in Youth Voice Conference


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- To encourage middle and high school students to critically examine universal themes found in literature, art, and popular culture, the Western New York Network of English Teachers (WNYNET), the Woods-Beals Endowment for Urban Education, and Buffalo State’s English education program are co-hosting a Youth Voices Conference, Friday, May 4, in the Louis P. Ciminelli Recital Hall at Rockwell Hall. The conference begins at 4:00 p.m. and concludes with a dinner at 7:15 p.m.   

Approximately 40 middle and high school students from across Western New York will use spoken word poetry, music, Ted talks, and more to convey their interpretation of topics ranging from bullying to the death penalty.

“The conference gives young people the opportunity to showcase their thoughts, beliefs, and ideas about issues that are important to them and the larger community in which they live,” said Rene Bonilla, '16, an English education graduate student who is helping to organize the conference.

In 2010, Jim Cercone, assistant professor of English and coordinator of the English Education Program, founded WNYNET to serve as a support network for local English teachers. While WNYNET and the English education program have hosted college readiness programs for middle and high school students, this marks the first year for a conference-style event.

“This conference brings everything full circle,” Cercone said.  “Pre-service teachers are working with classroom teachers, many of whom are alums, to help the students prepare their projects.”

One such alumna is Alyssa Moretti, ’14, who is earning her master’s in English education at Buffalo State while teaching eighth-grade English at Maritime Charter School in Buffalo.

She chose six students to expand upon presentations they made in class revolving around the themes of individuality and conformity stemming from their reading of Jerry Spinelli’s young-adult novel Stargirl. One student focused on the individuality expressed by artists in Allentown; two students interviewed their peers about how they show individuality at a military school.

“I think this is such a unique opportunity,” Moretti said. “When students are invited to speak on a college campus and present their research, it tells them ‘Your voice matters. Your ideas matter.’”

Instead of plunging right into Great Expectations or Catcher in the Rye, English teachers often start with big questions, such as “Who am I” or “Why is there suffering?” to get students thinking and engaged, Cerone said. And the conference will reveal the result of such contemplations.

Deb Bertlesman, WNYNET president and a ninth-grade English teacher at Olmsted High School, agrees.

“In my classroom, we read everything together and discuss what we’re reading,” she said. “It’s often integrated with current events or popular culture. I allow for students to go through the inquiry process and develop their own questions. The projects that were selected for inclusion in the conference illustrate what students can do when you encourage them to think on their own.”

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