The room is silent. The prompt on the whiteboard reads, “I feel most colored when…” Tony DelaRosa watches intently, proudly, as eighth-grader Terell Rice reads aloud.
“I feel most colored when I walk with my family because my sisters and nephew are light skins, and I’m caramel so people ask me: am I adopted?”
DelaRosa begins snapping his fingers—a sign of respect and approval—as Terell continues his piece. This was part of the sharing portion that takes place at the end of every Boston Pulse meeting. Pulse, an after-school program that gives students a space to work on poetry and spoken word, was launched by DelaRosa in 2013. Before expanding to Boston, Pulse got its start as a nonprofit under the umbrella company Indy Reads, a bookstore in downtown Indianapolis, where Pulse now serves 400 people.
DelaRosa is a warm 27-year-old man with a welcoming laugh. The seventh-grade English and composition teacher at Match Charter School in Jamaica Plain studied poetry and creative writing at the University of Cincinnati. He has a passion for the written and spoken word that fuels his youthful and energetic teaching style. For students, DelaRosa’s teaching style has been life-changing.
“Before, I used to be really scared to speak in public,” said Terell, who has been involved in Pulse for two years. “Now that I really worked on it with Mr. D, and we’ve been performing a lot, it’s like second nature.”
Ny’lasia Brown, who is in the eighth grade at Match, said Pulse has had a great impact on her writing.
“Mr. DelaRosa takes us places,” Ny’lasia said. “He took me somewhere where there were these high school poets, and they were so good. This improved my writing because I can build off of their ideas and I can have an open mind of better poetry.”
DelaRosa’s life as a teacher began when he graduated from Cincinnati and got a job with Teach for America in Indianapolis. That’s where he started Indy Pulse, the program that would eventually spread to Boston.
“After my first year with TFA I was able to get seed funding to start the program,” DelaRosa said. “A group called Teach Plus held an echo competition to spark ideas and shark tank them. Once we had our idea, we just kind of rolled with it. It started off with three schools.”
The goal of Pulse is to support youth as they cultivate their voice, while empowering them “to craft meaningful life paths that promote positive change for themselves and their communities,” according to the Pulse website.
“Poetry roots to identity,” DelaRosa said. “Before we start understanding other people, we need to do that to ourselves. And we do that through reflection and introspection and seeing where our biases lie.”
DelaRosa started developing a website and doing advertising, and that’s when Indy Pulse really took off. When DelaRosa and his significant other moved to Boston, he got a job at Match, where TFA has a substantial presence.
“They were super open to ideas to help fund curriculum and materials,” DelaRosa said. “And we were able to start Boston Pulse in 2015.”
Boston Pulse has now spread to three middle schools and two high schools in and around Boston. Students meet weekly in groups of about 15. In the past, students could attend meetings without having to sign up or agree to a regular commitment, but DelaRosa said he will start putting out applications this year.
Stephanie Brown, Ny’lasia’s mom, said her daughter’s commitment to Pulse has helped her develop better time-management skills. She also spoke about the academic impact it’s had.
“Since joining Pulse, Ny’lasia’s reading and writing have gotten a lot better,” Brown said. “Even the way she talks and reads out loud; she has become more able to articulate.”
What DelaRosa really emphasizes though, is the importance of EQ—emotional intelligence.
Every meeting starts with a processing circle—a space where students can share the highs and lows of the week. DelaRosa called it a “brave space” aiming to show the group that “everyone is equal and everyone has a voice.”
After a few announcements, the students hone in on a specific literary skill set. Each lesson is accompanied by a different “mentor text,” which the students spend time annotating and analyzing.
Naleona Lester, a seventh-grader who DelaRosa says is one of the top academic performers at Match, enjoys evaluating text during meetings.
“You can really dig deep down into the poem and really get out what the person is trying to say,” Naleona said. “I like that you can interpret it in different ways, so you can see yourself in the poem.”
The students are then given a prompt to work on for 20 minutes, and share their work during the last 15 minutes of the meeting.
As students presented their pieces for the “I feel most colored when…” prompt, DelaRosa soaked it all in with joy. When each student finished performing there was an opportunity for feedback from the rest of the group. The camaraderie among the Pulse members was clear as they exchanged ideas and feelings.
What DelaRosa has created provides kids with mentorship, community and purpose.
“It’s easy for me because I love doing it,” DelaRosa said.
It’s the same love DelaRosa is attempting to spread among his students—the simple joy of creating and sharing art. And the students get to experience the inspiration, unity and healing that come with it.
This multimedia story was produced as part of WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy's class in Digital Storytelling and Social Media at Northeastern University.