By Jim Hagerty
WEST MIDDLE SCHOOL – Lori Beach-Grass wasn’t sure why her mind was occupied with “Hamilton: An American Musical” last year. She was on vacation. The beach to be exact.
All she knew was she had desire to create a project of her own with a similar medium. So she went with it.
What resulted was the first incarnation of what the sixth grade language arts and reading teacher in West’s CAPA program hopes to be a district-wide program.
After wrestling with “Hamilton,” a 2015 sung-through musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, Beach-Grass had an idea to invite some of her students to stay after school to read pieces of literature, pick themes from the material and created a collection of poetry, rap, music and spoken word. She didn’t know who would take part, but eight students decided to give it a go.
Within weeks, the group grew, and West Lit Up was officially born. By Christmas, it was so popular Beach-Grass was forced to cap the number of participants at 20. And it was not that her goal was to create an exclusive medium. She needed to keep the group manageable in order to direct the students while they took their performances public.
On March 17, they did just that. That’s the night Beach-Grass transformed her classroom into a cafe and charged $1 a head to watch the sixth, seventh and eight graders perform pieces inspired by the “The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba,” by Margarita Engle. And it was as close to a real cafe as possible. They served coffee and pastries among dim, yet soft enough light to ready by.
The students broached a number of themes, some well beyond years like, “embracing differences,” “prison is more than bars,” and “perfection doesn’t exist.”
Yet perfection seemed to permeate that night, as 100 guests hung on every word from the 20 young players.
“Jack knew he was not being punished because of his father’s mistakes,” a spoken-word piece from the program reads. “He instead learned from the past. He found a job, a wife, a home and two sons… living the life of a successful man. Everyone has choices.”
With a “School 0f Rock” flair, Beach-Grass has created an after-school program she hopes will be in each of Rockford’s six middle schools. That’s not bad for something that started as a single-paragraph proposal.
“When I first introduced this club in October, students were attending on Tuesday’s after school. (They) attended consistently every week until our performance.”
The daughter of 10th Ward Alderman Frank Beach and sister of jazz crooner Jodi Beach said she rarely goes anywhere now without finding material for futures shows.
“Since beginning Lit Up, and using and encouraging spoken word in my classroom, I’ve started receiving poems, personal thoughts, and heart-touching words,” she said.
And the discoveries are anything but conventional. Submissions are written on all kinds of paper Beach-Grass finds on her desk, hidden in her coat, even stuck on the windshield of her car. Sometimes they’re with names, sometimes not. Regardless, each marks an opportunity to hear thoughts that may otherwise be expressed in vain.
Although only CAPA students participated this year, Lit Up is open to all West students. Beach-Grass hasn’t decided if she will hold sessions this summer but is seeking a bigger venue for future performances.
Those interested in West Lit Up can email Lori Beach-Grass at firstname.lastname@example.org.