Ever since 1996, Edison High School English and Creative Writing teacher Jennifer DiOrio said she’d envisioned writing a play, a dream which she ultimately acted on in 2008 and saw come to life when it was performed at the Watchung Arts Center in 2010.
Since then, she’s become a member of La Strada Ensemble Theater in Asbury Park as a playwright and has worked on many smaller pieces as well as produced plays and organized play festivals and open mic events.
“I know what it’s like to work hard, put myself out there, take risks, have setbacks, and finally succeed,” said DiOrio, 43, who’s taught at Edison High School since 2002. As a result of that hard-won experience, “I felt like I had something to contribute and give to the kids in my classes; I share my real-world experiences with them and help them move forward,” she said.
Through the multi-faceted ‘Echoes’ initiative that she launched two years ago and continues to champion, DiOrio has unleashed the power of self-expression at the four-year, 2,000-student school, creating a variety of opportunities for students to share their opinions, showcase their artistic pursuits, find their voice, and channel their energy amid the many pressures that surround the modern coming-of-age process.
“The arts are flourishing at Edison High School,” said DiOrio of the murals on the walls, written pieces, graphics, musical works, and other creative expressions emanating from the student body. “Kids at younger and younger ages are doing incredible things and it’s really inspiring.”
A variety of forums
To capture that student energy, DiOrio’s Echoes program offers several creative forums to appeal to different students and their various interests. Among those, “our Echoes Literary Magazine is open to all kids to submit work to on a rolling basis and has featured everything from poems, short stories, non-fiction, and excerpts from novels to artwork such as pencil drawings, cross-stitch designs, sketches, and balloon art since it went online in December 2013,” she said. “It’s very dynamic and easy to update because it’s online and has featured work by hundreds of students.”
Managed by DiOrio and the 20 to 25 students in her Creative Writing class, “we discuss how to write pieces for, plan out, and promote the publication, so they’re basically learning how to run a magazine in class,” she said.
For those students seeking performance experience, Echoes Coffee Houses are run roughly once a month at the school and offer students an open mic opportunity to perform musical numbers, spoken word pieces, poems, readings, dances, and improv sketches or to showcase artwork to an audience of fellow students and teachers. The admission price to the coffee house is collected by Assertive Teens Against Cancer, a club that’s raised more than $27,000 for cancer research.
In addition, within the third marking period each spring, DiOrio runs the Edison Play Festival, during which six 10-minute plays penned by students from both Edison High School and nearby J.P. Stevens High School are staged and performed.
“Students feel alive in this process and it engages them in ways they’ve never been before,” said DiOrio of the positive student response to Echoes that she’s witnessed. “There are a lot of pressures on kids today, but the opportunity to be creative and express themselves calms and relaxes them and allows them to be free in a way that they don’t necessarily experience otherwise.”
Opening Creative Doors
Now a freshman at Hofstra University, where she’s majoring in creative writing and journalism, Edison High School graduate Destini Preisler, 18, said that Echoes opened creative doors for her that she never imagined.
An outgoing student with a fondness for songwriting, “I took Jen DiOrio’s Creative Writing class during my senior year and she had us writing poetry, which I’d never written before, but she helped me understand that my songs were essentially poems,” Preisler said. “I ended up submitting seven to eight poems to Echoes Literary Magazine and I’ll be submitting two more, and I was also among the students at Edison High selected to have my play performed in the Play Festival, so I’m a playwright, poet, songwriter, and storyteller,” she said proudly.
The process of sharing her work at numerous Echoes Coffee Houses “broadened my writing spectrum and gave me an audience,” she said, an experience she hopes students after her will capitalize on for themselves. “Poetry was a new thing for me, but it made me go deeper and show people who I really am. In that respect, Echoes brought me out of an uncomfortable place,” she said.
For current Edison High School senior Monica Flores, 17, Echoes Coffee Houses have provided a similar confidence-boosting opportunity.
“I started attending Coffee Houses in my sophomore year and soon began performing songs there on my guitar or ukulele, which made me more confident in my creations,” she said. Though she admits that it was initially hard to express herself in front of a group, “I’ve performed at several of these events and it’s really fun to have my friends there, plus you get constructive criticism and it’s a great learning experience. Though not everyone is interested in participating in Echoes,” she said, “everyone respects it and Jen DiOrio is one of the best communicators and educators I’ve ever met. She really knows how to connect with people and is very passionate.”
Across the board, school administrators and faculty have similarly thrown their support behind the initiative based on the results it’s driving.
“Echoes is a wonderful program that allows students to express their ideas in a free and supportive environment and it’s great to see our kids in a different light,” Assistant Principal Aurora Loufek said. “Students have been driving this exchange from the beginning and it’s really their time to showcase their myriad talents. It takes a lot of courage to share a piece of yourself with your peers, so we’re excited about the way in which Echoes has created an environment that allows for that in a very safe way.”
Perhaps no one is more proud of the program and its student participants than DiOrio herself, who feels that “Echoes has revitalized my career. When I see students promoting Echoes to others, feeling proud and excited to be a part of it and doing something that really matters, that’s what excites me,” she said.
Among other great rewards, she added, is “seeing a student find his or her genre and really learn about themselves and grow. I also love that each year presents a new challenge; creative writing is very organic, free of restrictive guidelines and educational curricula, and we can take it in any direction so that it’s effortless.”
Grateful for an administration that she said “has been incredibly supportive throughout the school,” DiOrio believes that Echoes is bigger than the sum of its parts.
“Enthusiasm for this program is through the roof and I think that we’re tapping into something really important here,” she said. “Echoes provides an important experience for kids and offers a lot of great feedback and support that the kids feel too. It’s a great model for other school systems and I’d love to see the program further expand into the community.”
Danae Walker, spoken word poet
Cate Martin, novelist, poet, and visual artist
Aureliano Xelhua, guitarist, and
Mr. Gordon Rowan, singer and piano player (piano not available)
Destiny Valerio, storyteller, poet, and visual artist
Sayema Bhuiyan, singer
Sang Nguyen, poet, storyteller, playwright, and novelist
Amanda McDaniel, singer and songwriter
Sam Scaplen, poet and storyteller
For More Information:
Edison High School is at 50 Boulevard of the Eagles in Edison and can be reached at (732) 650-5200 or by visiting www.edison.k12.nj.us/Domain/8.