Edison High School ‘Echoes’ initiative is outlet for creativity

by Susan Bloom, Correspondent, 9:02 a.m. EDT October 22, 2015


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.”


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.

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Haunted House Mystery

My Creative Writing students and I have written Haunted House Mystery an original short play, for the Edison High School Drama Club students to perform at Halloween at the High on Friday, October 30th.

Writers:  Destiny, Samantha, Haley, Carlo, Allysa, Cate, Lourdes, Teresa, Enaya, Gabriella, Stephen, Danny, Jade, Kohki, Emily, Sarah, Meghan, Shannon, Sarah, Lydia, and Jayden from the 2015-16 Creative Writing Class, and Ms. DiOrio

Cast:  Carly, Matthew, Josh, Sydney, Michaela, and Katie

Student Director:  Carly

Drama Club Advisor:  Ms. Elford


Photo source is here.

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In This Artful House

I shared this poem (written in 2 minutes during my lunch period at the school where I teach) at the start of our Echoes Coffee House/Open Mic today. Photos and article to follow…

In This Artful House
by Yours Truly

This gathering of young minds, hearts, and spirits
Warms my heart and makes me think
Anything is possible in a world
That too often disappoints, discourages, and confuses.

Here, in this artful house, we get nervous,
Take risks, and support each other.
We applaud
The dreams of our fellow humans.

Each one of us knows
The delight of a new idea, the fear of failure,
The agony of defeat, and the triumph of will.
Today, each one of us revels in victory.

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My spontaneous definition:

Art is a creation from within that inspires without boundaries.


The above image is a photo I took at Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, NY.  Flowers is the title of my upcoming one act monologue play that has the feel of an Imagist choreopoem.  It will be produced by AJ Ciccotelli of  La Strada Ensemble Theater in January 2016.

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La Strada Retreat and Upcoming Shows

Today I am going to a retreat for La Strada Ensemble Theater at the home of the artistic director and hospitality chair.   I’m excited to attend as a playwright and member.


Four of my short plays are slated for upcoming La Strada festivals.  The first is FLOWERS, which has the feel of an Imagist choreopoem in one act monologue play form, that will be part of a festival in January 2016 called GIFTS.  I am working on LUCIA AND JOHN, a second short for Gifts, as well.  The third is LOCKDOWN, a one-act dark comedy previously produced here in NJ and also in Manhattan, which will be part of CRAZY LOVE in the summer.  A fourth one act will be part of RAINBOW FESTIVAL 2016  in May and June.

OFFSIDES, my full-length tragicomedy and period piece, is slated for La Strada’s 2016-17 season as well.

GIFTS is open to La Strada members only. CRAZY LOVE will be open to non-members. If you have a one-act play about crazy love (whatever that means to you), please consider submitting your script to AJ Ciccotelli at artisticdirector@lastradaensemble.org by November 1st.  The submission deadline for the LGBT-themed RAINBOW FESTIVAL, which is open to all, has not yet been set.

More details to follow…


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That quiet kid…

That quiet kid in your class or person in your group might be the next Aesop, Dr. Seuss, Hans Christian Anderson, Shel Silverstein, Norman Bridwell, Maurice Sendak, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, L. Frank Baum, Judy Blume, V.C. Andrews, Neil Simon, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, Harper Lee, Jean M. Auel,  Pearl S. Buck, J.D. Salinger, Robert Herrick, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Oscar Wilde, Ntozake Shange, Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Radclyffe Hall, Andrew Holleran, William Wordsworth, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Spike Lee, Amy Tan, Caryl Churchill, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Emily Bronte, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Bronte, John Milton, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, W. Somerset Maugham, Armistead Maupin, Audre Lorde, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Monique Wittig, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sandra Cisneros, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Jeanette Winterson, Carole Maso, Kate Chopin, belle hooks, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Allison, Rita Mae Brown, Leslie Feinberg, Katherine Dunn, David Sedaris, J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephen King, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paulo Coehlo, John Lennon, Paul Simon, Sting, Bono, Natalie Merchant, Edie Brickell, Sarah McLachlan, k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Madonna, Dave Matthews, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Cher, B.B. King, Lou Reed, Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, Puccini, Verdi, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Frida Kahlo, Tina Modotti, Artemisia Gentileschi, Dali, Mary Cassat, Katharine Kuharic, Ani DiFranco, Brandi Carlile, Liz Phair, Norah Jones, Bruce Lee, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Vaclav Havel, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola, Alan Ball, Joss Whedon, Ilene Chaiken, Lorraine Hansberry, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jane Campion, Nora Ephron, Ava DuVernay, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Chuck Palahnuik, Irvine Welsh, Steven Wright, Dennis Miller, Wanda Sykes, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Steve Martin, Dave Chapelle, Roseanne Barr, Mitch Hedberg, Louis CK, Dana Carvey, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, Margaret Cho, Ellen DeGeneres, Kristen Wiig, Howie Mandel, Tina Fey, Estelle Getty, Sandra Bernhard, Lewis Black, John Cleese, Jerry Seinfeld, Will Ferrell, Janeane Garofalo, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Cormac McCarthy, John Donne, E.M. Forster, Eli Weisel, Anne Frank, Margaret Mitchell, Pablo Neruda, Rumi, Sappho, Marie Curie, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, Susan B. Anthony, Galileo, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, or…

Quiet people

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Inspiration and restoration

I may have a smile on my face, but inside the heartbreak often inspires me to seek joy. Restoring balance through wondrous creativity, meditation, connections to nature, and collaborations with thoughtful, sensitive, and delightful people is key.  If I don’t have a smile, I’m just taking it all in.


Looking at Niagara Falls for the first time since age 2

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