Middle school can beawkward and transitional. Getting young people to open up about their feelings during this time can seem impossible.

Middle-school students and finalists from the 2011 Higher Achievement Love Poetry contest. (Higher Achievement/Higher Achievement)

“Poetry is a great outlet for students to really express themselves,” Executive Director of Higher Achievement DC Metro Lynsey Jeffries said.

There are six Higher Achievement sites, five in D.C. and one in Alexandria, totaling to more than 500 middle school students. Each of the sites hosted their own love poetry contests on Valentine’s Day. Finalists were whittled from 60 to 12 , or two at each site.

The students are scored in three areas: the use of literary devices and understanding of poetry meachines, content and originality and their overall performance. The judges are often parents, mentors and professional performance poets, Jeffries said.

”Poetry is often what gets lost in today’s educational system. Students are so focused and creative expression falls by the way side,” she said. “Poetry is expressive and cathartic for middle schools students who are going through a lot and living in tough neighborhoods; it’s a really powerful outlet.”

The topic of love may have elicited groans and eye-rolls by the pre-teens at first, but the program encourages students to think outside of their usual connections of “love.”

“It can be the love of shoes, self-confidence, the love of ice cream, cheese, basketball, your mom, reading – lots of things that once you start to think about our scholars are excited to write about,” Jeffries said.

Here are excerpts of poems from students that will perform at the Kennedy Center:

When I don't have a shoulder to cry on, an ear that will listen to me speak, or a mouth to give me advice, poetry becomes all of those in one. – Noelle, 14, 9th grader at School Without Walls

When I looked out at the skyline
I envisioned my future and who I’d be.
I told myself I was beautiful
No matter what anyone tried convincing me.

– Natalia, 13, 8th grader at Paul Junior High School

If you've been told
you are ugly
You've been told wrong
If you've been told
You are not smart
You have to prove them wrong
If you've been told
You have no chance, ace your target
If you've been told
You don't know what love is
Show all the love you have

- Davine, 11, 6th grader at Eliot-Hine Middle School

I love shoes so much I could get a tattoo
But only if the tattoo is a picture of bamboo shoes
Here is another clue
They are something you wear down the avenue
What are they?
O yeah...they’re shoes!
If I could, I would throw a BBQ just over some shoes
Or maybe even a hullabaloo
Just over some pretty shoes
I love shoes
I love shoes

– Destiny, 12, 7th grader at Howard University Middle School for Math and Science

My father has a million facial expressions,
but for some reason he can’t seem to say “I love you”first.
Instead he says “I love you too, Mickayla.”
The strings of our relationship are choppy and thin,
like a broken song that has lost its meaning,
so when I asked him if cows had feelings,
it wasn’t a surprise when he didn’t answer.
My childish questions were distracting him from the football game.
My father has a million facial expressions but
he can’t seem to hide them as well as his inner
emotions and if I could, I’d wish to be an artist,
so that I could erase his frown lines and
smother his sharply spiked tongue,
I’d wish to lighten his brown eyes and melt his iron armor.

- Mickayla, 14, 8th grader at Hammond Middle School

Read more on The Root DC

Episode Two: An animated defense of Adrian Fenty

Prince Hall Masons celebrate Black History Month

An end to drug-induced deaths

Virginia Republicans are out of touch

A historic moment for Rep. John Lewis