Novel, expert help Belchertown middle school students learn about substance use

  • Eighth grade students at Jabish Middle School in Belchertown are using the book “Solo,” by Kwame Alexander as a way to have safe discussions about the dangers of substance use. English teacher Jennifer Poli introduced the book to the school’s curriculum this fall.

  • Jennifer Poli

Staff Writer
Published: 10/4/2023 1:36:37 PM
Modified: 10/4/2023 1:35:36 PM

BELCHERTOWN — While some schools and libraries across the country would ban books that discuss drugs and alcohol addiction, the opposite is happening at Jabish Brook Middle School this fall.

Eighth grade English students at the school are openly talking about the dangers of substance use by dissecting the book “Solo,” a contemporary novel that discusses the repercussions of addiction on a relationship between a father and son. And this week they supplemented that work with a visit from an expert who discussed the physiological effects of substance abuse.

“Solo” tells the story of teenager Blade Morrison searching for his identity amid family secrets, his love of music, and his relationship with father Rutherford Morrison, a rock musician who struggles with alcohol and cocaine addiction. The book, composed as a series of poems, investigates how substance use disorder can impact the physical and psychological health of family.

“I think it’s important to talk about [drug addition] in middle school, before going into high school, so [we] know more about it,” eighth-grader Kylie Rose said.

English teacher Jennifer Poli introduced the novel to the eighth-grade course this school year to add more authors of color into the existing curriculum. Poli said she structures her class around the hero’s journey myth and needed a long-form work that uses this story structure. A fellow English teacher recommended the Black poet and writer Kwame Alexander, and Poli found his work “Solo” fit the course the best due to the book’s contemporary application of the hero’s journey narrative.

On Monday, Poli invited nurse practitioner Rachel Katz to speak on the physiological effects of substance use disorders to provide context to events in the events in the novel. Poli wants her students to learn the biological impacts of addiction that juxtapose the mental effects explored in the book and ask questions to someone more informed in substance use than herself.

“I hope for them to understand characters in book and motivations, but also I hope for them to realize the seriousness of substance addiction and have resources they can use if they are aware of someone experiencing a substance addiction,” Poli said.

Katz has worked as a family nurse practitioner in primary care for 16 years. She has training in addiction medicine and currently serves as the director of addiction services at Clinical & Support Options in Greenfield.

“I think my main goal was to demystify drugs and alcohol and what addiction is; I think it’s poorly understood in the general population and if we are going to raise awareness, framing substance use disorders are a medicinal condition is important; this isn’t a moral failing or something they chose,” Katz said.

Most of Katz presentation centered around drug and alcohol’s impact on serotonin and dopamine, causing high spikes of dopamine that, over long periods of use, cause cravings, triggers depression and compulsive usage and inhibit the body’s natural regulation of neurotransmitters.

Each student discovered new information in Katz’s presentation. Salem Hubbard knew about the genetic influence of addiction, but didn’t know much about the way drugs change brain chemistry. Arda Cayan was surprised to hear a common substance like caffeine is classified as a drug. Both Lukas Martin and Rebecca Keeler learned about how the prevalence and potency of fentanyl increases the dangers of street drugs.

During her presentation, Katz pulled out passages from the novel where the protagonist reflects on his father’s drug use, including one instance where 9-year-old Blade wakes up in the hospital after his family encourages him to drink whiskey and taste cocaine.

“I would call his chaotic drug use because the dad is completely out of control,” Katz said. “At this point, he’s not keeping his kid safe.”

Katz also mentions the importance of community in the context of addiction: physical touch and positive interaction cause spikes in dopamine. Student Steven Laragy also mentioned the importance of community impacting the protagonists’ father’s chaotic drug usage, especially in the music scene where drugs are prevalent.

“It’s not only solely your fault, it’s also like peers and people around you if they get hurt, or don’t try and stop you,” Laragy said.

About half the eighth grade class attended the presentation. Students asked questions on their legal protections relaying drug usage to doctor and ways to handle a friend or loved one with a substance use disorder. Katz assured the class that Massachusetts law prohibits sharing information on sex, drugs, alcohol and birth control without permission from the patient. Katz also encouraged the students to find a trusted adult to report any substance use, ensuring anonymity is provided for those who request it.

Emily Klein can be reached at


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