Today’s post is brought to you by guest author, Joe Paris. You can follow Joe on Twitter @ParisBMS.Joe Paris has been teaching 8th grade Language Arts in northeast Ohio for 19 years. He and his colleagues began the spoken word project six years ago and it’s their favorite thing they do with students every year.
Slam into Summer and into Forever
Early in the school year, I share one of my favorite quotes on writing with students: “Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” These words from Tony Award and Academy Award winning author Tom Stoppard are my mantra. I have cheesy little signs with “Nudge the World” hanging in a few places around my room. I explain that the most important thing students can take away from this class is realizing how powerful their voices can be if they know the right way to present their ideas. That said, it’s a daunting task because I teach 8th grade, and although 14-year-olds love to hear themselves talk, they’re often deathly afraid to formally share anything with each other, let alone the world.
It’s understandable. One misstep of the tongue is a Chutes-and-Ladders fall from the top back to square zero. Furthermore, eighth grade is a plethora of insecurities, a minefield of puberty-ridden pimples, a slew of bad hair days and why-did-I-get-out-of-bed days. For these reasons, most people don’t look back on their eighth grade years fondly. My partners in poetry (my colleagues) and I wanted to change that by leaving a lasting impression, a mic-drop end to the year. And, if we could kill two birds by empowering them and helping them not only discover they have a voice but to be proud of it, we would be giddy and proud. That’s how our poetry slam, the culminating event of our 8th grade year, found its wings.
I have been using spoken word poetry with students for over twenty years. As an undergraduate when I first saw Sekou the Misfit perform at Kent State University (Ohio), I was hooked on the genre. I’ve had my students writing copy changes of his “When I Grow Up” poem since my first year of teaching 19 years ago. Over the years, the field has become so abundant with talent, and these voices — THIS type of poetry — resonates with teenagers. They appreciate the cadence, the raw emotion, the energy, the metaphors, the freedom to let a poem take them on a journey. It’s a beautiful thing to watch them welcome verse into their lives.
So, when mid to late May rolls around (we go through the first week of June) and we’re dealing with standardized test burnout, senioritis (in its middle school form), and all the other distractors of the onset of summer, we have to up our game. We sprinkle poems throughout our curriculum all year long, but come May we go full throttle. As a quick
read aloud, we use The Poet X (Acevedo) to help students get emotionally invested. This is a great follow up to Long Way Down (Reynolds) which is a read aloud we do after Winter Break to re-engage them with the literary world. Then, we begin to expose them to as many slam poets as we can. We spend several days just watching and discussing videos on YouTube. After we’ve sparked some curiosity, we allow kids a day to search the web and discover more poets. By now, the pulse of the classroom is feverish.
This year I’m planning on trying something new. I ordered five copies each of different full length published texts: Helium by Rudy Francisco, No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay, Citizen Illegal by Jose Olivarez, Bright Dead Things by Ada Limon, Famous Last Words by Catherine Pierce, and Depression and Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim. I’m going to have students form lit circles to read and discuss the book of their choice. I’m pretty certain that reading an entire book of poetry cover to cover will be a first for the vast majority of students. I know it’s optimistic to hope they’ll be as excited as I am about this, but I think they will. It’s all about getting them hooked with videos first (if you need suggestions or starting points, email me firstname.lastname@example.org).
The next step is having former students walk over from our high school to perform their own poems for our classes. My current students are excited for various reasons: they know the (student) authors, some of the (high school student) authors might be cute, you name it. If schedule conflicts don’t allow high schoolers to visit, we improvise and show videos of former students performing their poems. I believe this step is important because it shows our eighth graders that, first and foremost, people have accepted the assignment of writing, memorizing, and performing a poem in front of their peers and lived to tell about it. Second, it shows that they liked it enough to want to do it again.
That’s about it. Then they have several class periods as workshop days. They write, they confer with teachers and peers, they revise, and they practice performing their poem over and over and over. They begin to accept their poem as part of their own identity.
Here are a few resources to help you get started:
Next, we participate in poetry slams within each of our class periods. There is always a buzz in the hallways between classes — students want to know who rocked it, who shocked it, who made them cry. In each class, students vote on their favorite to represent their class period at the entire-eighth-grade poetry slam in the auditorium. We also reserve “teacher’s choice” nominees because so many are amazing. The last week of school, the entire eighth grade gathers to slam it out. Kids love it. They hoot and holler for their peers. They run up to the stage and give hugs. They high five the poets as they walk back to their seats. There is laughter. There are tears. There is an overwhelming sense of humanity and a yearning to be alive. The entire event not only builds community, but students begin to see each other through new lenses. When Orly performs her poem about being an introvert and not being able to look her peers in the eyes every day of her life, they no longer see her as awkward, they see her as human. They empathize. When (a tough kid on the football and wrestling teams) JD’s voice breaks talking about his parents’ divorce, everyone is silent. Everyone is in his shoes at that moment. “Everyone is woke,” to quote Pascal, last year’s slam winner (although we all were winners).
If you want engagement, student voice, and the blossoming of students believing in themselves, I suggest a poetry slam. I literally have former students email me in May and ask if we’re doing it again this year. They tell me it’s one of the best things they’ve ever done in school. Who knows, maybe, just maybe, twenty years from now when asked about eighth grade, they’ll say, “Ya. I remember it. It was pretty cool.”
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