Introduction to Spoken Word & Slam Poetry

Today’s post is a collaboration brought to you by guest author, Joe Paris, and me, Melissa Smith. You can follow us on Twitter @ParisBMS and @MelAlterSmith.

Joe has curated this amazing list of spoken word and slam poems to get your class started! He also wrote a post about organizing a slam at your school here.

1) What is Spoken Word?

Spoken Word is poetry intended for onstage performance, rather than exclusively designed for the page. While often associated with hip-hop culture, it also has strong ties to storytelling, modern poetry, post-modern performance, and monologue theater, as well as jazz, blues, and folk music. Continue reading

April 2019 #NCTEchat: The Power of Poetry

Happy National Poetry Month! This post was originally featrured on’s blog on April 12, 2019 and can be found here

Join us Sunday, April 21, at 8:00 p.m. ET for our April #NCTEchat on The Power of Poetry with guest host Melissa Smith (@MelAlterSmith).


Poetry is powerful. More so than all other written forms, I would argue. Poet Jericho Brown, in his Lambda Literary essay, “A New Way of Living,” explores the question, “What can a poem do?” Brown says, “A poem causes in readers an emotional reaction. It begins to work on the reader’s mind.” And he doesn’t mean counting syllables and finding metaphors; he means that poems make us think. Poems can make us look at something we see on a daily basis in a new way. He continues, “The poem is a poem because it asks us to reconsider ourselves. This change of mind leads to a change in action (or to changing inaction).”

When students first enter my class, poetry is not something they get excited about. They actually dread it. To them, it is all old, dead white guys writing about nothing that is of any relevance to them. The language is hard to understand, and the topics are distant to them.

I am not encouraging a complete omission of canonical poetry. There is a place for those poems, too, but they can’t be the ONLY poems we teach.

Let’s not close the door on the canon, but open it wider to allow the voices of today’s poets into your classroom.

Teaching living poets allows for many advantages:

  • Language that is more accessible and current
  • Subject matter that is more relevant and timely
  • Incorporation of other voices in addition to those of the canon
  • Bridges to understanding paired canonical poems
  • More potential for identification and connection
  • Ability to contact the poet and ask questions, to have personal interaction with authors
  • Video and audio recordings of poets reading their own work

Teaching modern poetry can be intimidating for even the most experienced teachers. I’ve been an English teacher for over fifteen years, and up until just a couple of years ago, I admit I was intimidated by contemporary poetry. I can’t Google analysis for poems that just came out; there are no answer keys for the poems of today. The thought of being exposed or vulnerable in front of my students initially struck fear into my teacher heart. I thought I was the one who always had to have the answer, to be the gatekeeper to the secret meaning behind the poem. It was a mental paradigm shift for me to let this type of mindset go.

Embracing the idea of discovering and exploring poems alongside my students has revolutionized my teaching.

I am no longer the dispenser of knowledge, but simply a facilitator of learning. This mentality has allowed so much more freedom to explore poetry with my students. Leaning into this new teaching style has also allowed my students to feel a sense of empowerment. Time and time again, they teach me new ways to look at a poem. It’s a collaborative effort, allowing students to feel more engaged and to have a sense of ownership of their learning.

The #TeachLivingPoets hashtag was created with the intention of building a community of educators dedicated to complicating the canon and empowering students through poetry. It provides a space to share ideas about teaching contemporary poetry—to share poets we love, poems we find impactful, and best practices to engage our students. With projects like NCTE Verse and, teachers have the ability to change our students’ perception of poetry.


The following questions will be shared during our Twitter chat, after introductions:

Q1. Why is teaching poetry important? What obstacles or fears do some teachers have when it comes to teaching poetry? #NCTEchat  

Q2. How do you use poetry in your classroom to facilitate building community? #NCTEchat

Q3. In what ways might we be able to incorporate more poetry into our weekly or monthly routines? What advice would you offer to a teacher who doesn’t teach much poetry at all? Where do they start? #NCTEchat

Q4. Share a successful strategy you’ve used for teaching the reading and understanding of poetry. Include grade level (early, middle, secondary, post-sec). #NCTEchat

Q5. Share a favorite poem (with link if possible) that has been successful in your classroom and briefly explain what you do with it and/or why your students enjoy it. #NCTEchat

Q6. What is one takeaway from tonight’s chat that you want to incorporate into your classroom? #NCTEchat


We hope to see you there! Be sure to join us by using #NCTEchat.

Never participated in a Twitter chat before? Check out this guide to help you get started.


About the host:

Melissa Smith teaches AP literature, 11th-grade American literature, and creative writing at Lake Norman Charter High School in Huntersville, NC. She is 2017 District Teacher of the Year, an NCETA Executive Board member, and a National Board Certified Teacher. She has presented at NCTIES, WVELA, NCETA, NCTE, and the AP Annual Conference, and is currently coauthoring a book on teaching poetry. Melissa is a contributing author for, the creator of the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag, and the manager and editor of She was the keynote speaker at NCETA’s 2019 spring symposium, where she shared her passions for complicating the canon, supporting teachers, and empowering students through poetry. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @MelAlterSmith.

Thank you, NCTE for the opportunity to host the April chat! I am proud to be a member of NCTE and can’t wait to talk about poetry with educators from all over the world! This is going to be an awesome chat!

Continue reading

Free online resource: #TeachLivingPoets virtual library

Looking to bring in more contemporary poetry into your classroom but don’t know where to start? Or maybe you have a couple favorite poems and poets, but you’re looking to add some new artists? 

Thanks to my friend and rock star educator Scott Bayer, a resource now exists that you can use both as an individual teacher to explore living poets and to share with your students to allow them the freedom to inquire on their own. 

This is what you’ll find once you’re in: 

  • 20 amazing poets (we’ll be adding more eventually)
  • Links to author websites and where to buy their books
  • Social media links to follow the artists and/or learn more about them as individuals
  • Links to poem published online that are appropriate for grades 6-12
  • Audio links to the artists reading their works
  • Personalized video messages from poets about teaching living poets

Click HERE to access the interactive library. 



Thank you for reading! Do you have a story, lesson, activity, or something else to share with Be a guest author! Email me at 

You can follow me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith and please tweet all the awesome things you are doing in your class with the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag! 

Student Podcasts Using The Slowdown as a Mentor Text

I love The Slowdown Podcast with US Poet Laureate Tracy K Smith. Listening to it has become part of my morning rounding. If you’ve never listened before, it’s a five-minute long podcast in which Smith introduces a poem with an anecdote, personal story, historical or current event, or some explanation that eventually leads in to what the poem she is reading on that particular episode is about. Then, she reads the poem. It’s a relaxing, thought-provoking, poetic five minutes very well spent. I recommend subscribing if you haven’t already. Continue reading

Building a Classroom Community Through Narrative Poetry

Today’s #TeachLivingPoets post is brought to you by guest writer, Matt Brisbin. Mr. Brisbin teaches English at McMinnville High School in McMinnville, Oregon, and has been a high school English instructor for 12 years. Aside from reading and writing, his passions in life include spending time with his family and cheering on various sports teams at the high school, college, and professional levels. You can follow him on Twitter @Mbrisbin11.

logoFebruary is always the time of the year that my students’ energy starts to fade. There is something about the long winters, when the sun goes down early that tends to take a toll on all of us slogging through another school year. I usually save this activity for just these times, because it has been a sure fire way to not only increase my students’ morale and give them some seeds for writing, but it’s also is a great way to continue building a community of learners. This year, I added two spoken word poems by Phil Kaye to add another layer to this lesson, and I was really happy with the way it worked out. Continue reading

Promoting Choice and Voice with Poetry Zines

Today’s #TeachLivingPoets post is brought to you by guest writer Dustin McConnell, an ELA teacher at Timberland High School in St. Stephen, South Carolina. This is his sixth year teaching, and he teaches English IV (11th-12th grade) and Creative Writing (9th-12th grade). He is currently working towards a masters in Library Media. Outside of school, he enjoys reading, writing, running, and spending time with his wife and dog, while awaiting the birth of his daughter in May.  You can follow Dustin on Twitter at @D_W_McConnell

logoIn an effort to provide my Creative Writing students with a culminating project for our poetry unit that gave students choice and voice, I had them create poetry zines.

If you are unfamiliar with zines, they are essentially self-published “magazines” that you can make out of an 8.5×11 inch sheet of printer paper, whatever craft or scrapbooking supplies you have on hand, and the artwork and/or writing you want to put inside of them. Once made, all you need to publish them is a photocopier or a scanner with a printer, and voila, you have a published piece of work to share with whomever you please. Continue reading

#TeachLivingPoets Stations

Today’s post is by guest author Angelina Murphy who teaches high school English in Los Angeles. She has her Masters in Education from University of California, Los Angeles where she focused her research on trauma-informed teaching and community of care. When she is not teaching, she also manages her blog about engaging teaching, technology, social justice, and teaching strategies at Magical Ms. Murphy.

logoWhen I first announced to my high school freshmen that we will start our poetry unit in class, I was met with groans and scoffs. While I was disappointed by this reaction, it also resonated with me. When I was their age, I felt similarly about poetry. Poetry was old. Not relatable. Difficult to understand. It was because of their reaction, and my familiarity to it, that I was determined to expose students to poetry that they would connect with and to prove that poetry does not live in the past. It is happening now.

Inspired by the Teach Living Poets movement, I was determined to teach students about the brilliant and diverse poets of today.

For this activity, I decided to do learning stations. I love incorporating learning stations in class because they are focused activities, along with kinesthetic learning, to get students moving and interested in a broad spectrum of a particular subject. Continue reading

Poetry Fridays: Making Poetry Part of Your Classroom Weekly Routine

capture9Today’s #TeachLivingPoets post comes from Kristin Runyon, who is in her 29th year teaching with 17 years at Charleston High School in Charleston, Illinois, and the other 12 years in Missouri, Kansas, and other Illinois schools. She has been a co-director and coach for Eastern Illinois Writing Project and a frequent participant with Eastern Illinois University Teaching with Primary Sources. She teaches English 3 (juniors) and Dual Credit Composition 1 and Dual Credit Introduction to Literature (seniors). She spent many years as Student Council adviser and as a soccer and baseball mom and now advises the CHS Press. Outside school, she enjoys reading, running, and traveling, especially to visit her sons.

logoThe amazing Carol Jago was the opening and closing keynote speaker at the Poetry Foundation’s Summer Poetry Teachers Institute. Her goal was to provide us a handful of poetry activities that we could use in our first days back in the classroom, and on the last day, Carol asked us to set a personal goal for incorporating poetry into our classrooms; my goal was to “do” poetry on the 2-hour early out Fridays that we have about every other week (class periods are 30-minutes long).

“Do” poetry; sounded easy enough because it was such a vague idea. In mid-August, about five weeks after the institute, I started the school year with a couple community bonding activities, including one of Carol’s poetry activities. And then, I began my units as I always do. My senior classes are dual credit composition 1, so how would I “do” poetry with them? And my junior classes? I have taught that curriculum for at least 18 years; I defaulted to autopilot. Continue reading