5 Reasons why you should bring Spoken Word into your classroom…

A wise lady once told me that ‘Poetry is the music of language’. I take this to mean that poetry is simultaneously pure and abstract, both direct and ambiguous. Just like music, poetry needs an open mind, an open ear and, perhaps most importantly, no fear. Students of poetry must feel confident to face even the most intimidating poets of the canon, take them apart and reinvent them for themselves. If Shakespeare’s sonnets can speak to the students of their own frustrations and crushes, and if they can see something of their own lives in Chaucer’s pilgrims then poetry will become, like music, something which can comfort and stimulate them.

The recent push to get school children to learn the classics by heart (Poetry By Heart) will, I’m sure, prove successful. However, I can’t shake the thought that we are missing a trick. What we really need is to turn our students into writers, not just to get them going back over this approved list of poets again and again. The world of spoken word, or Slam, is vibrant, compelling and highly academic in approach.

Slam is essentially a form of competitive performance poetry. Individuals or teams prepare work on a given theme which they perform before judges and an audience. The process of writing, drafting, editing and rehearsal is vital to the end product, and Slams tend to be very powerful expressions of ideas and feelings through the medium of very skilled writing and performance.

In the past two years I have been heavily involved with Slam in my school and our region. I have worked with youth groups and on Regional and National competitions and have seen what Slam can do both to individual students and to the ethos of a school. Added to that is the way that engaging with Slam has enriched my classroom; my students are genuinely excited about poetry. Slam has been a ‘way in’ for even the most disengaged students. Any teacher can bring an element of Slam culture to their school, both through their individual teaching, and through collaboration with visiting writers and local organisations. Here are five reasons why YOU should bring slam to your classroom, and some tips for how to get started…

1. KIDS LOVE IT! Slam poems are instantly appealing to students. Showing a YouTube clip of a performance will instantly engage a class and is a fantastic way to introduce an idea, spark off a discussion and inspire writing. Take a look at this clip of an individual slam poem by Marshal Soulful Jones. It is a response to the impact of technology and instant messaging. Amongst other things, I have used to initiate debate when introducing the GCSE Spoken Language Study…

Marshall Soulful Jones – ‘Touchscreen’

2. REAL LITERARY WORTH Slam poems are not just entertainment for the students; they are also highly academic and many are worth studying in their own right. Yes, students will love them and they may go off and spend hours finding more on YouTube, share them with friends, laugh and cry at the wit and hard hitting truths, but that’s the beauty of it. As Hywell Roberts so brilliantly puts it in his book, ‘Oops’, Slam poetry acts as a hook which tricks students into learning. The best part is that they will learn. I have used Slam poems as actual studied texts in schemes of work. Take a look at this fantastic piece of conflict poetry. It uses an impressive extended metaphor, stunning imagery, an intriguing structure with repetition, rhetoric and powerful themes. Perfect material for any English lesson…

Shoolie – ‘Love, War and Peace’

3. WRITERS ARE THE BEST READERS Spoken word poetry is all about original writing and innovation. As I said at the start, if children become writers, then they become better readers. If they can express themselves and make their own choices as poets then their ability to analyse and discuss the work of others is magnified. I have seen a direct correlation between introducing poetry writing regularly in lessons and students’ confidence in their own analytical skills. I have started to blog with writing activities which are tried and tested. If you fancy having a go, here is an idea to get you started…

Poetry Writing – Symbolism

4. TEAM WORK Many Slam poems are team efforts. A group will write together, supporting and developing each other’s ideas. It is an incredibly worthwhile exercise for students to bring their ideas together and share the editing process; it requires mutual respect and builds real trust and understanding. Team Slam also means that students can lean on each other in performance; they are not just putting themselves out there, alone. These performances are often incredibly powerful. Have a look at this performance by the New York team at the International Poetry Slam Competition called Brave New Voices.

New York 2011 – ‘Silence’

5. SELF EXPRESSION I am an English teacher, but fundamentally, I think that my job is about looking after students’ emotional and moral development. Writing is an ancient form of self expression; people have kept diaries, written songs and poetry for thousands of years. Slam is just another part of the tradition. It’s not new, but to kids, it looks different and, dare I say it, “cool”. I have been bowled over by the things which my students have expressed through spoken word, from how much they hate cheese, to how they want the courage to come out to their parents. One of the most successful experiences I have ever had with a class is when I got my Year 9 boys writing love poems; real, sweet, thoughtful love poems. They were inspired by this man…

Mike, Brave New Voices – ‘Thinking About You’

Spoken word is just another way of getting creative writing into your scheme of work, and giving students the opportunity to get excited about poetry. Anything that we can do to achieve these things is worth a try.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, check this out. Taylor Mali, an English teacher, defends our noble profession through the medium of Slam…

Taylor Mali – ‘What Teachers Make’

If you want to know more about how to introduce Slam to your school, please message me on Twitter (@FunkyPedagogy). Most regions in the UK will have local youth writing organisations who will happily work with schools. In Yorkshire we are lucky enough to have the fantastic Leeds Young Authors. Another route is to get in touch with Apples and Snakes, a very active organisation who will arrange events, INSET and poet visits to schools.

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