Engaging students through Spoken Word

My English 11 and creative writing classes were taken over yesterday by the best kind of people in the world: poets.

This is my fourth year of working with Southern Word, a Nashville-based organization that places poets in local schools to encourage and develop student voices.

In my case, it is an example of perfect timing.

This is the point in the semester when attentions start to fray, and students tend to start lowering the volume on their "Mr. Dittes Dial." It's wonderful to bring in poets to blow students' minds and connect them with very deep and very real feelings.

Yesterday, I had three poets on hand: Rashad, Malcolm (whom I've been watching since he was performing at college spoken-word competitions), and Hannah. They led students through two free-writes in the 90-minute blocks.

The poets began with this gem of a performance, "Lost Voices" by Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley:

In the first free-write, the poets assigned five random categories and asked for students to suggest phrases for things like "Tennessee Originals," "Movie Titles," "Object You'd bring to a Desert Island," "Celebrity Crush," and "Things that are Valuable which you Cannot Buy."

Then the poets had students choose random words. We ended up with "
  • Elvis, Jack Daniels and Music City
  • Paper, Steak knife and Cheez-Its
  • Family, knowledge and nothing
  • Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Stardust and High School Musical
  • Scarlett Johanson, Shahru Khan and Josh Hutcherson
The poets then gave students a prompt: "I am not who you think I am, I am..." To which students responded with a write that included all of the random words. Fortunately, Rashad modeled the poem by doing an on-the-spot freestyle with the words.

In the second section, they built upon the spoken-word poem, "Anxiety, a Ghost Story," by Brenna Twohy, to engage students in issues that are a big part of who they are. We discussed Brenna's struggles with anxiety and her use of a haunted house as a metaphor. Then students brainstormed about events that impacted their lives.

This really opened up some fascinating insights--poets who had been in my room for 45 minutes were able to unlock some doors that I hadn't seen in three months with these kids. Students wrote about living with divorce, the death of loved ones, moving to a new community, and addiction. They were slinging metaphors, creating similes, writing at a very meaningful level.

The prompt given for the second free-write was "What it's like to be ____________ for those who don't know."  It was amazing to hear the growth of my student writers from the first free-write to the second. I saw students supporting each other to speak about difficult issues--and snapping their fingers and clapping in response. This program reached kids in a profound way--and it was just day one of three in my classes!

I will close with my "What it's like to be" poem. I'm proud of this one:
What it's like to be a square peg for those who don't know:It's like a kettle, boiling with ideas,      whisling with wonder, only to be      taken off the stove and thrown in the icebox--you know, Gallatin, TN     --where it's dark after the door slams shut;It's like describing a beautiful sunrise--     purple-orange splashes of cloud--     to someone who worked the night shift      and just wants to sleep;It's like driving a car that runs on diesel in a city where gas stations only sell unleaded     You want to leave          To find a place               Where your square peg                    Fits.