Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Song of Myself: Spoken Word Poetry in the Classroom

Every teacher can, and will, tell you stories about their worst class. In fact, stories that begin "Well, one time, MY class..." and end with students suspended/hanging out windows/being forced to put the matches down are standards in faculty lounges. I've always found it interesting, having had a few Bad Classes of my own, that the kids in the Bad Class are usually quite well aware of their reputation. More than just once or twice, I've had a student patiently explain to me, as I struggled for order, "We're just a bad class, Ms. Reed." This drives me nuts — I always end up responding, "But you don't have to be!" The other thing I've noticed to be almost universally true about Bad Classes is that individually most of the involved kids are perfectly fine, moral human beings; there's just something about the dynamics of their particular combo platter of people that makes them Bad.

As you might have guessed, I have a Bad Class this year. They are self-identifying, of course. They are also self-prescriptive, at least in terms of what they think I should do with them, which boils down to "Leave us alone to do whatever we want." I suppose this method has worked with other teachers, but there's no tenacity like Reed tenacity, and I simply refuse to give up, even when my own sanity is at stake, 161 days into the school year. I'm lucky (heh) enough to have this class twice a day, including for an English-based elective, so I've spent much of the year struggling to find a way to engage them in learning. They're all smart enough kids; they just don't want to care about reading or writing.

Recently, finally, I was able to break through to them in this class, thanks to a Spoken Word Poetry unit. Perhaps this unit could be of help to you in your classroom in the future.

Speak Up!

"Spoken word" is a bit of a catch-all term, often applied to any performance that involves someone talking on a stage for which other terms — musical, theatrical, dance — don't fit. Story-telling, spoken song and poetry slams all fit under this category. In fact, spoken word lost one of its masters last week, with the passing of Gil Scott-Heron. As a recent New Yorker profile of him depicted, Scott-Heron struggled mightily with personal demons; yet his work was a linguistic, artistic revolution at times. Visual Thesaurus editor Ben Zimmer has a great post on the artist here. As for my kids, we were able to take part in a wonderful program from the Brooklyn Academy of Music — the Brooklyn Reads! Program — and thus our emphasis was urban spoken word.

We kicked off our program by attending a performance of spoken word at BAM, which was very cool indeed. My students, all African-, Caribbean- or Latino-American, were visibly excited to walk into a theatre where a hip-hop DJ was blasting their music and where everyone onstage looked and acted like (grown up versions of) them. They were immediately entranced by the topics of the poems they heard, which seemed to split into several distinct categories: Love, Racism, Hometown Pride, Politics, Self-Realization. Sub-categories were any mix of the above (e.g., Racism causes Self-Realization).

For those of you without access to a production of spoken word (although I would suggest looking around, since even a cursory glance at the program bios for the artists we saw suggests spoken word is thriving at cafes around the country), check out "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam," which ran on HBO for a few seasons, and is available on DVD. Also, selected clips from the show pop up on YouTube and Vimeo. This is a great opportunity to show students the best spoken word poets working at this time.

[Aside: Just so you're not misled, let me clearly state that language is a concern. If you re-check the topics I've mentioned above, you'll see why. Since I teach upperclassmen, and am not particularly upset about swear words in my own life, I try to maintain an appropriate level of latitude, especially when my kids are writing plays, fiction or poetry. However, the "N-word" and any other slurs are absolutely forbidden in my classroom, and they do come up on the show and in live performance. This required some thoughtful comments on my part.]

Totally Self-Involved

The principal reason spoken word is a big hit with teenagers is because it gives them permission to delve deeply into a topic they find universally fascinating: their own thoughts and feelings. I am sure that somewhere out there, there are spoken word poets exploring the NBA standings or the uses of corn, but as I mentioned, the generally accepted topics are not broad, and so there's nowhere to go, it seems, but down: Down into how you feel about love, or how love has hurt you, or how love is disappointing, or what love you have to give.

This burrowing down is essentially the precise opposite of what we usually do in English, when I ask them to make connections between their lives and literature. I'm always asking them to look up and out; here, instead, was a chance to look down and in. And once they began to do so, something interesting happened. We began to share with each other, in a way we never had before, the things we thought. I began to hear phrases that were memorable bites of bitterness towards absent parents ("My GED Mom writing me from jail to tell me to go to college") or snippets of sharp insight about their circumstances ("as I walk through my hood, I see my friends and their babies"). The authenticity was, at times, difficult to listen to, but I was thankful to have the chance to hear what their truths are.

Did I grow tired of the narcissism? Yes, at times, I did. Spoken word does not have much room for humor, and I am a person who prefers, by nature, to find any available reason to laugh. There were times, especially in the final performance of students from 10 schools, when I felt like I was at a competition called Who Hates Their Parents the Most? (with a side competition called My 15-Year-Old Heart Was Broken Worse Than Yours). But I could see that being allowed to express themselves was very powerful and, yes, engaging for my students. I also saw that there were periods of silent writing in my classroom, something I had never seen before. And I heard the appreciative snapping (a visiting Teaching Artist had told them that real poets snap, not applaud) when a student read out a powerful piece.

In "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman began, "I celebrate myself, and sing myself," and I was glad to help my kids do the same. Of course, I wish that they had moved on to the next part of his poem, which celebrates the community of humanity, but, on the other hand, I was glad that someone was celebrating each of them. I don't think that's happened very much in their lives.


Spoken word is so distinctive that it's easy to sink into self-parody in writing it; in fact, my personal feeling is that some of the work I heard — both student and adult — crossed that line. I didn't want my students to embrace narcissism over literary technique, so I tried my best to structure their writing. Because they are so terribly persnickety, I had to find very low-interference ways of connecting with them. Motivation and topic weren't a problem, but structure and technique needed some help. Here are a few ideas that worked:

  • Giving them a prompt was very valuable. After a teaching artist from BAM showed them this technique, we often used to create group poems, or just to spark words to begin individual writing. We used "Brooklyn is...." as location was something we all had in common, and then moved on to "You're so..." Each student would write a sentence and then we'd go around the room and share them, without verbal judgment.
  • We'd create a word wall. I'd give the first student in the class (my students happen to sit in a large circle because that works best in my classroom) a word (trying for something both loaded and ambiguous, such as "secrets") and then each student would add a word. The idea was to be spontaneous, but that didn't much happen. Still, we were able to come up with a word wall of about 40 words, which I would then encourage the students to use in a poem. This would be a great way to sneak in some vocabulary too. For instance, I added "confide" and "tacit" to the word wall for "secrets."
  • To help with structure, I gave them fill-in-the-blank poems. An empty page can be intimidating to even the most motivated writer, but blanks give you the incorrect impression that there's not all that much for you to do. There are a wide variety of fill-in-the-blank poems on the Internet. We especially liked writing "I am _______" poems as well as one that begins "You are so annoying, because you _______."
  • The brevity of poetry was difficult for my students to grasp. To help with this, we wrote diamond poems (First line = one word; Second line = two words; etc.). They really fought me on this one, but some truly lovely poems came out of it, and I think they grasped the idea that limits are sometimes a poet's friend.
  • Another technique I used was to read a poem with them, and discuss it, briefly, and then encourage them to write something similar. In this, it worked best to give them a few particular guidelines but not too many. For example, we read William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" and talked about the descriptive aspects of it, and how readers must bring their own meaning to what they've read (something my students proved shockingly good at — one boy nearly convinced me it was about ghosts!). Then they wrote short, descriptive poems on their own.
  • If your students have had more formal training in poetry, then these ideas can be deepened and expanded. There are a number of excellent books available on teaching poetry, as a quick search on Amazon or at your local library will quickly show. Dig in! Oh, and one last tip: I've found that I need to state clearly and at the beginning of every poetry writing exercise: "Poetry does NOT need to rhyme." If I were to get one teaching-related tattoo, it would read "Poetry does not need to rhyme." (Or, possibly, "Are you sure you want to ask me that?")

Songs of Themselves

In the end, what really put the fear of God in my kids was the fact that they had to perform their work in the culminating presentation. Nothing like a goal, especially a goal that involves 250 of your peers watching you, to motivate. It turned out to be a great experience. A couple of the kids messed up, but they handled it well, and they were all roundly applauded for poems that I, at least, found to be full of lively nuance and colorful imagery. And their work reflected who they are: poems about young love, young parenthood, living in the ghetto, and dreams of being someone different from who they are today. Songs of themselves.

They're still my Bad Class, yes. But at least now I know who they are, and respect them for telling me that in their own words.

One last Teachers at Work column for the school year next month, y'all, since my last day is June 28th. Yes, that is insane. What do you want to read about? I'd love to know!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.