Unleashing the Power of Youth Spoken Word

By Anthony Celaya

The first time I turned off my classroom lights and played a spoken word poem (in this case, “If I Should Have a Daughter” by Sarah Kay), I wasn’t sure how my students would respond. At the very least, I hoped it would make our lesson on metaphors more interesting. After the poem ended, I turned on the lights and asked, “So, what did you think?” Donald, one of my student athletes was the first to answer, “I liked it. A lot.”

In fact, my students liked the poem so much that poetry began making regular appearances in my class. I began sharing a new youth spoken word (YSW) poem with my students (10th-12th grade) once a week, a practice that has become affectionately known as Poem Wednesday. These poems are a versatile tool for many lessons, including teaching poetic devices, discussing rhetoric, and exploring themes shared in class novels. More importantly, YSW creates a space for diverse perspectives in my classroom and gives students opportunities to write and share their authentic selves with others.

Youth Spoken Word poetry emerged in the 1990’s and has grown through the efforts of many school and community grassroots organizations, as well as receiving pop culture support from Russell Simmons and HBO (Weinstein & West, 2012). The conventions of YSW are drawn from hip-hop music and culture, along with traditional forms of poetry, theater, and performance (Sparks & Grochowski, 2002). With YSW’s rise in popularity, researchers have identified poetry as being a critical area in which students can be themselves in and out of school (Fisher, 2005; Jocson, 2006; Kim, 2013). The growth of YSW can also be attributed to increasing access to self-publishing platforms, with many performances being video recorded and uploaded to the Internet. More than ever, young, diverse poets are writing, performing, and freely sharing their work to a wide audience.

The power of YSW poetry comes from the poets, who serve as “mirrors” (Sims Bishop, 1990) for the identities, experiences, and voices of my students. The poets are young people, high school to college age, who use the many tools of poetry to share their experiences and make their voices heard.

Culturally Diverse Perspectives

Youth Spoken Word can help teachers implement more culturally sustaining pedagogies in the classroom. According to Alim and Paris (2017), culturally sustaining pedagogy “seeks to perpetuate and foster – to sustain – linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of schooling for positive social transformation,” particularly in “communities who have been and continue to be damaged and erased through schooling” (p. 1). Through diverse YSW, many students whose cultural identities have not been traditionally represented in school can see positive representations of themselves in the curriculum. This re-centering of the curriculum around student experiences and realities can motivate students to reinvest into their education as a result (San Pedro, 2017).

In addition to using YSW as a high school English teacher, I currently incorporate it in my pre-service methodology courses. In both instances I pay heed to my students’ various identities and carefully select poems that are inclusive of diverse perspectives. This practice allows students to see positive representations of their cultural identities in a powerful genre. Similarly, I also select poems to share perspectives that my students may be unfamiliar with, often in response to current events. When transgender rights and refugees were in the media, I shared poems by transgender poets and refugee poets. One of my former students, Marcus, said that listening to these diverse poets was impactful because he “got to glimpse at the lives other people” and how the “mental illnesses, the stereotypes, the poverty and so many other experiences that those poets went through or still go through today put some of the issues in our world on a smaller scale for me to understand.”

Listening to these diverse poets and experiences also creates a space for my students to talk about and engage with important issues they experience outside school. The inclusion of these socially and culturally relevant topics support student agency by engaging in civic action about issues facing their communities, in and out of school (Celaya, 2018). For example, when we watch “Joey” by Neil Hilborn, my students often share their experiences with mental health including issues of costs and social stigmas. Within this supportive space, several students have gone on to research, write about, and give presentations on mental health, working to destigmatize the issue and provide resources for their peers.  

Authentic Writing Opportunities

Along with using YSW to create space for diverse perspectives, I also give students opportunities to write YSW about their cultural experiences. Writing YSW allows students to engage with audiences beyond the teacher. Students understand their writing will be shared with their peers in class, establishing an audience which will influence their writing decisions (Rodesiler & Kelley, 2017).

I invite students to spend 10-15 minutes after we read a poem to create a text of their own. My only rule is that they write. There are no instructions for structure, word count, or content. They are encouraged to mimic the poet’s style if they’re stuck or borrow a line from the poem to get started, but the purpose of this exercise is to encourage writing and expression. I also use this as an opportunity to write alongside my students modeling and demystifying the work of a writer (Gillespie, 1985).

Above my whiteboard is a poster with three rules used in a youth poetry workshop: “(1) be brave, (2) be respectful, and (3) your voice matters” (Williams, 2015, p. 83). Before I ask students to share, I share first, modeling the three rules for my students. What students share varies from a few lines to a whole page. I collect the pieces to provide positive feedback for what the student does well and to encourage them to continue writing. After receiving my feedback, students often share their poems with friends and family members. Some students bring their poems back to me for more feedback as they work to get their poems published.

From these authentic writing opportunities, several students have taken their work and performed at open mic nights and poetry slams outside of class. One of my students, Stephany, described her experience with YSW in a literacy narrative she wrote for her first-year composition course. When we started writing and sharing YSW in class, Stephany says, “I was terrified to let anyone read my poetry because it was so personal to me.” However, the more and more we wrote and shared in class, the more Stephany noticed “feelings within myself and how my perspective of the world around me started changing.” As her confidence in her poetry grew, she went to perform at a poetry slam hosted by a local arts center. After participating in the poetry slam, Stephany reflects, “I put myself in a vulnerable place by reading my poetry out loud to a bunch of strangers and it was one of the richest experiences I’ve ever had.”

Not every student goes on to participate in poetry slams or open mics, but just like with Stephany, the opportunity to express one’s perspective and share it with others, even if it’s just with classmates, is a powerful experience.

Some YSW Poems for the Classroom

Below are a few of my favorite poems to share with students. I use the poems to teach different poetic devices and structure, as well as engage my students in critical discussions about the various issues each poem addresses.

“Levi” by Joshua Bennett

Joshua Bennett shares about his little brother, Levi, who has been misunderstood by teachers and doctors. Joshua’s poem questions society’s desire for normalcy and conformity.

“Lost Voices” by Darius Simpson & Scout Bostley

Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley creatively choreograph a poem for two voices in which they explore issues of racism and sexism. This style of poem can be used as a collaborative writing experience for students.

“Facts About Myself” by Tucker Bryant

Tucker Bryant explores issues including: identity, mental health, and toxic masculinity. This poem produces amazing student work. The structure is simple, but the subject encourages critical reflection.

Resources

The following are resources that I frequent to find high quality poems and videos for my students, as well as pick up teaching methods and strategies for poetry. The resources can be adapted and modified for middle and high school students.

  • Button Poetry has a YouTube channel dedicated to making performance poetry easily accessible. They publish videos of performance poetry from all over the country, and curate a playlist of classroom friendly spoken word poems.
  • Learn Then Burn is a series of poetry anthologies edited by public school teacher Tim Stafford. These written spoken word poems are a great way to connect the appeal of YSW to text-based literacy skills.
  • Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice is another teacher friendly poetry book for those looking for methods for teaching about social justice using poetry.

Anthony Celaya taught in a public high school before starting his PhD in English Education at Arizona State University. You can find Anthony on Twitter (@ascelaya), and he is available by email (ascelaya@asu.edu).

 

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

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