Through slam poetry, students reach new heights in literacy and in life.
Kids — 12 and 13 years old — pour their guts onto paper in verse. They spend weeks furiously writing, revising, and coaching each other, and revising again. When they are done, they stand alone in front of their peers and recite poetry, using voice and gesture to bring their words to life.
This may sound like an English teacher’s pipe dream, but it is becoming a common experience in classrooms across the country. In lower-income neighborhoods in cities like New York and Chicago, students are competing with words and then settling in for discussions of metaphor, assonance, consonance, and allusion.
Slam poetry, a blend of literature and performance that culminates in live competitions called slams, is transforming these students from reluctant, shy, or diffident learners into passionate artists. It is helping teachers not just teach writing but also build confidence. And, with the help of videoconferencing, it is connecting students across the country, inspiring them to compete at a high level and envision a future beyond school.
A major force behind this evolving movement is Global Writes, a nonprofit organization in the Bronx that works with local arts organizations to place professional poets in schools to coteach weekly with classroom instructors. During two 16-week sessions — almost a complete school year — students in grades 4-12 learn to write and deliver spoken-word poetry, preparing for slams with their peers. Their preparation includes practice sessions followed by critiques, which lead to spirited conversations about literary devices and creative expression.
For students, Global Writes offers a chance to focus on feelings and hone identities and an opportunity to learn how to express themselves more powerfully. For teachers, that is just a starting point, a way to create enthusiasm that may secure the students’ future relationship with school.
Robert Hannibal, principal of New York City’s JHS 145 Arturo Toscanini, grew up near the school and says that in a neighborhood plagued by poverty, drugs, and violence, it’s all the more important for school to be a nurturing place where kids have an outlet for their feelings. Everything — everything — comes out in their poetry.
Emile Keller, a junior, says successful slam poets perform with so much conviction that they help the audience picture the scenes and characters in their poems.
Beginning poets typically start with simple ideas, often adopting hip-hop-esque self-aggrandizement as a theme. Last winter, for instance, one seventh-grade poet recited,
I am me.
The person who I am is the person that you see.
You can’t control me and what I do, honey child, baby boo.
I have my own ways, and my own style.
I’m living the free life and I’m proud.
As their writing develops, they often begin to spill their deepest feelings onto the page, using the words and performance for what one educator calls therapy. For example, an eighth grader named Maria wrote,
My mother left me when I was like six months old.
Now I’m 13 and she’s probably all gray and old,
but it doesn’t matter ’cause I live with a man who loves me.
He’s been there through rough and tough days since I was a youngie.
I always think, what if she was with me?
Would she care for me or would she leave me?
Eventually, some students delve into what educators consider the most advanced topics: writing about world events or assuming another person’s perspective. High school junior Miosoty wrote,
I’m spitting words like an airbrush painting an image on a light-skinned boy because his mommy was willing to pay the 15 bucks for it.
I’m sending words from my mind to the paper like a fax machine, sending business news electronically ’cause the woman who sent it is too tired from walking in her heels all day to send it herself, just two blocks down.
I’m burning brain meat like a car engine going downtown because the guy inside is too antisocial for public transportation.
In a poem about domestic strife, sophomore Denise Cotto wrote, “I’m trying to say this poem because it’s the only way I get to pretend you listen.”
The intensity and vulnerability in the students’ verse is all the more potent in a place like school, where regimentation is usually the rule. The kids perform in settings where everything else feels hard — aging school buildings with linoleum floors, cement-block walls, glaring lights in the halls.
Yet in spite of this environment and the typical lockstep rhythm of school, teachers in the Global Writes program refer to kids not as students but as poets. Kids are valued both as writers and peer coaches, and they assume a sense of pride and capability that they carry into other realms.
“To see classmates who would usually be throwing paper and screaming and hollering now sitting down in their seats and paying attention to one of their peers, and then to perform at other places and see people crying, is amazing,” says Jesica Blandon, a graduate of JHS 145 who now participates in Global Writes as a sophomore at DreamYard Preparatory School, a Bronx charter school, and performs at independent slams across New York City. “That’s when I really realized that my words were powerful.”
That kind of pride makes this one area of school in which students truly celebrate rigor. They listen to their peers’ critiques — “Make the ending stronger” or “Make your pauses shorter” or “If you mess up, just keep going” — without taking offense. Teachers and principals brim with anecdotes about students’ personal growth, such as the shy kid who hated writing but became a dynamic poet or the stutterer who performed his poems with perfect fluency.
“Poetry is essentially about precise word choice,” says Craig Moss, an English teacher at JHS 145 who hasn’t missed a day of Global Writes in five years. “So, using the literary devices that they know, kids sculpt and mold these works of art. Even though to them it may all boil down to just the competition and the video camera, the work that goes into the weeks before the slam is all about school.”
Poetry’s Long Reach
Naturally, some students take to slamming more eagerly than others. But as Bronx PS 315 Lab School principal Elsie Cardona-Bernardinelli says, “Even the most resistant of writers wants to put something on paper about themselves. It may not be the most poetic work, but it has gotten them to pick up a pen and write. That alone is movement.”
In fact, surveys, classroom observations, and interviews with students and teachers show a relationship between the poetry program and improvements in student attendance, language arts test scores, motivation, attitudes toward literacy, social skills, self-confidence, and (for English-language learners) language acquisition.
Global Writes is now two years into a three-year study (conducted by an outside research group and funded by the U.S. Department of Education) of the outcomes for 453 participating middle school students in the Bronx and Chicago. And the program has had benefits for teachers as well. Educators report that Global Writes has increased their own confidence in teaching poetry and integrating technology, and it has helped develop their collaborative-teaching skills.
The growth of young poet Jesica Blandon embodies much of what Global Writes aims to achieve. Beyond her success in poetry, she says slamming has made her more confident, understanding of others, and aware of the world. She also maintains that it has improved her grades in, of all things, math.
“The whole idea of wanting to do better in my poetry made me want to do better in everything else,” Blandon adds. “My love for poetry definitely did not make me love math, but it made me love the idea of being better, of succeeding in other parts of my life.”
Growth and Survival
The success of Blandon and others like her is more than cofounders John Ellrodt and Maria Fico envisioned when, in 1998, they conceived of Bronx Writes — the program that morphed into Global Writes — which has not changed significantly since its inception. The technology specialists and former teachers won a grant for videoconferencing equipment, and Ellrodt, who had taught English and enjoyed teaching poetry, suggested using the gear for that purpose.
Their program started with four schools in the Bronx, each doing single eight-week sessions. It has since grown into a year-round program involving 26 schools in the Bronx and four in Queens, as well as schools in Yonkers, New York; Newark, New Jersey; and Chicago. The group partners with community arts organizations — New York City’s DreamYard Project, and Young Chicago Authors — to engage local poets. And the founders are working with educators to launch the program in San Antonio this fall.
Global Writes typically finds start-up grants to cover the equipment costs of $15,000 per school. The schools themselves pay the $5,000-$7,500 annual fee for each teaching artist — a cost many principals say they will continue covering, by hook or by crook, even in a budget crisis. Ellrodt and Fico also run a for-profit education-technology consulting business, along with Global Writes, because the program alone doesn’t pay all the bills.
Even now, more than ten years in, challenges persist for Ellrodt and Fico. For instance, they still can’t videoconference through the New York City Department of Education’s network because of district restrictions, so they use the free cable hookups built into schools and bring their own modems. As Fico says, “We’re not waiting.”
Taylor Rocheford, a seventh-grade English teacher at the Bronx Lab School, gets teary eyed when she talks about her students’ achievements in poetry. She has seen their writing improve on assignments far removed from poetry, including the state language arts exam, and the Global Writes program has inspired Rocheford to write her own poems; she performs for her students (at no other time are they more silent and attentive) and takes to heart their critiques when revising her work.
“It’s so important for kids to be proud of themselves, because they’re constantly hearing about what they’re not doing right and how they need to improve,” she says. “It’s such a neat experience to see them smile about something they did all on their own. And that’s what I say to them: ‘You did that. Yeah, I may have guided you, but you stood up there and memorized that poem and performed it. You did that. That was you.'”
Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.