For the past two months, Friends School of Minnesota 7th and 8th graders have been studying the art of Spoken Word Poetry in their Humanities classes. The unit evolved into a journey for our students that challenged them to express their own truth through poetry meant to be performed. The unit helped students achieve both writing and public speaking benchmarks.
We began the unit by exposing students to a variety of lessons, poems, and performances by well-known spoken word artists and slam poets, including Sarah Kay (founder of Project Voice, an international organization that supports youth in Spoken Word Poetry), Gil Scott Heron, and Taylor Mali. We invited Tish Jones, of Intermedia Arts, in to lead students in a workshop on Spoken Word Poetry and its history.
In March, we took a group of 24 students to see a youth poetry slam at the University of Minnesota, the semifinals for the MN Youth Poetry Slam Team for the Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Slam Festival this summer. This was an incredibly powerful experience for many that inspired them to dig deeper into their own work.
Sylvan, an 8th grader, said, “It made me expect more from my piece.”
Throughout the entire unit, students wrote and shared their writing. For the first couple of weeks, students were given journal prompts to help them figure out what they might want to write about for their Spoken Word piece. They experimented with different styles and topics and then used the Writing Workshop process of creating drafts, conferencing, and revising to write their final poems.
8th grader, Zach, said, “I liked it because it didn’t seem like an assignment.”
Cameron, also an 8th grader, learned “that to make poetry truly good, you have to write while performing it in your head, thinking of where to put inflections, etc.”
Throughout the writing process, we continued to expose students to examples of Spoken Word performances by adult and youth poets. Once their poem was complete, students prepared to perform it in front of their peers at our own Poetry Slam held in class. They practiced using different tones and expressions, along with body movement and gestures to make their poem come alive.
One challenge for our students was to make their poems personal and relevant to their own lives. We asked them to choose topics that they cared about and then to put themselves into their poems. Many struggled with this at first because they knew the poems would be shared with the rest of the 7/8. Many were also very nervous about the performance aspect of the unit, not wanting to get up in front of their peers and “perform” their own poetry.
Abby, an 8th grader, said the hardest part was “getting the guts to read mine out loud.”
However, students rose to both challenges, making our in-class Poetry Slam last week a highlight of our curriculum this year.
Nate, an 8th grader, said the best part was “the support people gave to their peers in the final slam.”
Flannery, a 7th grader, said, “I liked listening and learning about the other people through their poems because some people I’m not friends with gave me a snapshot of their life, and I branched out to say something. I found even more respect for others.”
Nehali, an 8th grader, reflected by saying, “I was able to tell how I feel in a poem and everyone had to listen.”
We can’t say enough just how proud we are of them for sticking with this unit and the effort put into their performances. One of the best parts, for us as teachers, was seeing them all be so supportive of each other. They recognized that what their peers were sharing was personal, and they were able to learn about each other at a much deeper level. We are proud of the 7th and 8th graders for their effort, and look forward to teaching a unit like this in the future.
– Melissa Andersen & Rebecca Slaby, Middle School Humanities Teachers