As evidenced by the two award-winning documentaries—Louder Than a Bomb (set in Chicago) and We Are Poets (set in Leeds)-- as well as the recent Harvard Educational Review article—Spoken Word poetry and Slam has a profound impact on young people, particularly those struggling with school, home, economic and/or identity issues.
Other than poetry units, the traditional approach of teaching poetry writing in schools involves a poet-in-residence or a visiting poet who reaches out during an assembly and then leads workshops for smaller groups, or works with a class or two. This might feed into Slambassadors or a Shake the Dust slam team, perhaps even a summer writing camp. Typically, 6-10 kids are “caught in the net.” Because the visiting poet typically moves onward to other schools, there isn’t a poetic community created, nor is there an opportunity for a late-bloomer to be cultivated a year or two later.
In collaboration with Goldsmiths College, Concordia University (Chicago) and Holy Family Technical College (Walthamstow), we are about to launch the first-ever Spoken Word Education training program to better utilize the power of this brand of poetry.
This new model allows for a wide net to be cast. The culture of the entire school is molded to systemically embrace the power of students writing/sharing their own poetry. This instills a sense of community that is unmatched.
One of the benefits of bringing in a Spoken Word Educator to work with students on their writing is that classroom teachers get to learn about what is going on in their students’ lives in ways that seem to reveal themselves through poetry more readily than other mediums. Students who have the most “baggage”/"background noise" are the ones who tend to reveal the most of their lives. This provides an opportunity to bring students to the counseling center to address these issues, which often undermine students’ academic performance. It builds on the idea that poetry can be cathartic and/or therapeutic.
The Spoken Word Education training program is the first of its kind in the world. It draws from the success of a program I started at Oak Park and River Forest High School in 2003 after two years of developing programming in London schools in Hackney, Southwark and Lambeth. It will provide a way to tap into the power of Spoken Word and Slam poetry in a more cohesive, holistic way than has ever been implemented outside of Oak Park. Ultimately, the goal is to make it a given that every public secondary school, particularly urban ones, will hire full-time Spoken Word Educators.
After completing a rigorous year of training, six qualified Spoken Word Educators will be placed in London secondary schools with a unique opportunity to transform schools from within by allowing them to work with the large majority of students and English teachers, in partnership with school deans and counselors. The program will prepare students to be leaders in the field of urban education as full-time Spoken Word educators. There are many potential Education students who either don’t enter the field at all, or exit early, because they don’t feel like they can have a true impact. This will offer a new, exciting route for such students to take.