Poetry: Spoken Word


All of my best “material” has an element of shamelessness to it.  I’m not talking about the curriculum I’ve created or the copious notes I’ve constructed.  I’m not talking about how I tap my face while I grade  or helicopter over students until they annotate.  No, I am talking about how I “clown” literature.  I pantomime and quip.  I physically reenact Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, even Robert Penn Warren.

I am an embarrassment unto myself.

Shameless.  It’s my coping mechanism, but it’s how I want my students to see literature, especially poetry. Vulnerable, bare.  It’s also why I think sometimes charging towards them with performance poetry can be dangerous when not introduced correctly.  Poetry slams and performance poets are cool and edgy.  It’s no wonder that when teaching the like of Byron or Wordsworth it’s easy to want to supplement with something “cool” like the poetry of Hip Hop.

But indiscriminately approaching performance poets and poetry does a disservice to the merits of spoken word.  Worse, using it as a means only for engagement suggests that it is a novelty act or sheer frivolity.  That it’s something good for getting students attention on a Friday but not much else.  Instead, consider using performance poetry to define one form of modern poetry.  And since spoken word demands to be heard, it is a unique way to have students read video as “text.”

First, give yourself a gift.  Watch Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make.”  Of course, you could use it to teach, but instead, I like to use it as a warm-up for myself.  A reminder that some things are only clear in performance and that teaching is one of them.

Then, consider using some of the resources below to teach spoken word as a window for students into a multidimensional understanding of poetry.

Start with Sarah Kay.  She’s remarkable.  A performance poet from New York City, she is the founder of Project V.O.I.C.E.  an organization that both performs spoken word and creates workshops for classrooms across the country.  And because my summation doesn’t begin to do her or the project justice, read the About Us page and the FAQ page to get a deeper sense of how truly remarkable she is.  A perfect starting point can be most easily found in Kay’s TED Talk from 2011.  It’s a good introduction to spoken word, and, better, it’s a lesson in itself.  Begin by having students watch the video.

Sarah Kay: “If I should have a daughter…“ 

Consider the following questions for classroom discussion/writing:

  1. Explain the significance of beginning with a poem instead of a personal introduction.  What benefit does such a “hook” have in a TED Talk?
  2. Discuss the importance of such a young woman performing poetry about having a daughter.  How does it impact speaker, purpose and tone?
  3. What importance does body language have in the actual performance?
  4. Explain how Kay sees spoken word poetry.  Explain how that compares or contrasts with your own understanding.
  5. Explain Kay’s process of writing and performance.  Why would spoken word poetry be a good means to “educate” and “entertain?”
  6. Create a list of 10 things you know to be true.
  7. Why does Kay choose Hiroshima as her “metaphor?”
  8. As you listen, identify two of Kay’s implicit arguments.
  9. Identify the primary differences between the spoken word of Sarah Kay and a poetry reading by the likes of Billy Collins.

You might well consider using question number six as means to having students construct their own opening lines for either poetry or even a personal narrative.  If Kay’s TED Talk whets your appetite also consider having students examine her spoken word “playlist” compiled in 2011 of the performances of other spoken word poets.

And now, since you’re on a spoken word “roll” consider having students view the trailer for one of Louder Than a Bomb, a documentary about the world’s largest youth poetry slam competition.  If you don’t have time for the entire film, have them read about the film and show the trailer.  It’s absolutely great.  One of the key considerations as they watch the trailer should be the idea of team poetry competition.

  1. Describe the role of music in the trailer.
  2. Explain the significance of profiling actual student “poets” in the trailer.
  3. Explain the actual role of poetry within the lives of these students.
  4. Construct a series of “essential questions.”  The example from earlier in class (above) should be models as to what form essential questions should take.  Think big picture.

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