Making Breakthroughs: Using Spoken Word Poetry to Teach History

For more resources on using poetry and spoken word in the classroom, view our Teaching Ideas Celebrate the Power of Spoken Word and Use Poetry to Teach About Identity.

“Spoken word developed as a platform for social commentary, social justice issues, and advocacy – giving people a voice to be heard in a forum where words rule,” says Jasmine Wong, a Facing History program associate in Toronto. “Like any art, spoken word has the power to move us, to stretch our ideas, and to create change.”

As part of her job, Wong works with educators across Canada to help young people explore difficult moments in history and understand that they can make change in their communities today. One of the ways teachers can help students connect the dots, she says, is through poetry, the arts, and literature. In 2012, Wong helped develop a four-week project called “Stand Up, Speak Out,” that helped students develop literacy and performance skills through the study of history and spoken word poetry. The project brought professional spoken word artists into Grade 11 “Genocide and Crimes Against Humanities” classrooms at four different schools from Toronto to Hamilton. During the visits, the artists discussed the history of spoken word and shared techniques for writing and performing poetry and looked at ways that various spoken word artists have used the form to speak out about the community and global issues that matter to them. Throughout, the students wrote and performed their own original pieces about matters close to their own hearts.

“This was a natural fit into our curriculum,” says Rob Flosman, the assistant head of history at Waterdown District High School in Hamilton and one of four teachers that participated in the project. “We prepared for the project by reflecting on the types of questions we consider all semester: What creates hate? What creates injustice in society? We looked at national and global moments from history as well as current events through media clips. It’s been incredible to watch my kids come alive – they’re just on fire.”

"It’s really hard in high school to try to communicate these bigger picture ideas out to other students. This has really been a perfect way for me to communicate these world views that are otherwise hard to talk about,” says Waterdown District High School student Reilly McCleary, 16, who participated in the project. “When I first heard about it, I wasn’t that excited. It sounded like just another project, and I’m not too much into hip hop or anything. But in that first session, the visiting artist asked us to think about the things that bug us – politically, socially, economically. Things started coming into my head."

McCleary, whose brother is a soldier, wrote a piece called “Ignorance” as part of the project.

“It’s about how ignorance creates conflict, is a catalyst for conflict,” he says. “As a high school student, it’s very hard to get out and speak out. This was a gateway to letting yourself be heard.”

“To be able to relate to history, you need to be able to see your place in that history,” says Matthew Jones, one of the professional spoken word artists involved in the project. Jones, who goes by the stage name Testament, regularly works with educators and classrooms throughout Canada. “Oftentimes, the voice of young people is a voice that isn’t heard or isn’t validated, which I know is one of the worst feelings in the world. Kids have things to say. They’re concerned about the way society judges people and labels them. They’re aware of their self-image, of name calling, of bullying. These issues are just so relevant to them. The ability to express yourself regardless of what you’re expressing is something that needs to be shaped and utilized. If we suffer in silence, we bottle things down.”

As part of the project, the students from the different schools used digital media to connect with each other, share their work, and explore content and primary source materials that inspire them.

“I have always wanted to make a difference in the world, but I never knew how,” Toronto student Aisha P. posted on the project Facebook group. “Now, since I’ve learned a little bit more about the world, I feel like I can go out and maybe help make a difference, however small it may be.”

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.