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Mini-Lesson

How to Bring Spoken Word Poetry into the Classroom

For National Poetry Month, introduce students to spoken word poetry and explore its power to give voice to issues that impact our communities.

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At a Glance

Mini-Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • English & Language Arts

Grade

6–12
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

Overview

About This Mini-Lesson

Since poetry slams gained in popularity in the 1990s, youth from around the world have competed individually and in teams in local, national, and international spoken word tournaments. “Contain[ing] elements of rap, hip-hop, storytelling, theater, jazz, rock, blues, and folk music [and] characterized by rhyme, repetition, improvisation, and word play,” 1 spoken word poetry is meant to be performed, heard, and experienced. Since the first poetry slam in a Chicago jazz club in 1986, the genre has provided youth with a creative and impactful way to explore issues of identity, belonging, prejudice, gender, social justice, and race.

As we continue to celebrate National Poetry Month this April, the following teaching ideas can help bring spoken word poetry into your classroom to help students raise their voices to make personal, social, and political statements about the issues that impact their lives and communities.

This mini-lesson is designed to be adaptable. You can use the activities in sequence or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:

  • 3 activities 
  • Recommended videos for exploring this topic

This teaching idea was created to celebrate National Poetry Month. For more ideas on how to use poetry in the classroom, view the teaching idea Use Poetry to Teach About Identity.

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Activities

Activities

To help students grapple with complex issues of identity, membership, and belonging, consider teaching one or both of the following spoken word poems.

  • Facing History student Jonathan Lykes’ award-winning spoken word poem, “Perception” (04:08), explores how prejudice influences our decisions about helping others.
  • Amina Iro and Hannah Halpern confront Muslim and Jewish stereotypes in their spoken word poem (03:19) at the 2013 Brave New Voices quarter finals.

After students listen to each of these poems, have them complete a rapid-fire writing response and then share a word or short phrase from their response in a wraparound.

If you would like your students to write their own spoken word poems, you might ask them to write a journal entry that responds to a question or line in one of the poems. For example, use the following prompt to have students explore the questions that Lykes asks in the opening lines of “Perception”:

“How do they see me? How do I see them?”

Write about a time when you felt like how you were perceived was different from how you perceive yourself.

Students can then use their journal entries as a starting place for their poems. You might include mini-lessons about literary devices such as imagery, figurative language, alliteration, consonance, dissonance, assonance, and repetition. After students have written, workshopped, and revised their poems, celebrate with an “author’s chair,” where students share their poems with the class or publish them in a class book.

According to the National Prevention Bullying Center, in 2016, one in five students reported being the targets of bullies. 1 Spoken word poetry can provide a space for individuals who have been the target of bullying, or those who have witnessed it, to tell their stories. Before sharing one or both of the following spoken word poems with your students, you might ask them to create a concept map for bullying and discuss your school’s bullying policy. Also, make sure your students know where to go for help if they experience or witness bullying or cyberbullying.

  • To This Day
    In the animated version of Shane Koyczan’s poem “To This Day” (07:36), or in his TED Talk To This Day. . .for the bullied and the beautiful (11:57), Koyczan recalls childhood memories of being taunted and called names and reflects on how being outcast affected him and others like him who were considered different and made objects of ridicule and cruelty by their peers. (Note: While the TED Talk version of the poem contains one word of profanity, the animated version does not.)
  • My Lungs
    At the 2015 SLAMbassador, the United Kingdom’s biggest youth slam, winner Jay Hulme shared his experience of being stereotyped and bullied as a transgender teen in his spoken word poem “My Lungs.” Watch his TEDxTeen performance of “My Lungs” (00:00-03:10). At the end of his powerful performance, Hulme makes a compelling call to action to his listeners to be upstanders in the face of bullying. (Note: This poem contains one word of profanity, so it is important that you preview it before showing it to your students. You might also facilitate a discussion about the purpose and effect of Hulme’s language choice in this moment.)

After watching one of the above videos, provide students with space to reflect on the experience in their journals. If you would like your students to do a closer analysis of one of the poems, the transcript for To This Day. . .for the bullied and the beautiful can be found on the TED website. You might create a set of text-based questions and then lead students through a save the last word for me discussion. Finally, have groups brainstorm ways to offer support to a friend or peer who is being bullied, explaining that offering words of encouragement in private can help an individual who is the target of bullying feel supported and less alone.

You can find additional resources for teaching spoken word poetry at Poetry Out Loud and The Poetry Society, which includes information about SLAMbassadors, the national youth poetry slam championships.

You can find additional poems to bring into your classroom on the Poetry Foundation website, which offers a broad range of poems, including a selection of Poems of Protest, Resistance, and Empowerment that give voice the voiceless who are afraid to speak up or have been silenced in the face of discrimination and injustice. This selection includes poems from the Holocaust, apartheid South Africa, the civil rights movement, and Black Lives Matter and could supplement Facing History readings and units found in Holocaust and Human Behavior, Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior, Choices in Little Rock, or our South Africa lesson.

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