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The Power of Poetry Slams: A Kid, a Mic, and His Words

I'm not talking about your stuffy, boring poetry readings. I'm talking about a slam, a poetry slam. Straight-no-chaser style, wicked, lyrical acrobatics—I'm talking Cirque du Soleil. This is what kids want, even if they don't know it. This is what kids need.

As a writing teacher who taught science last year, I never realized how much closer I'd be able to get to my students when I switched to teaching language arts. I'm constantly pushing them to express themselves on a deeper level, with more clarity... more intelligence... more passion.

In the midst of all that, I feel a bit like Google. I'm not really snooping, but I'm constantly absorbing tidbits of random information about the kids based on what they choose to write. Every writing activity and group discussion takes me deeper into their inner selves. I aim to make my classroom a safe place for emotional release, and I can rarely read a writing assignment without having at least one "aha" moment.

For this reason, I could not post many of the students' memoirs on the wall for public display. In fact, many students chose to detach their writings from my sheet of comments when complying with my policy of having parents sign off on all major pieces of graded work; much of their recorded memories were about painful family drama.

From teaching figurative language to promoting strong public speaking skills, slams are vitally important. But the heart of spoken word is about freedom of expression and personal validation. At a poetry slam, it's just the kid, his mic and his words. The poet is encouraged to memorize his poem and use facial gestures, movements, and metaphoric and rhythmic free verse to leave the crowd salivating for more. No music. No prompts. No video. Just the kid, her mic, and her words. Artistic venues like poetry slams are the most authentic, empowering opportunities educators can offer students.

During my poetry unit in October, students created at least five different poems. They drafted, revised, edited, and revised them again. I had also taken my students on a field trip to a poetry workshop run by teaching artists from Young Chicago Authors, the organization that runs the popular "Louder Than a Bomb" poetry slam in Chicago. They were star-struck when they realized that hip, poetical genius Lamar Jorden was co-leading the sessions.

My kids knew their works were good before they ever took the mic. Their poems were not censored, but after several conferences with their peers and me, the poets knew what they needed to tweak. I never banned swearing, but, as with most poetry slams, curse words trigger an automatic point deduction each time, which urges poets to find more intellectually creative ways to express themselves. And they do.

"If my poem was a girl, we'd be having foreplay," said one of my 7th grade boys during our Dec. 6 poetry slam. My mouth dropped because he had switched to this unknown poem at the last minute. But his dad had opened up our poetry slam with his own spoken word, and I knew such vivid imagery ran in the family.

All my students were required to participate in Round One of the poetry competition, which was held in my classroom. Round Two and the Finals were at the big Pasta Dinner Fundraiser for the 8th grade class trip to Washington D.C. We turned down the lights in the room and put a spotlight on the poet. The emcee hyped up the crowd. The deejay played hip hop, house, and funk music as each poet transitioned on and off the stage. We had Target and Subway gift cards as prizes. Students who like to tag used their graffiti skills to make a large banner for our "Hotter Than a Flame" poetry slam. And we had a crowd: Over 100 people came, making it standing room only.

Oddly enough, many of my over-achievers opted out of the optional big event. I can only guess why straight A and B students decided this form of expression was not for them. Several of them did attend the slam, and I enjoyed seeing their looks of regret and jealousy in the audience.

Conversely, the students who jumped at the opportunity to slam were the "bad boys" who defied teachers by sagging their pants and wearing their baseball caps in the hallway; you know, the ones who disrupt class just for the fun of it. A clique of quiet girls warmed up to the idea, as well. They were the girls who rarely raised their hands to say anything, and would giggle, whisper the answer, or go mute if a teacher dared to cold-call them. And the low-achievers—the ones who rarely if ever turn in homework and openly identify themselves as the dumb kids—embraced the notion of poetry slamming.

The poetry slam was a truly magical event. The biggest moment of the night for me came when an 8th grade boy, an eccentric kid who has extreme stage fright, took the stage to recite his parody poem about Mitt Romney.

During practice in class, the kid had tied eight Kleenex tissues together to make a blindfold around his head. He had memorized his poem and said he could perform only if he could not see the audience. He did a great job, however, I told him that blindfolds weren't allowed in the actual slam and made him take it off. I told him to try again, this time with the mic. Big mistake. He stood there, staring at the mic, then he began scratching it uncontrollably, and finally he put it to his mouth and let out a frightening shriek. It was weird. The class roared.

I was worried that if he performed at the slam, he would embarrass himself again and be scarred for life. What I didn't realize was that the spotlight made it impossible for the poets to see the audience. My guy stood at the mic and recited his poem with dripping sarcasm and biting humor. He finished up with a speedy,"I'm Mitt Romney, and I approved this message." Hilarious! The crowd went crazy.

He won third place!

My saggy pants, baseball-cap-in-the-hallway-wearing "bad-boy" won second place for his poem about changing his ways.

My "we-are-the-quiet-girls" clique won first place for their group poem about cyber bullying.

Every middle and high school needs to host a poetry slam. Any kid can slam, not just the so-called smart ones. All students have something powerful to say, if teachers create a safe space to let them say it.

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