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I have always liked to make my kids do things I can’t really do. It is one of the reasons why I push push push public speaking, in a variety of formats. It was something that I could never do, and I know how it negatively impacted my life. But I also do this other weird thing with the kids. I never have the kids do something I haven’t done before.
Last week we did a unit on the Lowell Mill Girls. They did research and wrote a poem for our poetry slam. This was probably my favorite unit of the year. It was also a “no-teach” unit. I spent at least 20 hours compiling the perfect blend of primary and secondary sources. There were letters, newspaper clippings, images, work schedules, and summary secondary sources. There were at least 40 individual sources that were placed into folders and handed out. I did no introduction whatsoever on the Lowell Mill Girls before or during the unit. They approached the folder like it came from a great-great-grandmother’s old lost box and they had to put together the pieces to figure out what her life was like. I spent a great deal of time picking sources that would be useful to kids of all levels, sources that had multiple perspectives, and sources that had to be combined to really get a full picture of their life. It was interesting to hear a conversation on one side of the room talking about how great they had it, while at the same time a conversation on the other side was talking about how awful it was.
The most difficult thing to do was to get them to believe that they could do this in Poetry Slam style. I did an introduction to poetry slam on the first day, and then each day we watched at least four samples.
The order of the poems each day and during the week, the reflection on each, and the intro to the next was very carefully orchestrated to build their confidence and to give them ideas, without telling them how to do it. Poetry Slam poetry is written specifically to be performed by the author in front of a live audience–it is a unique style of spoken word that the kids had never seen, and it frightened them. No props, no tech tools, nothing but their words and voices. There is something different about doing something Poetry Slam style, something very, very frightening…I know, because I did one along with the kids. There is something about writing something that is supposed to come from your soul, and then sharing it with an audience without any protection from props, videos, powerpoints, or handouts. When you do a normal presentation somehow you can prepare and then be in charge. Somehow during this process the poem becomes in charge and you are along for the ride. It was very hard for the kids and me to find that perfect connection with the girls so that we could write it with soul, and not just a poem “about” the girls. It was very hard to write without following any rules. It was hard to let the spirit of the poem take charge, and follow it wherever it went.
Everyone should do the assignment you give the kids along with them. You will learn so much about your teaching. For example, my directions were useless, we never looked at them again after the first day. Some of the sources were just not appealing and I never even looked at them. The time line!! We started on a Tuesday and we were supposed to be done on Friday. On Thursday I had two lines written…we extended the dues date to the following Tuesday. I also felt the same fear they were, I felt the same confusion they felt trying to figure out how to do this from a Lowell Mill Girl perspective, and I struggled with doing this in Poetry Slam style. Each day when we started off class I told them what they needed to hear because it was what I needed to hear. I said the words that comforted me, and comforted them. I talked about the thought process that I was going through, and it helped because we were all going through it. When they were getting incredibly nervous about not having anything written that they liked, I showed them my papers with nothing but scribbles. When I found something in the documents I talked about it out loud and had kids help me understand it, and when they found something confusing they asked me to help out–not as the teacher, but as a member of their learning community. After three days, I had one line. I was really scared that I would not be able to do it–the thought of doing something that I “was not good at” crippled me, and everyday I talked about it, I encouraged them, they encouraged me.
On the day of the slam we live streamed the videos, and recorded each individually. The kids were awesome! On the first day of the unit I hung signs around the room and outside the door. They read “Chin Up” ”Be Fierce” and we referred to them each day. When the kids walked up many slapped the sign on the wall before going in front of the camera. One after another they stood up and delivered…and so did I. I have taught for 21 years, have presented at conferences, but when I got up I could feel my leg shaking inside of my pants and my stomach was turning. When I was giving directions at the beginning my mouth went dry–I realized that if I was in the class I would not want to hear procedural directions, but something to sooth my nerves and my words changed.
Every kid came up and presented. Even the kids who just a few months ago could not walk in front of the class and say a word. Hands might have been shaking as they held their papers, but their voices did not. Poetry Slam is something that needs to be seen live. There is a video on the playlist below that made me tear up, but on video the same connection with the performer can’t be made. Keep in mind that the videos below are not hand selected, it includes everyone. I think sometimes when teachers share they might only post the “best.” Some below are incredible, but some of the ones that you might stop playing after ten seconds are the videos that I am most proud of.
The player above only shows half of the videos, the rest are HERE.
You need to do what your kids do to experience what they are going through. You need to put yourself out there like you are asking your kids to do. You need to shake like they shake. I know I did, and it changed me.
poetry slam middle school moran middle school paul bogush wallingford, ct slam poet spoken word high school elementary school