Slam Poetry & The Dynamic Combination of Creative Writing & Performance
It seems like everywhere I go these days, I find myself in conversations with people who are facing some really big life decisions. For some it’s about work and for others, it’s more personal and about their relationships. Through all these conversations it’s fascinating to hear what people tell themselves when change is forced on them. If someone believes they are fully capable of rising to the challenge of reinvention, then that’s their truth. That’s their reality.
Of course, it works the other way as well. If you think your dead end job is the best you can hope for and that you deserve to be treated poorly and taken for granted, then that’s your truth. That’s why you can’t tell anyone what to do. It doesn’t matter how many pep talks you give someone or stats you quote…perception is the key to the world of possibilities.
This lens of perception has everything to do with a student reaching their full potential. Perception is the lens that students filter their expectations. I had an opportunity recently to teach slam poetry to middle school students for a week; it was a powerful experience that I’d like to share with you.
We See You – A Powerful Poetry Lesson For Middle School Students
This video is from a middle school I was at a few weeks ago. This is the slam poetry lesson I used on Day #2. I asked students to write about someone in their class or school that is going through a hard time, and what they would want to say to them. We talked briefly at the beginning of the lesson about ways we can write descriptively, and certain elements they could use to make their writing, ‘paint a picture’ in the mind of their audience. We also talked about how going through a hard time in life can often be isolating and lonely. That’s why we decided on the theme, ‘we see you.’
Then they wrote for about 15 minutes and spent the remaining class time performing. Poetry slams are really engaging and fun. The audience members are encouraged to be active participants, clapping and cheering the poets to and from the stage as well as giving snaps if they really like something the poet said or how they said it. This was a Grade 7 class and over 95% of the class slammed (performed) their poems. And this was just Day #2! If you’re looking for ways to get your students interested in creative writing, I know this will interest you.
The Power of Poetry & The Lens of Perception
When I come into a school I often see students differently than they see themselves. Not that my perception is right and theirs is wrong, but that we see the same thing differently. The slam poetry lessons I’ve created and taught to thousands of students are at their core, all about providing an experience that changes a student’s perception of themselves and their relationship to the world around them.
Changing The Locks On The Door Of Opportunity
For instance…if a student struggles with spelling, that’s usually their lens of perception that they see themselves through, and this dictates what they believe they can or can’t do. It’s fascinating to watch what happens when I come in and say, “I don’t care how you spell. No one is going to read your slam poem but you, so if you know what you’re trying to say, that’s all that matters.”
You know what happens? The student’s perception changes and they give themselves permission to try, and in the act of trying, discover things about themselves they never knew. Some of the most amazing slam poetry in schools comes from students who typically struggle to write and never participate.
Can I speak candidly? Sometimes the students who get the most into slam are the s#* disturbers that typically drive their teachers crazy. They have lots to say and fascinating perspectives on life. They are often the best performers because they have learned to compensate for feeling frustrated and hopelessness with traditional avenues of self-expression, so they act out in ways that let them have a voice.
I was one of those students myself. I’ve always loved words and I’ve always struggled with things like spelling, grammar, and punctuation. In fact just the other day, I was trying to spell the word, bureaucrat, and I couldn’t even get close enough to spelling it correctly for spell check to offer me the correct answer! It felt like spell check was trolling me, “yeah so hey Rik, whatever you were going for here with this jumbled menagerie you missed the mark by a country mile…lol!”
What Slam Poetry Offers Students
This is one of the reasons I love being a slam poet and teaching slam poetry in schools. With slam, you write it, memorize it and perform it, and no one knows how you spelled sovereignty or bureaucrat. We can always learn the rules later, I’m certainly not saying they don’t matter, but creating an opportunity for a student to see themselves with new eyes…that’s a special thing. When I talk with teachers about what they love the most about teaching, they almost always tell stories about these types of moments.
Taking creative risks and trying something new is all part of learning who you are and appreciating what makes you who you are. I’m not suggesting that the way it works for me is the right way or the best way, or even the way that will work for you. I’ve just discovered the way that works for me and hope I can help you find the same for yourself. Providing an opportunity for students to have this type of experience can alter a student’s perception of what they believe they are capable of.
The Art of Creating a Safe Place to Try Something New
Those of you who have gone through my slam poetry training course know that on Day #1, I work with students to write a group poem, and then slam it for them. My goal on the first day is to establish a safe creative environment for students to try something new. I do this by providing a level of anonymity. After establishing a simple writing structure with some common elements, I get every student to write 1-3 lines and then pass their papers in. No one knows whose lines is whose as I start reading them out loud, picking lines here and there to create one big poem on the whiteboard.
The process is collective and lets students see and hear how the creative process works. As I read lines out loud, I comment on what I love about them. I draw their attention to particularly descriptive lines that paint a vivid picture in our mind’s eye and show how our different ways of looking and describing the world compliment one another. When the whiteboard is full, I slam (perform) the poem for the class. This is how I introduce slam poetry as the combination of creative writing and performance.
See slam poetry is different than acting in that we don’t use costumes or props, and it’s different from rap and hip-hop because there is no music or beats. It’s just about words. The lesson on Day #1 is really about showing students that they can do it and that their ideas are just as good as anyone else in the class. As we create a group slam they get to see and hear how their ideas fit with those around them.
If you have haven’t gone through my slam poetry course for schools, you can check out the first lesson HERE. You’ll find the first video in the series, as well as a lesson plan with learning objectives that you can print, and a ‘sample’ slam poem, so you can show your students what their writing can sound like. You are absolutely free to use this lesson with your students in your class; I know they will enjoy it!
Please let me know if you have any questions or would like more info on how you could use this lesson with your students.
Hi, my name is Rik Leaf. I love everything I get to do as a recording artist, producer, slam poet, and writer. But I particularly enjoy working with schools and communities where I can empower and encourage students by helping them discover the unique opportunities their talents, interests, and abilities can provide.
I’m excited to offer teachers and schools my best lessons through a brand new online Slam Poetry Training Course that I developed over the last 10 years teaching slam poetry to thousands of students.