A Game-Changing Moment For Young Writers
As a student, I hated report cards. It wasn’t the mediocre grades that bothered me; it was the effect the teacher’s comments would always have on my parents. “Easily distracted” “disruptive in class” “passes too many notes” “preoccupied with narcissistic illusions of grandeur” haha…OK I admit, I made that last one up. But you get the drift.
My Grade 4 teacher generously described me as, “an eager, yet unexceptional student.” My unexceptional exuberance was captured perfectly one day when I copied a message from the blackboard for our end of school party. Describing the menu, I wrote that we would be eating, ‘weners and calk’ ” instead of “wieners and cake.”
That night at the supper table I gave the now, ‘infamous’ note to my parents. I can still picture my family howling uncontrollably with laughter, as they passed the note back and forth taking turns blubbering out the phrase, ‘weners and calk’ as tears of mirth ran in rivers down their glistening cheeks. I am teased mercilessly about that note to this day!
I happily share my ‘weners and calk’ story, because believe it or not, it became a huge inspiration for my slam poetry workshops.
The Canvas Of Perception And Students Who Don’t Believe They Are Writers
There are many reasons students get shut down and fail to recognize their creative potential. In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron describes the voices in our head that tell us we can’t do something as, censors. Being a bad speller was definitely one of my censors. I mean seriously, how could little Rikky Leaf ever imagine he would grow up to become a professional writer when he couldn’t even spell wieners and cake! Enter slam poetry…
Creative Writing + Creative Performance = Slam Poetry
Slam poetry is the combination of creative writing and creative performance. Where traditional poetry was written for the eye and experienced through published books and journals, slam poetry is written for the ear, and only experienced when it’s performed. This is actually a pretty big deal for a student. Because if no one else is going to read what you’ve written, then maybe it doesn’t really matter if you follow the rules of writing.
This came to me in the middle of one particular session years ago. There was a group of students in this class who weren’t even trying. I kept encouraging them and pushing them, but they just kept fooling around. I can’t remember exactly what this one kid said, but I suddenly realized they all thought they couldn’t do it because they weren’t good at spelling. Now…I know spelling is important, but in that moment it was the last thing I wanted them to worry about, and because their censor was the same one that had shut me down for years I exclaimed, “who cares how you spell a word! If you know what you mean that’s all that matters!”
We all kind of looked at each other for a couple seconds, and they put their heads down and started to write. And wow…did they ever write!
This was my big ‘Ah-Ha’ game-changing moment. I’d figured out how to shut down the censors and help these students approach words in a new way. I’m all about leveling the playing field for the ‘wener and calk'” writers out there!
The rules had given them this false perception of their potential and stripped them of their confidence. All of a sudden slam poetry opened a window to a world they didn’t even know existed. And speaking about the canvas of perception…I’d never actually seen myself as a teacher until that moment. But that moment felt pretty spectacular.
Poetry Slams And The Art Of Performing Words
The creative performance element of slam poetry is equally as powerful and important but for different reasons. Slam poetry is different than acting because we don’t use costumes or props. It’s also different than rap or hip-hop because there are no beats and no music. It’s just about words. So you don’t have to be interested in theatre or want to be an actor and you don’t need to be musical or have any expensive gear or equipment…it’s just about words and finding your way of expressing yourself.
At a poetry slam, the audience is an active participant. Everyone knows it can be scary to get up in front of people and read or perform. So when the slam master (host) calls the next poet to the stage, (front of the room) we clap and cheer them all the way from their seat to the stage. And if we like something that they said, or how they said it, we give them snaps. We snap our fingers because it’s just loud enough they can hear, but it’s not so loud that we miss the next thing they might be saying. This creates a really fun, interactive and supportive environment in a classroom.
Removing The Obstacles And Setting Creativity Free
The first step is the hardest, and taking a creative risk and try something new takes courage and a safe and supportive environment. This is a HUGE part of why slam poetry has proven to be so effective in schools. It provides a unique opportunity not only in how students approach being creative as writers, it also transforms the classroom into a dynamic environment that supports and encourages creative risk-taking.
Next time I have to tell you about a little elementary student that innocently suggested I change the name of the poem I’d just performed. He came up with the best slam poem title I’ve ever heard…but if I ever tried to use it in a school I’m 100% sure the teacher would immediately drag me down the hall to the principal’s office before I could say another word. But the title is GOLD! I’d tell you now, but I can still hear my Grade 4 teacher in my head, “Rik is too easily distracted by stories and can’t focus long enough to even finish a simple blog post!”
We are only as limited as our creative talents and abilities…so imagine who we could be and what we could do if we gave ourselves permission to explore the gifts inside of us.
If you have any thoughts, feedback or stories of your own, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment below.
I hope you’re having a great week!
Hi! I’m Rik Leaf!
As a performer/producer, published author and slam poet, discovering the value of my own creative talents and abilities has allowed me to tour the world, and participate in some life-changing projects with the United Nations and the Foreign Affairs Department of Canada.
I’m the author of, Four Homeless Millionaires – How One Family Found Riches By Leaving Everything Behind, and the Creative Director for Tribe of One, an international collective of indigenous artists, musicians, dancers and slam poets.
Developing the Slam Poetry in Schools training course for teachers is a passion project 10 years in the making.