Slamming in the Suburbs

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We had our first Poetry Slam today.  I’m capitalizing it because it was that special.  Kids who hardly ever talk got up and opened their souls.  Kids who talk too much finally showed they knew the difference between important and superfluous.  We had hilarious poems and tear-your-heart-out poems.  We had poems about bacon and bullying.  There were metaphors, alliteration, and personification floating up into the ceiling tiles.  For the past month I’ve been telling them they had to ‘bring it’…and they did.

Day one of this unit,  the kids wrote on the board the first word that came into their mind when I said, ‘Poetry!’.  Responses from every block were variations on the following themes:

boring, rhyming, Dr. Seuss, confusing, hard, silly, Shel Silverstein, etc.

I told them the story of when my kids were little and on our weekly library visits my girls would clamor for The Babysitters’ Club books and my son for Captain Underpants. I told them those were ‘candy’ books and were perfectly fine but they also had to get books for their heart and their mind.  It’s the same idea with Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein – lots of fun- nothing wrong with them- but there is more to poetry than just those examples.  Poems can make you cry and feel and be inspired and I was so looking forward to showing them some of those kinds of poems.  I’m pretty sure they didn’t believe me.

Then, in the following weeks, we studied Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, and Gwendolyn Brooks.  We talked about dreams deferred and what so much depends upon.  We tried to figure out what made a poem ‘good’ and decided if it made us feel something or think about something in a new way, we liked it.  If it used words in a clever and/or unique way, we liked that, too.  We really liked it when the imagery was strong enough for us to get a vivid picture in our minds.  Then we set about trying to do that with our own poems.  We wrote small haikus and lengthy biographical poems.  We revised for stronger verbs and imaginative figurative language.  We read to partners and teammates to get feedback and revised again.  It was hard work, but at the end of every class, when we had Author’s Chair and someone read their words and we got goosebumps, the poetry community began to grow.

Finally, we started to watch some Poetry Slammers on video.  Sarah Kay and Taylor Mali were favorites along with the kids from the Bronx who taught us poems really can change the world.  We noticed how they played with words, how they emphasized the important parts with body language and tone and how sometimes they had a tag line repeated throughout.  We knew we could do that, too.  We had things to say, too.  Then came the thought – why can’t we have a Poetry Slam here?

So, today was day one.  As the students came in each block, the first five in the door were the first judges.  We had a podium, a spotlight, and a microphone.  As each slammer finished, the judges gave them a score out of 10 on whiteboards.  Top and bottom scores were thrown out and the middle three were added for the total.  The top three scorers from each class will compete in the auditorium after spring break with all the other 7th grade English classes.  Judges rotated out after three rounds so everyone got a chance.  What is amazing to me is that the three winners in every class were the exact three I would have chosen.  5 students received perfect scores and they deserved them.

When we were done, we watched part of a wonderful video called ‘Louder Than a Bomb’ which is a documentary about the largest poetry slam in the country. It takes place in Chicago each year and has over 500 high school students participate.  It makes poetry cool. The kids in the video say, “It’s not about the points, it’s about the poetry.”  And today, in Hamilton, Virginia, it was about the poetry,too.  We were slamming…and it was AMAZING!