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Lifting Youth Voices through Spoken Word

For National Poetry Month, eight ways teachers can use spoken word to inspire and empower their students
Photo of three African American female students standing at microphones

Ny’lasia: I got the black girl magic / No i’m not tryna be dramatic / Why can't I walk in a room and feel ecstatic / I’m not tryna be sarcastic / Yes i’m fantastic / My life has always been full of white man traffic.

Glodie: I’m beautiful like the Atlantic ocean / My life feels like it has been frozen / oh my words they have never spoken / if I succeed they take it as an explosion / I will always be golden / and I know my race was chosen.

It’s April 2017, and my principal has asked our spoken-word poetry organization, Boston Pulse, to open a professional development workshop on the importance of youth voice. For my middle school students, this is meaningful — an opportunity to create space for a public hearing about the diversity, equity, and inclusion issues that affect them. The poem they perform — a piece called “Black Girl Magic” — is a celebration of black female identity and a protest against an education system entrenched in a white-dominant narrative that doesn’t serve their cultural and socio-emotional needs.

For Glodie and Ny’lasia, that performance — and the public hearing space they created — was a chance to push for school discipline policies that were more culturally responsive. They challenged teachers to consider deeper listening and to follow up with students who’d been acting out in class. With their story and self-advocacy, they were able to spearhead a school-wide change in how teachers think of and approach students who may be having problems. They were able to transform mindsets and change how justice is carried out for the entire school.

April is National Poetry Month — a good time to consider the power of spoken-word poetry as a pedagogical tool, as a tool for student voice, and as a driver for transformative change. Here are eight ways that teachers can weave spoken word into their lessons or extracurricular activities:

In urban education, we often battle an imagination gap, with many of our young people unable to imagine themselves outside of their own zip codes. Exposing young people to spoken word can help them flex their imaginations — finding and using their authentic voices, and drawing from their specific experiences.

Incorporating Spoken Word into the Classroom

  • …As the hook of your lesson. While teaching a novel, short story, or history lesson, turn to resources like Slam Find and Brave New Voices, which showcase adult and youth spoken word that can engage students on a more emotional and spiritual level. For example, when I teach the memoir When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago, I always include spoken word poems that speak to a Latinx and Puerto Rican narrative, such as “My Accents,” by poet Denice Frohman, to give students a primer on what some Puerto Ricans face.
  • …As culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy. Spoken word poetry can be a beautiful and effective way to debate relevant topics. For example, with gun control now the subject of a national and worldwide conversation, add nuance and new perspective with poems like “Students Start Gun Control Revolution” by Get Lit poet Kiyah Gentle, or “Shots Fired” by the Los Angeles team in the 2014 Brave New Voices competition.
  • …As a technique to talk about intersectionality. As we think of the term "sanctuary city," the spoken word poetry community can serve as intersectional and courageous sanctuaries for youth of color, undocumented youth, and youth who identify with the LGBTQIA community. Spoken word can uplift voices that are historically silenced and can start a discussion about how to build empathy across differences. One example is Lee Mokobe’s powerful poem on what it feels like to be transgender.
  • …To talk about “radical imagination.” In urban education, we often battle an imagination gap, with many of our young people unable to imagine themselves outside of their own zip codes. Exposing young people to spoken word in a song like “Us,” from Filipina rappers and poets Ruby Ibarra, Working Klass Klassy, and Faith Santilla can help youth flex their imaginations through stories of another country’s resistance. 
  • …To connect and build stronger and more authentic relationships with your students. As a teacher, I always share my own stories and poems with my students, and students tend to refer back to my poetry. One poem, in particular, cycles back into conversation: “My Lunch Box.” This poem works well with curriculum that explores identity, the effects of assimilation, the American Dream, and feelings of erasure.

Spoken Word in the World

  • Host a community open mic/public hearing. Spoken word festivals and open mic spaces are public hearings. Work alongside youth and invite state officials, journalists, principals, teachers, parents, and other students, and use the performances to craft culturally responsive and relevant policies based on the narratives and truths that young people share.
  • Take your students to a spoken word event or festival. As a field trip experience, spoken word events are great for building community, networking, and gaining opportunities to grow as an artist and public speaker. These events often host affinity-based open mics, as at the Edmonton Poetry Festival, for instance, which hosts a specific night centered on native and indigenous voices — an event it started last year and will continue at the 2018 festival.
  • Advocate for your poets to set the tone at conferences. To create a high-level opportunity to practice one’s art (and public speaking skills), teachers can advocate for their students to speak at professional education or civic conferences. They can deliver performances that open a conference and set the tone or that close out a conference and remind adults that young people are central to our work.

My Boston Pulse poets Glodie and Ny’lasia, along with the rest of the troupe, have been asked to perform “Black Girl Magic” many times now, by both grassroots and larger organizations, including the Boston Education Social Justice Conference, Boston Public Schools, Converse, Citizen Schools, and Harvard and Yale universities.

Whenever an invitation comes, I think of that famous quote: Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. In 2018, the power of youth voice to influence and change policy is an idea that certainly has come, and in full force. Spoken word poetry is one more way that young people can make the change happen — using their authentic voices, drawing from their specific experiences, and using their boundless creativity and passion.

Photo courtesy of SlamFind and Mass LEAP.

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