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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Grand Slam: Performance Poetry Engages Students

Global Writes, a Bronx-based nonprofit, helps students reach new heights in literacy and life through live poetry competitions. Read the article.
Transcript

Where does hope go when amazing grace becomes graceless and the only hands left to hold are sweaty and quivering in fear? Questions that come from two little boys…

Narrator: Like Jesica, many students enter Global Writes as early as sixth grade or younger. The Bronx-based nonprofit pairs working poets with local schools. In 32 weekly sessions a year, during English class, they teach kids the art of competitive performance poetry, or "slam."

I find my tongue, tumble over my teeth as I tell him those questions weren't meant for me, and now, his eyes are silently screaming that I'm the only person that can answer him.

Jesica: Writing, it gives me a reason to, I guess, better myself and to hold myself as a better person behaviorwise and in class.

Narrator: The poets and classroom teachers help students develop their writing and performance skills using lot of class discussion and taking inspiration from professional slammers, like Steve Coleman.

Steve: I want to hear a poem about revolution, about fists raised high and hips twisting in a rumble like a rumba. I want to follow the footsteps of Shea and hear the truth about the day the CIA killed Lumumba.

Narrator: The chance to express themselves lights a fire under these kids, as does the prospect of eventually competing school-to-school.

Steve: I want to feel the poem. I want to taste the poem. Give me your spot on the mic if you want to waste a poem. I want to hear a moan.

Teacher: Okay, so things that you guys have pointed out. He varies his volume. He varies his speed. Anything else you're noticing about how his poem is written?

His rhymes. They're not like "bad, sad, mad." It's like more detailed, more bigger words, and it has something to do with what he's talking about.

Robert: In the South Bronx, you look at the obesity rate, the suicide, the asthma rates, these things that children keep bottled in, so this is like a release for them, to be able to come to school, forget about everything else, and just write.

Jesica: If you have a closed bottle and it has soda in it and you shake it up, when you open it, all the pressure is released, and it's like that's how it feels when you write out what you feel.

She's the writer of her pain, but got no vein of shame. Cry at night, hold her pillow tight. The tears of a tiger roll down her cheek into the ocean that holds the tears of a teenage girl, of her screams, of her sorrows, of her joy, of her pain.

Robert: Part of the whole idea of the poets in my school is that the kids want to be here, so our attendance is good, they score well academically, and they achieve something.

Taylor: It builds confidence for the kids that students, that when I met them, didn't have. They couldn't get their eyes from their notebook, and they would stand at the furthest point away from the audience possible and they would talk as quietly as they could, and now it's like they've thrown their notebooks down and they enjoy every second of it. I see that through their writing they're using a lot more poetic devices, literary devices, and they're not just throwing them in there. It's not about plopping them in there anymore. They actually make sense and they make the writing stronger.

Narrator: To gear up for the competitive slams, students practice by performing via videoconference for their classmates and peers in the six cities Global Writes serves across three states.

Can you hear me now?

Narrator: Today, it's a friendly practice session between The Bronx and nearby Yonkers.

"Why I Recognize." Why? Because "real eyes realize real lies." You lyrical cliche reciter. I should tear your eyes out with a spoon. Maybe then you'll be recognized.

Narrator: Teachers push them to develop their constructive criticism as rigorously as their writing, and as the kids get older, their poems and their critiques grow more sophisticated.

When you're going to go slam, you have to not only speak like it comes from the heart, but you have to perform it, like its body and words are one when you are slamming.

Jesica: When you find out that words can actually change the world and that the words that change the world come from you, then it just makes you feel so important.

I can't ever imagine how hard it must be to hold images of your mother's passing in your pupils, and I want to sing these boys a sweet melody that could tap dance across the rainbows of the better side of everything, but the logic and their scars force me to let them mourn.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to Edutopia.org.

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  • Grace Rubenstein

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