Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tuesday's Slice of Life: Slam-spiration

Last week I wrote about all of the things I have to get done for this Thursday's poetry slam. In comments,  Deb Day asked me how I got started doing slam at school. I've been thinknig about her question ever since.

Poetry slam at school started as an idea, an inspiration taken from Slam legend, Sara Holbrook. In the mid-1990s she performed for English teachers in my district (here's her signature piece from the slam circuit, Chicks Up Front). The first time I saw Sara was during one of those sit and get inservice sessions in an auditorium packed with several hundred middle and high school language arts teachers. I didn't expect much, but I settled into my seat surprised we had a living poet in the house to perform.

Holbrook on stage in Alaska during a literacy institute
team builder at The North Slope Saloon.
Sara held us in her poetic hand. Wearing a long mustard colored gypsy skirt, strolling barefoot, trailing a purple scarf, earrings and bracelets jingling, she intrigued me. Her voice dripped passion and anger: raw emotion tightly controlled. With poetry and story, she threw us high into the rafters and gifted us with laughter only to dash us to the ground and leave us in tears. I was hooked. Sara Holbrook became my new poetry hero (luckily we got to become friends during on time on the road doing workshops for teachers with Janet Allen's literacy institutes).

She introduced me to the idea of slam and shared stories about a teacher in California who was running his own classroom and then school slam.  She shared her work, her voice and the know how of her Slam Master, partner-in-rhyme, Michael Salinger, who ran slams and served behind the scenes for Slam, Inc.for several years. Sara gave me courage and a map I could use to chart a new course for poetry in my language arts classroom.

I started mentoring student poets with Nikki Grimes' novel, Bronx Masquerade. It still remains a favorite in my classroom: members of an English class begin open mic sessions on Fridays and reveal themselves to each other. Grimes based the story on that California teacher Sara talked about. We read the novel and began writing poetry by imitating some of the characters' pieces. We read more poetry and more and more and before I knew it we were writing poetry nearly everyday and students had begun to share in class.

I wanted to celebrate students' enthusiasm and success, so I invited parents (and all of the administrators) at my high school to visit our classroom for a Poetry Jam.  I sort of tricked the kids into performing at first. Tricked may be too nice a word. I made reading or performing one poem at our celebration the culminating grade for our unit of study. I made poetry and performance count.  Students were required to perform 1 poem. I  counted it as a test. No pressure, right? I promised students that they wouldn't score lower than a C, that they could memorize their work, and that they could rely on a printed copy if need be. I promised them they would be stronger for the experience.

The most amazing thing happened. Of course the parents and administrators gave students high scores and lots of praise. Two things were absolute gifts the first year I had a poetry jam in my room. The first, once students did their "required" performance, suddenly they all wanted to read again.

"Can I go again?"
"Is there time for another one?"
"Can I do one more?"
"What about me, can I go?"
"After Bobby, I'm going."

I couldn't have planned that. Every student got up more than once, some 3 and 4 times (we filled a 90 minute class period). I discovered the power of a microphone, an audience and choice. Students had something to say and we were listened.

The second gift that first year came from a parent. Gabby's father was acquainted with Pablo Neruda.  About mid-way through her class slam her father, very formally, with a heavy Spanish accent, asked me if he could say something. "Of course, I said," wondering what would follow.

He stood up and told a story about Pablo Neruda: revolution, youth, idealism and  poetry sum it up. He explained that poetry honors life by making it into art and thanked my students for honoring the art and speaking their truths. I tried to keep my mouth closed and looked up so the tears that sprang into my eyes wouldn't make it to my cheeks. What a gift that was.


  1. Oh, THANK YOU for sharing this. My contest speech students who perform poetry love slam poetry and there are lots of kids who want to try it. You've introduced me to a new poet and reminded me of others. I'm going to have to try this out.

    My favorite line in this slice "she threw us high into the rafters and gifted us with laughter only to dash us to the ground and leave us in tears. " How poetic is that????? Fabulous line

    1. No, thank you, Deb! It was fun to think about and finally sit down and draft. Just in case you find tomorrow, I'm steaming our poetry slam on Ustream.I'll tweet the link again in the morning, but it is:

      I'll posted edited clips too ( next week probably). "Metaphors be with you!"

  2. This is wonderful!! I love seeing the slam catch fire with your students, love the memories of similar "flash fires" in my classes. Thank you for this fabulous story!

    1. Thank you, thank you... I do love slam and am always awed by the power of poetry.

  3. Wow, this makes me all excited & missing my poetry students all over again, Lee Ann. We used to do a poetry reading/coffee house (middle schoolers) & I got a mike too one year, & everything changed! The students were more than ready to get up there with the mike, their voices ringing loud. I always teach & share tons of poetry & most of my students were enthusiastic, but this was more. I love your story about the students wanting to do "extra", & about Neruda. It has to be one of the memorable moments of your teaching life!

    1. Thank you, Linda, It was fun to sit down and find that story in my memory (and in a journal from that time). Like you, I do love sharing poetry with students!

  4. Thanks for taking us on your journey. I think that people might also like to know more about your poetry club!

  5. So cool! I have "little guys" (okay, 2nd-5th) and they love to perform. We generally perform skits and poems that are already written, but they do love it.