Host Your Own Poetry Slam (Strategies to make poetry engaging)

One of my favorite adventures I had with my students last semester was our end of the semester poetry slam. In my experience, students are not always the most excited about poetry. Although many times they may be obsessed with creating rhythms and rhymes for their own songs and raps, they seem to believe that poetry belongs in a land of hoity-toity literature that they want to spend their entire lives trying to avoid, which is a bit of a shame if you ask me. Holding a poetry slam this year, though, seemed to alleviate much of their negative feelings about poetry, and students have been asking if we can hold another poetry slam ever since.

Below are some ways to spice poetry up and prepare your students for their own poetry slam:

  1. Poetry Sneak Peek: The day before we started our “Poetry Rocks” project (where they’d write poetry about rocks — get it!? Aren’t I punny?) I had my students watch free verse poems performed by spoken word artists.  My kids loved it and I think it broke down a lot of their presuppositions about poetry. For the rest of the week, they kept on looking up poems of their own and sharing them with me. It was a very nice way to start the project off.

The video embedded above seemed to be my students’ favorite and they looked up other poems by Prince Ea on their own afterwards. It has a nice environmental flair, which is nice for my English/Science class, but the way he presents his work engages students immediately.

2. After getting them hooked on more modern poetry, transition into other classic poems: 

After our first day where we watched spoken word poems together, we began transitioning into some other great poems, as well. Nicki Minaj has a great reading of “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, which my students really enjoyed. Afterwards, I had them do some activities reading and analyzing “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, “I Too” by Langston Hughes, some of Richard Wright’s haikus, and “Sonnet 18” by Shakespeare.

3. After exposing them to classic poetry, have your students use other poems as mentor texts for their own poetry. As my students prepared for the poetry slam, they would read a poem (perhaps on of Wright’s haikus), study the structure and the literary devices, and use it as a model as they wrote their first haiku. It’s a way to make poetry a bit more real and engage them in some higher level thinking and analysis. It gave them a purpose for their studying.

4. Make sure they know that they can (and should) be silly and creative when presenting their poems: On the day of the poetry slam, I had a student come up to me and ask if it was alright if he read his poems “in a silly way, like the guys on the video.” I said, “Of course. That was why I showed you the video.  I want you to be silly and creative and vary your voice inflections as you present.” Although I (mistakenly) assumed that my students realized after watching the “poetry sneak peek” videos that poetry slams are supposed to be funny and challenging and creative, my kids didn’t realize that they could make their leap in the way they presented their own poetry. Make sure that your expectation is clear, because, if it is, it will be the key to a much more enjoyable poetry slam, as it was in my case. Which leads me to my next point…

5. Consider having smaller “practice poetry slams” before the real one: I wish I had done this before my poetry slam in December. Sometimes when you’re doing a two or three week project, you can have a very fun, exciting plan for the way your students are going to present, but if they aren’t entirely sure how they’re going to present or that they can be funny and ridiculous when they do present in the first week of the project, they can lose momentum fast. Consider coaching one or two students to present the way you want them to and to present at the beginning of class so that students know what’s expected. Or, possibly even better, write your own poem and present it to the class in a dramatic fashion. Make sure that students never lose sight of “the end in mind.”

6. Last, but not least, make the poetry slam into an occasion: Bring food and snacks so that students know that it’s a celebration. If you have a classroom microphone, let the kids use it. Teach them how actual poetry slams and readings work, and how often people snap after poetry is read. Make your kids excited to present all of their hard work to the class.

Happy poetry writing!

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