Nine years ago I transitioned from my position as an ELA teacher to school librarian. Eager to make an impact in a new environment I applied for and received the Ingram-White Castle Foundation Grant, which enabled me to create the Spoken Word Club for students. “Spoken word” is a term used to describe the articulation of free verse poetry that can or cannot be accompanied by rhythms. During meetings of the Spoken Word Club we met in a small intimate room sharing our interests, hopes, dreams, and anxieties. There were creative expressions from young people who used words, both simple and complex, to find their voices.
I wanted to help students find their voices in a world where they felt invisible and overlooked. It was particularly appealing to students who don’t fit the mold or stereotype of the popular kid, the athlete, or the cheerleader. The students’ poems were often written about personal, community, or global issues they faced every day. Sometimes they spoke solely of problems; other times they spoke of innovation and solutions. The most interesting part about our gatherings was introducing students to this idea that rappers are also considered poets. In fact, many rappers take on the title of spoken word artists because they write and rap about personal experiences and use their writings and performances as a form of therapy to overcome barriers in their lives.
During this time I was serving as the school librarian at a middle school whose school library was in another building on the other side of of the school campus, which was not ideal. Due to the location of the school library, we met once a week during lunch in a small classroom in the middle school building. Our meetings inspired me to connect to students. It was my goal to provide a forum for students to generate ideas for writing and compare and contrast traditional poets to contemporary writers. Additionally, I knew that students were required to provide four writing pieces for their portfolio, which meant that the more writing they practiced the more comfortable and confident they would become.
Although my work locations changed each year, I continued to sponsor opportunities for students to write and speak. We shared poetry during lunch periods, in classrooms, and in school literary publications. In 2013, I was hired as the head librarian at a high school, which meant I did not have to travel to several schools; I was in one building five days a week. Imagine my excitement when I learned that I would be working with the English teacher who created the district’s Poetry Slam competition. Not only was he a huge supporter of student writers, nurturing them to become developed writers and performers, he was also a writer and spoken word artist himself. Our collaborative relationship did not unfold immediately, but after some time, I knew I wanted to work with him. Soon I started the Warrior Word Writing Club and our collaboration was a wonderful fit.
The club includes Warrior Words, our school literary publication that students contribute to. I am the adviser for the publication. Students interested in performing their poems can do so through our Poetry Slam competition. That’s where my colleague. Wyk McGowan, serves as a great collaborator. He identifies talented writers and coaches them with their performances. Each year, about six weeks before the district’s annual Poetry Slam, which is held at our school, we showcase students in the library in preparation for the competition. Students can sign up in the library, main office, or English classes to perform during one of three lunch periods. On that day students and teachers are invited to listen to the spoken word poets and/or participate themselves during open mic.
Each year the event is used to determine who will comprise two teams for the Poetry Slam competition. It is our hope that students see these as opportunities to hone their writing skills and gain confidence in performing. Over the years, the district’s Poetry Slam has become very competitive with judges from the community who may be both writers and/or performers. A strict rubric is used to determine winners, and yes, our school’s poetry slam team has earned first place several years. Recently, the annual Poetry Slam has been extended to the middle school level due to increased interest. This year we celebrate its eleventh year with competition at both the middle and high school levels and hopefully with our strong team, we earn the first place trophy.
Although I consider myself a writer, one does not need to be one in order to support students who yearn to be a part of a community of writers. As a school librarian our commitment to include and collaborate can be best expressed when we advocate for student and working with our colleagues. I have found students will seek out those adults who are willing to listen and help them develop their in creative expressions. The rewards to offering these opportunities are tremendous.
Here are some ways you can start a spoken word club in your building
- Start with a vision statement that includes district goals and AASL Standards.
- Solicit assistance from English teachers and visit classes to speak to students.
- Create exciting flyers and announcements about your meetings.
- If transportation is an issue, hold lunch meetings so everyone interested can attend.
- Use the works of spoken word artists and previous winners on www.poetryoutloud.org and YouTube.
- Invite community artists in to share their writings and speaking tips with students.
- Allow students to use free-writing prompts and share in a safe and judgment-free environment.
Author: Chiquita Toure
I am an educator, school librarian, writer and wellness advocate.
This is my 23rd year with Columbus City Schools. Currently I serve as the head librarian at Eastmoor Academy, a college prep high school. Although memoirs and biographies are my favorite, I am not afraid of sci-fi and fantasy. Using my role to promote social justice and culturally relevant literature is one of my favorite things to do.