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A Poetry Slam Cures the Blahs




Voice of ExperienceEducator Brenda Dyck reflects on how she used a Poetry Slam, an event in which student-poets perform their work and are judged by members of an audience, to refocus her students. She shares how her students took this 1980s art form and turned it into an opportunity to connect with their peers and teachers. Included: Benchmarks for student presentations plus links to additional poetry-slam resources.



Don't miss Education World's Stage a Poetry Slam lesson plan and our special archive of Poetry Activities.

Teachers arent the only ones who need a "pick-me-up." With teachers pushing hard to get through their curriculum,  students may begin exhibiting telltale signs of the blahs. Last year, I discovered the cure for this dreaded classroom contagion: I created a weeklong breather based on an art form right out of the 1980s coffeehouse era. My students and I were about to embark on an adventure in poetic exploration and self-expression. We were going to have a poetry slam.

To help my students get on board, I explained that a poetry slam is an event in which poets perform their work and are judged by members of an audience. My sixth and seventh graders sat intrigued as I told them that although poetry slams gained fame in Chicago in the 1980s, they really originated in ancient Greek times. The students enjoyed learning about the active role an audience plays in a traditional poetry slam. Fun-loving middle school students could easily picture themselves entering into poetry performances by snapping their fingers, moving their bodies to the rhythm, or even booing.

One of the tablecloths that draped tables on poetry slam day. Click on the image to view a larger version of it.


In preparation for our own poetry slam, we transformed our classroom into a vintage 1980s coffeehouse by rearranging desks into cozy tables covered with paper tablecloths and candles. Students volunteered to bring doughnuts and hot chocolate. On the day before the big event, students decorated their tablecloths with slogans and various forms of graffiti. [See photo.]

We all realized that 13-year-old egos wouldnt survive booing and heckling, so students suggested that audience participation be limited to applause -- a suggestion that was quickly accepted by all. We enlisted the help of a few teachers who volunteered to give up their prep periods to listen to and score students performances. Students spent several periods looking for a poem that spoke to them and preparing the poem for presentation. Others decided to write their own poems. Simple benchmarks were agreed upon:

  • Each student performance would be two to three minutes in length.
  • Performances would make effective use of dynamics and pacing.
  • Students would clearly articulate their words.
  • Students would make appropriate use of gestures to convey the message or feeling of their poems.
  • Each student would partially (at least one minute) or completely memorize their poem.
  • No props, costumes, or musical instruments of any kind would be allowed; this would be poetry in its purest form.



Students arrived full of anticipation on the morning of our poetry slam. As they entered the candle-lit classroom, they were treated to the sounds of one of our middle school teachers playing songs including Neil Youngs Horse With No Name and John Lennons Imagine on his guitar. Students munched on doughnuts as they pondered the messages of the song lyrics and prepared themselves for their performances.

The students language arts teacher started things off by performing a soul-searching poem he had penned during his own confused middle school years. That poem, written 20 years ago, surprised the students because it expressed so many of the same questions and doubts they have. The poem helped break the ice, calm some nerves, and set the tone for the day.

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Each student had his or her turn in the intense spotlight. It was there that I witnessed in many of those students a responsive side I had rarely observed before. Strong emotions were voiced, fears were expressed, and an abundance of rich vocabulary flew as they spoke words chock-full of meaning and message. Not only did we hear selections of Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Browning, and Jack Prelutsky, we also listened to original poetry that momentarily exposed a level vulnerability rarely seen in 13-year-olds.

As the poetry slam drew to an end, it occurred to me that we had just spent 80 minutes in a kinder, gentler place -- a place where we were free to share our innermost thoughts.

And no one laughed.

In fact, they applauded!


Stage a Poetry Slam Lesson Plan
Students participate in a classroom or school-wide poetry slam. A poetry slam could also serve as a fund-raising activity or parents-night event.

Poetry Slam Lesson Plan
Create poems using words cut from newspapers, read the poems in the poetry slam format, and then compile the poems into a book.

Brenda Dyck teaches at Masters Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "Electronic Thread" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Associations Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.


Article by Brenda Dyck
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Updated 03/30/2015