Opinion: Why we need spoken word poetry in the classroom

Opinion: Why we need spoken word poetry in the classroom

by Daniel Yong

Spoken word poetry is a combination of literature and drama. You may notice that I am deliberately avoiding the words ‘public speaking’ because that is not what this art form is about. However, drama is a major component because at certain points during the performance, students may like to exaggerate or emphasise their points with a bit of acting. The main distinguishing feature that separates spoken word poetry from written poetry (or public speaking), is that it allows the performer to bring their poetry to life with high levels of conviction and energy. It provides a creative platform for students to express themselves like painting, dance or drama. My favourite analogy that I use to describe spoken word to my students, is that the words they choose to write and perform, are like the colours on a painter’s palette. It is up to them, the artist, to experiment and manipulate words to paint a clear picture in the minds of their audience. Here are the benefits:

It is inclusive and allows all students to write and experiment with words

Have you ever had a reluctant student in the classroom who is always afraid to participate in classroom discussions? There lies a number of factors as to why children hesitate to vocalise their thoughts. It could be the fear of being judged, low self-esteem or difficulties in English. Spoken word performance does not have a specific structure that students must follow and so it does not discriminate. They can approach writing however their creativity allows them to, so long as they have some form of rhythm. What this means, is that students can, and I love using this word when I teach writing, regurgitate their ideas or feelings (sometimes both), and continue refining their poems before a performance. This is especially handy for learners who struggle with the formal aspects of English writing such as grammar and punctuation.

As students begin the writing and editing process, teachers can introduce new words to their poems and have them learn and explore the definitions in an exciting and meaningful way. For example, the other day a student was looking for a synonym for the word ‘sad’, and I questioned them as to what extent they meant by the word? Are you feeling unhappy, depressed or heartbroken? How sad do you want to project yourself to listeners? This sparked another lesson and the student was attempting to figure out which synonym was the most appropriate word for what she wanted to say. This is far more meaningful than simply having students look up words and writing down summarised meanings.

Builds confidence and provides students a voice

It is no secret, when students participate in spoken word, their confidence reaches new heights that other learning areas may not be able to achieve. It is their own words and their own passions. They do not need to worry about form structures of writing but instead, focus on their message and revise their work multiple times in written and verbal form.

It is important here that as educators, we allow students to select a topic that they are passionate about. The last thing you want, is to force them to write a poem on a topic they are unfamiliar with or do not care about. Do not rush this process, you want students to think deeply about what they want to say. Once they develop the confidence to perform their poems, encourage them to showcase their work to peers. When I first brought spoken poetry into my classroom, I learnt so much about my students. There were lines that explored their home lives, their favourite subjects in school, and some even described challenging concepts in topic areas such as mathematics. After performing a few times, students may feel a sense of empowerment and confidence from learning a new skill. This is an open opportunity for educators to steer students towards using poetry as a tool, to examine and comprehend other learning areas.

Daniel Yong (@mrdanielyong) is a classroom teacher at Parramatta Public School.