I teach because I love to learn. I spend my summers at the Bread Loaf School of English, pursuing an M.Litt. degree in English; year-round I’m a member of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network (BLTN), which connects me and my students with students from all over the world. From a working-class family in Appalachia, I’m a former pastry chef and cake decorator, having lived and worked in Florida and North Carolina. I’m a writer revising a novel about my grandmother’s childhood in Butterfly, Kentucky, at the turn of the 20th century.
For the past seven years, I’ve been teaching English and creative writing at Northern High School in Durham, North Carolina, where the student body is more than 50% minority, with more than 50% also receiving free and reduced lunch. I try to stay on the cutting edge; I use new media in all my classes, and I’m a member of a networked professional learning community. My students and I produce and use wikis and videos, and we utilize YouTube and Edmodo in English and creative writing classes. I am also the advisor for our Spoken Word Club and our literary magazine, Aurora. In this article, I reflect on an extraordinary journey I have undertaken with my students and colleagues in the past three years. My students have dazzled me with their talents in spoken word poetry, and they have inspired me with their impressive potential for learning in a network of colleagues, students, and community members.
One theme I’ve encountered in this journey with my students is “belonging.” At every school, in every part of this country, I am sure there are students who have no interest in playing a sport, cheering, dancing, marching in the band, or being part of student government. Some of these students may find their niche with the art club, French or Spanish Club, The Gay Student Alliance (GSA), or the chess club. However, some students who don’t identify with these typical groups still have a yearning for a club to call their own and a place to belong. While in high school, I didn’t participate in many activities, but I did hang out in the art club and also work on the literary magazine while in creative writing class. Being part of those two groups gave me a sense of belonging in my high school and motivated me to stay in school. I marvel now at how I recently and unexpectedly became involved with the Spoken Word Club at Northern High School (NHS) in Durham, and I would like to describe how some extraordinary young people have found a niche there, too.
Due to my own involvement in writing in high school, I have always led my students to write poetry. Additionally, I have run a monthly creative writing workshop at the local library, drawing students from all over the county. Writing poetry had been cathartic for me as a teenager, so I have continually tried to offer that opportunity to my students as well.
In 2010, Cheyenne Stewart and Sherrill Nesmith, NHS juniors, asked me to become advisor for NHS’s Spoken Word Club. While I didn’t have much experience with this genre, I learned quickly that spoken word poetry is performance poetry, drawing from the oral traditions of the West African griots, and is closely related to hip-hop and rap. As I reflected on Cheyenne and Sherrell’s invitation and learned about the genre, I realized that my students deserved this opportunity.
At Bread Loaf, I took Professor David Kirkland’s class “Hip-Hop and Youth Culture as Social Justice” to learn more about my students’ preferred music and the ways it helps them find their voices, question the world they live in, and shape their identities.
In class that summer, we read pieces like David Stovall’s “Urban Poetics: Poetry, Social Justice and Critical Pedagogy in Education,” allowing us to explore how these genres provide youth a way to connect their contemporary experiences with a poetic tradition.
Speaking directly to the concept of social justice, both hip-hop and the spoken word movement can be utilized as a tool for young people to analyze their world and consequently make change in their lives. The reflective nature of poetry provides students with the ability to connect their experiences to the larger world, while pulling from the influences they deem relevant. The reciprocal relationship between poetic movements of decades past to hip-hop and the current spoken word movement provides students with historical context by which to visualize the relationship between the three. (Stovall 76)
My students have many responsibilities and challenges in and out of school; their capabilities and talents aren’t always reflected in their academic achievements. I strive, with varying degrees of success, to engage them in my class planning. One of the great joys of teaching as a member of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network is that one is never alone in the effort to reach students. Through my connections at Bread Loaf, and especially through my experience as a student in Professor Kirkland’s class, I was able to invite Roberto German, a performance artist, youth writing leader, and principal in Lawrence, MA, an active site in the BLTN, to visit us for a couple of days to lead a spoken word workshop and performance.
With Roberto in our midst, my students were captivated and they wrote furiously. Everyone was engaged with the written word, including and especially several students who not been engaged in English class at all that semester. Inspired by the students’ response to Roberto, I began to get up a head of steam for my new advisory role.
Soon after Roberto’s visit, I was fortunate to make a connection with a local spoken word group called Sacrificial Poets, an award-winning group of young people already deeply involved in the youth community of Chapel Hill and parts of Durham. They had been hosting monthly open mics at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, and they had been hosting poetry slams for youth. Through my work withthe Sacrificial Poets, I soon found out about the movie Louder Than a Bomb and the Brave New Voices (BNV) International Youth Poetry Festival. The Sacrificial Poets use these slams that they host to find six of the best youth poets in the area to take to BNV. The slams culminate with “The Last Chance Slam,” a final event that sets the roster for the team.
In response to my continuous pestering, Kane Smego and George Yamazawa of the Sacrificial Poets came to NHS and started doing a few workshops with the club. When they were awarded a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council to facilitate Poetic Justice, a ten-week after school workshop, Kane asked me if I would be interested in hosting Poetic Justice at NHS. While I was thrilled by this opportunity, I was even more pleased to learn that we could offer students elective credit for their Poetic Justice work. That first year we would have four seniors graduate with the help of Poetic Justice credit. (This past year, we had five. Over the course of the semester, we had 30-50 students who came to Poetic Justice and a total of 27 who earned the English elective credit.)
The Poetic Justice collaboration quickly led to opportunities in radio. In 2012, my students were featured in three segments that aired on WUNC, a National Public Radio station in Chapel Hill, and a partner in the North Carolina Arts Council grant. Numerous students had their work posted on the radio station’s website at The American Graduate Project: Poetic Justice, Part 1 , The American Graduate Project: Poetic Justice, Part 2 , and The American Graduate Project: Poetic Justice, Part 3. Additionally, two of the Poetic Justice graduates had an opportunity that was not tied to the grant. Donta’ and Fontezia were chosen to be youth broadcast reporters for WUNC in the summer of 2012 through a rigorous application process. They were paid reporters who worked for six weeks to create lengthy radio segments that subsequently aired on WUNC Radio as part of a nationwide public radio conversation about the dropout crisis, the America Graduate Series. See Youth Radio Institute: Donta’ McCormick and Youth Radio Institute: Fontezia Walker.
For the 2013 school year, we sought other funding to keep the Poetic Justice program active at NHS. Jim Key, superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Durham County Schools, made a trip to NHS to congratulate me about one of my students’ radio segments and suggested that we apply for a county literacy grant to host Poetic Justice again. Northern High School applied and we received the grant—a total of $58,000 that would fund our new writing center, Poetic Justice, and several other literacy initiatives at NHS.
So far in 2013, our modest funding has helped many students do great work. We had 40-60 students attend Poetic Justice over the semester; 36 of them earned the English elective credit, and five seniors were enabled to graduate through this credit. We competed in the first ever Louder Than a Bomb Greensboro, taking first place in the independent slam and fourth in the team slam. Two NHS students made the six-poet team that will compete in Chicago at BNV. Additionally, we competed in Word Rivalry, the high school slam hosted by the Sacrificial Poets, and we won, defeating nine other high school slam teams. One of my poets, Kamaya Truitt-Martin, is featured in Truth Underground, a documentary about slam poetry in our area of North Carolina. In preparing this article, I was pleased to discover that this documentary is featured on the highly respected Poets & Writer’s Magazine website. Two students, Kamaya Truitt-Martin and Justavis Brooks, are currently working for WUNC as youth radio broadcasters. Justavis, is also featured in a WUNC National Public Radio segment called “Poetic Justice: Graduating High School at 16.”
Looking forward to 2014, I co-wrote a North Carolina Arts Council Arts in Education grant with the Sacrificial Poets. The grant will fund Poetic Justice for the upcoming school year. I am hopeful, as we await news of our grant application, and anticipate some of our graduates coming back as writing leaders to mentor our new club members.
The student poets have not only distinguished themselves in competitions; they have also taught their teacher a thing or two. I see how the opportunity to perform poetry can transform an otherwise unengaged student into an eloquent and confident activist/poet. While I do not believe that spoken word poetry provides simple answers for every student struggling for belonging in high school, I do see it as one way to reach a large group of students who might otherwise not find motivation to develop their talents at school. I have always said that I will not quit learning till the day I die, and I do firmly believe that—a life without learning and without new experiences is not very exciting to me. My journey with spoken word and Poetic Justice has reminded me that I can still learn new things and, more importantly, I can incorporate that knowledge into my teaching as each year unfolds. In response to my students’ success, I have altered my M. Litt. course of study at Bread Loaf to focus on identity and social justice. Between summers of study at Bread Loaf, I return to teaching recommitted to empowering my students’ writing through the use of digital literacy, and to furthering my own search for identity through my writing and digital literacy.
Many of us spend a good part of our days urging our students to pay attention and to be quiet. Our experiences with spoken word remind me of my duty to give young people a place to raise their voices and to speak out. The effect is contagious. When students find their voices and share their stories, often others who can relate join in, and the healing—and learning—speak volumes for the literary talents of these young people.
You can find more information about Northern High School’s Spoken Word Club at Northern High School Spoken Word Poetry and http://deborahalcorn.wordpress.com/ . Visit the Sacrificial Poets’ Tumblr site at http://sacrificialpoets.tumblr.com/ .
This activities described above were supported by the following organizations and individuals:
- Emily Bartels, director of the Bread Loaf School of English
- Dixie Goswami, director of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network and Write to Change
- Jim Maddox, director of the Bread Loaf School of English, retired
- Lou Bernieri, director of Andover Bread Loaf in Lawrence, MA
- Rich Gorham, assistant director of Andover Bread Loaf in Lawrence, MA
- Roberto German, Andover Bread Loaf alumnus and spoken word artist
- Jim Key, superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Durham County Schools
- The Sacrificial Poets of Chapel Hill, North Carolina
- David Brower, program director for North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC
- Kathryn Bonner, former principal of Northern High School
- Matthew Hunt, principal of Northern High School
Stovall, David. “Urban Poetics: Poetry, Social Justice and Critical Pedagogy in Education.” The Urban Review, Vol. 38, No. 1, March 2006 (© 2006). May 19, 2006.