Reflections on a Slam-Tastic Transformative Experience!

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Group hug after a cathartic three days of laying hearts bare

I have spent part of the last three days wiping tears from my eyes and experiencing sleepless nights–and I couldn’t be happier about it. As I explained in an earlier post, I do not refer to leaving for my job each morning as “going to work.” I simply say that I am going “to school.” Not only because I never cease to learn something new every day, but because I am absolutely energized by the students I work with, both in the library, and in theater class. Never has that been more true than over the last few weeks of our Slam Poetry unit, which culminated in three days of sharing, community bonding, respect, and love.

As a theater teacher, I have the opportunity to offer my students different types of learning experiences than are afforded them in traditional academic classes. Such opportunities usually illicit strong emotions: either extreme interest and excitement from the natural performers and true “theater geeks,” or abject, primal fear from those who simply need a fine arts credit or who were “assigned” the class against their will.

But the Slam unit was a special beast. Most students who love the heat of the spotlight as they mug for an audience dreaded the creative writing part of the assignment and initially fought back against their ability to craft a poem. Conversely, most of my natural creative writers are introverts who get immediately nauseous at the idea of standing in front of others, and darn near foam at the mouth at the notion of laying open their private, carefully crafted words for public peer-critique. FINALLY! A  project that united the entire class in fear and uncertainty!

To prep for their performances, we discussed the concept of Slam poetry and how it differed from simply writing a poem. We watched and critiqued amazing videos of Slammers from Brave New Voices, as well as many other sources. We studied the texts of the performances. We studied and practiced figurative language. We performed vocal and emotion exercises. But the driving force behind all of the activities was this critical expectation: WRITE YOUR TRUTH. Dig for whatever passion or story that is inside you and bring it to the surface.

In the beginning, students resisted. No so much with an outward refusal to try, but with more of a collective, “I’m not capable of doing this” mentality. And then work happened. Ideas sparked. Excitement grew. Feedback from peers made their pieces stronger. And slowly, disbelief in their own abilities was replaced with guarded confidence.

And then it was time to Slam – not only in front of peers with whom they had shared the struggle, but in front of guest judges consisting of teachers and students from other classes. Nervousness was palpable. And what happened was nothing short of exhilarating. One by one, students walked to the front of the class, and courageously shared the truths they had been crafting for the last couple of weeks. Difficult, personal, sometimes uncomfortable, but ultimately beautiful truths. Truths swimming inside creatively crafted language, rhythmic cadences, and animated expressions. Tissues were passed– sometimes to dab tears of laughter, but mainly to assuage the unintended salty consequences of being caught up in the power of someone else’s moving, surprising, inspirational Truth. After the last student shared, the only thing palpable in the room was  a sense of love and awe. As we “decompressed” with discussion, someone initiated the sentiment that led to the photo above. THAT is what THIS is about.

I can say, without a doubt, that this was the most powerful, transformative unit I have ever experienced with students. But don’t take my word for it–take theirs.

My Unconventional National Honor Society speech

I am posting the content of my NHS speech here, as several parents and students asked for a copy. Taking a risk with “slam” poetry paid off!

When our National Honor Society students asked if I would give the address at their induction ceremony this year, I immediately suggested that they encourage the smartest man in the building, our Calculus teacher. He is brilliant and wise, whereas I am a more of a wiseacre with an appreciation for sarcasm and a disdain for all things “stuffy.” Alas, Mr. Hughes was smart enough to decline, and so the honor fell back to me. And in true wiseacre librarian style, I took a risk, and in line with my “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission” style, delivered the last part of the address in the style of slam poetry, as an homage to my theater students. The transcript is as follows:

Good afternoon. I could not be more honored or delighted to be speaking on behalf of this stellar group of young adults today. In my position as library media specialist, I am uniquely fortunate in that I am not limited to mostly one-year interactions with students in the way that say, a 9th grade English teacher or a 10th grade American History teacher is limited. Rather, I have the privilege of being able to see and work with all students in some cases every day throughout their tenure at Heath High School.

When I was first asked to give this address, I was excited because I had just purchased the Biography of Steve Jobs and thought, “Perfect! I’ll be able to draw a plethora of parallels between the life of a genius and a group of National Honor Society inductees!” And about 50 pages into it, I realized that Steve would never have made it into his National Honor Society. He didn’t have the character for it. Genius does NOT excuse you to be a narcissistic, manipulative bully with incredibly poor hygiene.

Fortunately, I found a more apropos inspiration from Malcolm Gladwell. His book Outliers– The Story of Success profiles 75 exceptional individuals –the BEST in their field. He studied such “outliers” and found that being “smart” or “talented” did not necessarily translate to success. In fact, he found at least two shared characteristics that set The Best apart from the Bunch. One is that they amassed the equivalent of Ten Thousand hours of practice before reaching the pinnacle of their careers.

In other words, Kobe Bryant didn’t just stroll onto a court and dominate it, And Yo Yo Ma certainly did more than half-heartedly pluck at his cello in between marathon Call of Duty sessions. They spent hours, days, weeks and years working unbelievably hard to achieve greatness- Harder than the others who became merely Good.

The other common factor is that the Great Ones were all provided with, and took advantage of unique opportunities in their lives. Bill Gates, for example was given unprecedented access at the age of 13 to “tinker” with a powerful mainframe computer. More recently, 6th grader Thomas Suaraz was invited to give a TED talk on the successful iPad apps he developed –one of which is a deliciously gratifying Justin Bieber Wack-a Mole-game! (A bargain at 99 cents!) Thomas was able program these apps because he had a passion, he did his own research, and when he asked his parents to pay the 99 dollar fee to access Apple’s Software Development Kit, they said…yes. And now millions of people with pent-up Bieber rage are able to vent their frustrations by furiously poking at his sweet little face on a high-resolution touch screen. I can’t wait to see what he does with Twilight. ;)Oh, and though he cited Steve Jobs as an inspiration, Thomas actually spends time giving back to his community, sharing his knowledge with his classmates and teaching classes on programming–the antithesis of a manipulative, narcissistic bully.

The fact that you are on this stage today is proof that you have worked diligently and made the most of the opportunities afforded you by your parents, your school and your community. Now comes the part of this address where I’m to offer you advice. I would like to thank my theater students for suggesting that I do it in the form of a Slam poem… so here goes:

I urge you to continue to embrace opportunities that by grace will be interlaced throughout the fabric of your lives. Reach out for internships, graduate assistantships, don’t let your fears eclipse your ability to see the blips of opportunity pulsing on the radar of your future. Find a cause, a light, a fire, be relentless, be inspired to set the bar higher until you’re doing the impossible because you just refused to tire.

The world needs creators, educators, innovators, and YOU are tomorrow’s Game Changers- so don’t let the Doubts of others limit you, don’t give your Fears the power to inhibit you, rather, find the thing you’re passionate about, the thing you cannot do without, the thing you can’t NOT do and Do it – Pursue it! If you love dancing, pirouette! If you’re an artist, grab a pallet! If you’re a writer-then immerse yourself in words, and if physics is your thing, well then…keep playing Angry Birds. ☺

Ok. This next part is for EVERYBODY: IF you’re in a meeting, on a date, or with a friend, but down your cool device and look each other in the eyes, because there IS. NO. APP. for Meaningful eye contact!

Don’t just make a living, Make a difference. Give back to your community – enrich each life in your vicinity, leave YOUR indelible mark on history by creating it.

But you can’t make history with reticence, it takes persistence and beneficence and all of the courage your can muster to not just step, but LEAP outside your comfort zone, outside the confines of your home, leap into the world and roam it, identify a skill you have and hone it, for if you don’t you will eventually bemoan it. Take the first step, blaze a trail, No one will jeer you if you fail, but they will cheer when you prevail, because you pushed on through to own it.

Leap toward scholarship, toward leadership toward serving, spend every waking second learning, questioning, observing. And remember that everyone is deserving of a smile and respect. If you live your life with empathy, integrity, and class – there is no limit to the gifts you will amass. As long as your passion guides you, and your character drives you to constantly strive to accomplish things you never knew you could, then the end of every day, I hope you’ll close your eyes and say, “Not only did I do well…I did some good.”