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.