A turning point for spoken-word poetry in schools

For the first time in NSW, ‘performance poetry’ is now part of the English syllabus. Two poets have been listed for study in the Higher School Certificate: Kate Tempest from the UK, and Australian Luka Lesson. When I’m not writing and performing, I teach secondary English on the north coast of NSW, and I’ve been watching the developments of spoken-word in education closely in recent times.

Here’s my PMI analysis of the current turning point for spoken-word poetry in schools, at least in NSW Australia:

PLUS:

  • Spoken-word poetry is a form which shows high levels of engagement among young people. With its connection to hip-hop, inclusive demographic and often direct language choices, it appeals to the ‘reality’ and relevance students may feel is missing in other curriculum.
  • Spoken-word uses an entire suite of alternative writing methods and poetic devices, providing opportunities for students’ creative development in new and substantial ways.
  • Having spoken-word poetry on the new HSC syllabus acts instantly signals its value, not just as engaging texts but as respected literature. This may eventually facilitate greater awareness for it among teachers, parents, and the broader community.
  • Spoken-word poetry events, like slams and open mics, have already been shown to increase young people’s engagement with poetry beyond the classroom. In the USA, young poets are credited with initiating the highest percentage of poetry readership in more than 15 years. This is good news if our aim in teaching is to inspire a lifelong love of language and literature.
  • With the digital communication revolution, poetry has become far more accessible and available, and spoken-word poets have been at the forefront of the change. Youtube has become an abundant public library of live poetry, giving teachers instant access to a huge range of texts and playlists to suit their students.
  • While there are many more possibilities that teachers may not yet be aware of, the poets featured on the new syllabus are very well-chosen. I myself would have picked those two names, after 15 years immersed in spoken-word. Kate Tempest’s hypnotic vision re-animates the art of oral storytelling, with an uncompromisingly youthful twenty-first-century perspective. Luka Lesson has established a successful career on the back of many years teaching and mentoring young people to write, and as such his genuine understanding of the school-age audience is unparalleled.

MINUS:

  • Although you could argue that oral poetry has been around for a long time, spoken-word poetry is still fairly new. Teachers may not have had the chance to study it themselves at tertiary level and certainly not in their own schooling. In order to teach it effectively, they will need access to strong resources, ideally covering the history of spoken-word, its cultural impact, various forms, and literary devices.
  • Because spoken-word has always embraced those aspects of performance that don’t easily translate to the page, scholars and teachers have previously found it difficult to study. There is a very limited scholarly discourse around this form, compounded by entrenched views of what ‘proper poetry’ should be. I started investigating the technical devices used in spoken-word poetry for my Honours thesis in 2005; I was amazed that academics hadn’t covered it yet. More than ten years down the track, there’s still a fairly large gap in the literature.
  • There’s always potential for a great move in curriculum to backfire; in this case, my inner pessimist worries that a new generation of young people might grow up hating spoken-word poetry because they ‘had to do it in school’. Thankfully, teachers tend to be tenacious, passionate and ever-curious bunch, so that probably won’t come to pass.

INTERESTING:

  • While many poets have grown weary of the ‘page vs. stage’ debate, in the classroom this could spark some real insight for students. Spoken-word is not in competition with ‘page’ poetry, but some may find one or the other more appealing for interesting reasons.
  • Spoken-word gives us lots of opportunities to teach language as play. Just look at the concept of rhyme – younger children do it spontaneously, and hip-hop artists use it as elaborate improvisation through freestyling. Rhyme can open up new ways into writing for those students who dread putting pen to paper.
  • Performed poetry requires more than just performers. Staging a poetry event also allows students to learn to be active audience members, judges, timekeepers, organisers, and team members. Better yet, let them take ownership and direct the event they want.
  • Poets who work with schools have often commented that in order to really inspire students’ writing, teachers also need to be willing to take part and make themselves vulnerable as beginner writers. Candy Royalle and Luka Lesson in their roles with Red Room Poetry both felt that students gained more respect for teachers who took this risk.
  • The new syllabus includes performance poetry in a new module called ‘Craft of Writing’. Students study exemplary short pieces of writing and then develop their own craft by imitating, experimenting, editing and polishing. How will examiners assess skills a student has learnt through spoken word, such as flow, dynamics and vocal delivery, in a written exam?

It’s certainly an interesting time for education as well as for spoken-word. You can hear more by signing up for updates from this blog, or following me on Facebook.

For teachers, you can also hear me present on this topic at the ETA Annual Conference. Are you planning to use performance poetry with your classes? Please share your thoughts below or contact me – I’d love to hear what you’re up to.

 

*Featured image source Youtube: Outloud Australia channel

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