Spoken-word poetry in education: Best practice guide

I’ve been interested in using spoken-word poetry in high-schools since I was a student-teacher. There are so many benefits for students. The NSW syllabus has caught up somewhat by offering two ‘performance poets’, Kate Tempest and Luka Lesson, for HSC study to inspire students’ own writing. However, Australia is a long way behind the USA and UK, where youth spoken-word programs in education have been operating on a large scale for over a decade, and making a big impact on student learning outcomes.

I was curious to know what we can do at a school level to bring the benefits of spoken-word into our classrooms. I briefly reviewed the available research on spoken-word poetry in education, youth spoken-word programs, and poet-educators from the USA, UK and Australia.

The following advice appears frequently:

  • Teachers should participate on equal basis with students in writing activities:

“whenever I’ve been in a class where…the teacher has shared what they’ve written… something vulnerable or personal, the respect between teacher and students becomes so equal and solid. Vulnerability is a tool that is sometimes undervalued by teachers.” (Luka Lesson cited in Xerri 2016)

  • Collaborate with professional poets to benefit both students and teachers:

“Writers often address the very same aspects of writing on which teachers may be working, and yet the effects can be radically different… their very living relies on their craft, and this clearly makes some important connection with pupils.” (Owen and Munden)

  • Cultivate a writing community beyond the classroom and extend opportunities to publish and perform into that wider community:

“the objective… is to make young people realize that their voice is important and that it has as great a value as any president’s, prime minister’s or anybody… once they’ve grasped that, you find that even the most nervous children often will get up and perform.” (Chelley McLear cited in Xerri 2017)

  • When students encounter a poem, ask “What do you notice?” rather than “What is it about?”

“the teacher’s role is… to find entry points into poems that echo students’ personal stories.” (Jon Sands cited by Nozica)

  • Have students engage in a regular practice of writing before introducing techniques, and wherever possible, show them the techniques present in their own writing:

“The skills of comprehension and analysis of form and language choice will develop over time, through the process of repeated composition and through exposure to a variety of texts.” (Nozica)

Outdoor Reading-Storyfest Workshop (1).jpg
A teacher shares her poem with students at a writing workshop, Sydney 2018.

To sum up, there seems to be a lot of valuable teaching strategies here; but it might require a bit of a re-think of our usual practice. I know personally how difficult it is as a classroom teacher to invite vulnerability into our practice; when in the same role we are expected to convey authority and firm boundaries. It’s also difficult for many schools to invite professional poets in to work with students, due to tight budgets and schedules. However, I think there’s a shining opportunity to partner up with spoken-word and poetry groups in your community. Live poetry events bring together semi-professional and emerging poets, many of them young and interesting. What better way to  get your students inspired than by bringing them in touch with a real poetry scene?

 

You can read more on teaching spoken-word poetry at my page for teachers. I will also be presenting at the ETA conference soon. Please contact me if you’d like more resources.


References:

Nozica, Narcisa. “Spotlight on poetry.” Metaphor 2 (2017): 24-29.

Xerri, Daniel. “‘Poetry does really educate’: An interview with spoken word poet Luka Lesson.” English in Australia 51.1 (2016): 18-24.

Xerri, Daniel. “Inspiring young people to be creative: Northern Ireland’s poetry in motion for schools.” New Writing 14.1 (2017): 127-137.

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