Education Week - September 18, 2013 - (Page 6)
6 EDUCATION WEEK
SEPTEMBER 18, 2013 www.edweek.org
Spoken-Word Poets Bring Words to Life for Students
Educators, YouTube revive ancient art
By Alyssa Morones
Thousands of years ago, the ancient
Greeks recited epic poems
aloud. Actors have breathed life
into Shakespeare’s soliloquies
since the 16th century. Now, a pair
of poet-educators are working to
bring the rich art of spoken-word
poetry to students from kindergarten
to graduate school.
“The powerful and important
thing about spoken word is, it
doesn’t matter what the words
look like on paper,” said Sarah
Kay, a poet and the founder of
a nonprofit organization that
brings spoken-word poetry to
schools. “It’s about what it sounds
like when you say it out loud.”
While poetry long has been a
staple of K-12 English classes, spoken-word
poetry, an art form that
extends from the beat poetry of the
1950s to contemporary rap, is less
commonly taught. But Ms. Kay and
other educators who have worked
with her organization believe that
kind of poetry may be especially
well-suited to connecting with
young people at an emotional level,
making traditional poetry more accessible
to students, and sharpening
their critical-thinking skills.
“It inspires them to actually
start putting pen to paper. If their
curriculum is not inspiring them,
something like this can,” said
Ruben Zamora, a Sunnyvale, Calif.,
school librarian and poetry adviser
who invited Ms. Kay’s organization,
Project VOICE, for Vocal Outreach
Into Creative Expression, to perform
at his school.
Ms. Kay conceived the idea for
the project in 2004 as a way to
share the art of spoken-word poetry
with students in her high school,
the United Nations International
School in New York, and revived it
in 2007 with the help of her friend
Phil Kaye, a fellow spoken-word
poet, while both were sophomores
at Brown University. Together, the
young poets expanded the program
to tour schools across the country
and around the world, including
the United Kingdom, Singapore,
and South Africa.
Their mission? To entertain, educate,
They begin each of their school
visits with a show, introducing
students to their art form with an
original spoken-word performance.
“A lot of students have never seen
spoken-word performed,” said Ms.
Kay. “What we try to do with each
performance is show them how
many different options of the art
form there are.”
Then, in workshops of about 25
students each, Ms. Kay and Mr.
Kaye try to build on the school’s existing
curricula and help students
create and perform their own spoken-word
One of the first two schools where
they performed was Mr. Zamora’s.
They visited Fremont High School,
in Sunnyvale, in 2009 at his request.
“Through the workshop process,
students write and create ideas,”
he said. “They form a poem and
then share it and they produce
some really good stuff.”
Project VOICE returned to Fre-
mont in 2010, 2011, and 2012, and
the school is hoping to bring the
poets back next school year.
Fremont senior Sioeli Kaho was a
freshman when he first saw a VOICE
performance at his school.
“I remember walking into the
room kind of skeptical, thinking
how I’m not a big poetry guy,” said
Mr. Kaho. “But, watching them, I
was like, wow, this is actually really
He’s been a member of Fremont’s
spoken-word club ever since.
According to Mr. Zamora, attendance
at the open-microphone
events held by Fremont’s spokenword
club has more than doubled
since the VOICE workshops.
“Ms. Kay and Mr. Kaye catapulted
that whole culture on our
campus,” Mr. Zamora said.
He noted that a handful of
teachers at Fremont now incorporate
spoken-word in their classrooms,
giving students several
creative options in place of a standard
report. Those include multimedia
reports and essays, songs,
or spoken-word poems.
“These options all still meet the
teacher’s rubric and criteria, but
now students have the freedom to
be more creative,” said Mr. Zamora.
Tool for Common Core
Project VOICE’s approach to poetry
may be timely as schools in most
states move to teach the Common
Core State Standards and in keeping
with the new standards’ focus
on text complexity, said Eileen
Murphy, a member of the National
Council of Teachers of English.
“Poetry is in a unique position
to offer teachers a complex, and
many times brief, text when time
is a sparse resource,” said Ms.
Murphy, the founder and CEO of
ThinkCERCA, which stands for
Claim, Evidence, Reason, Counterargument,
and Audience, located
in Chicago, which aims to help
teachers encourage critical thinking
in their students.
The emphasis on having stu-
dents create their own works
in teaching spoken-word poetry
adds a deeper educational dimension
to the lessons, according
to James Catterall, a professor
emeritus at the graduate school
of education and information
studies at the University of California,
Los Angeles, who specializes
in arts and human development.
“Teaching poetry and
teaching art are different things,”
he said. Teaching poetry is “the
teacher pouring content into the
kids. [Creating spoken-word] is
more than just memorizing or
understanding. It’s asking kids
to think critically.”
While there hasn’t been much
research on the learning benefits
of teaching spoken-word poetry,
Phil Kaye and Sarah
Kay, above, co-direct
Project VOICE, an
poetry workshops and
schools across the
United States and
around the world.
The art form
that were created to be
recited out loud, such
as beat poetry, rather
than read on paper.
Mr. Catterall said, “working out expressions
in an art form is bound
to boost cognitive development and
[students’] ways of thinking and
their approach to problems.”
Another spoken-word educator is
Peter Kahn, who taught it for nine
years at Oak Park/River Forest
High School in Oak Park, Ill. He
recently left to launch a spokenword
education training program
for teachers at Goldsmiths College,
University of London.
He said the medium can have a
transformative effect on students.
“It improves students as readers
and writers, their critical thinking
and analysis, their self-confidence,
their literacy skills,” he said.
In his years as a spoken-word
VIDEOS:Want to watch
a performance of
Catch Sarah Kay and two
student poets in action.
educator, Mr. Kahn found that students
who were otherwise disengaged
because of problems outside
the classroom benefited the most.
“If you’re scared, you can’t take
in new information,” he said. “Spoken-word
allows kids to get those
problems down on the page, to
share them verbally, and to get rid
of that background noise.”
Fremont student Sioeli Kaho
concurred: “Spoken word gives
me a way to act out and say how I
feel and talk about anything that
It’s a way to let out a
Diane Luby Lane, who started
the Get Lit-Words Ignite spokenword-poetry
program in Los Angeles,
found the same to be true.
Many of the students she works
with are at risk of dropping out of
school or, if not, are still dealing
with major problems in their lives.
“They’re supported in turning
their stories into art. It affects
their whole relationship with
school and learning.”
Because students typically get
little exposure to spoken-word
poetry, Ms. Kay said she and her
colleagues have found that students
are often “hungry for it”
once they get a taste. “We know
not every school has the means to
have a big arts program, but that
shouldn’t stop students from having
access. That’s one of the things
we’re working on.”
Project VOICE is funded through
grants and from the fees charged
to schools for each visit. The
charges are determined by how
much time the poets spend at the
school. Mr. Kaye and Ms. Kay hope
to raise enough money during the
coming year to subsidize schools
that wouldn’t otherwise be able to
fit the program into their budgets.
Before the teaching artists leave
a school, Project VOICE helps them
continue to boost the spoken-word
presence on their campuses. That
includes everything from providing
them with information on resources
in their area to helping
set up spoken-word poetry clubs.
Another way the art form is
spreading is through technology.
“Even 10 years ago, spokenword
was hard to find unless you
lived in a city,” said Mr. Kaye.
Now, sites like YouTube give students
the opportunity to see a variety
of poets and performances from
all over the world. Several YouTube
channels are dedicated solely to
spoken-word, including Speakeasynyc,
which features performances
from poets across the nation.
In an effort to expand Project
VOICE, Ms. Kay and Mr. Kaye recently
hired a new poet to join
their team and hope to gradually
add more. In the meantime, Ms.
Kay and Mr. Kaye are working on
developing a text version of their
curriculum, so that schools and
teachers will have a solid foundation
to build on after their visit.
Said Mr. Kaye: “We’re trying to
create a structure that lets our visit
be as long-lasting and impactful
and meaningful as possible.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded
learning time, and arts learning is
supported in part by a grant from
The Wallace Foundation, at www.
Week retains sole editorial control over
the content of this coverage.
Melanie Burford/Prime for Education Week
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - September 18, 2013
Education Week - September 18, 2013
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Education Week - September 18, 2013