“We have to keep our cheering up! Get each other excited!”
“OK. You’re on. Lots of energy. Go!”
There was plenty of cheering and excitement at South View Middle School when eighth-grade language arts students performed their own spoken word poems for classmates and visiting teaching artist Frank Sentwali. The coffeehouse “open-mic”-style performances were the culminating project of Sentwali’s two-week residency, funded by a grant from the South View Parent Council in partnership with COMPAS.
Drafting a one- to three-minute poem was the first step. Sentwali discouraged poems on the subjects of sports, video games and romantic relationships, but encouraged students to explore any other topic that was personally meaningful.
“What emerged,” in the words of Principal Beth Russell, who heard many of the presentations, were common themes of adolescence and the uniqueness of their age. Poems described the beauty of nature and their surroundings, and relationships within the family and among friends with keen awareness and detail. The words of their poems contained pleas to be understood, loved and valued for who they are. They spoke of the desire for respect and kindness and the painful dance between being the bystander, bully and sometimes the victim of harsh words, gestures, and exclusiveness. They also spoke about the challenges and pressures they feel from parents, schoolwork, fitting in and finding value to their lives in their dreams for their futures.
The written draft of the poem was only the beginning of the experience. During the two-week residency, Sentwali helped students explore the vocabulary and the rhythm of the spoken word, as well as the theatrical and visual elements involved in performing a spoken word piece. “We’re taking poetry to its genesis,” said Sentwali. “As an oral art form, poetry has been around much longer than the written word.” Students learned to use their voices, their hands, their eyes and bodies to emphasize ideas and emotions in their work.
At the end of the performances, many students were lining up to have their photo taken with Sentwali. “Take this as a building block for future public speaking opportunities,” Sentwali told students. “Take what you’ve learned here and apply these skills. You’ve done it once. Grow and be confident!”