High School Students and Poetry Out Loud
During my first year of teaching, I was so ready to be that teacher from an inspirational movie who changes students’ lives drastically with one lesson (disclaimer to all my non-teacher friends: this doesn’t happen in real life). Enter: slam poetry. While the twelve-year olds in every corner of my class wiggled out of their seats, physically unable to contain their excitement, there was still one less-than-enthused desk-drooler. Little did she know that I was ready to change her mind… and her life.
After weeks of writing and revising, my classes were ready to perform. Sleepy-head still hadn’t written anything, and I was daily becoming more disillusioned about the so-called “power of poetry.” I scheduled her last in our performance to give her one final chance to throw something together. When it came time for her performance, she stepped up, front and center, much to everyone’s surprise. The perfectly crafted words tumbled into the ears of my wide-eyed students, causing even the most antsy to pause from pencil-thievery for a moment.
I went up to her afterwards and nearly shook her, saying, “You had it in you all along!”
We celebrated each other that day. We celebrated the words that were silly and serious alike because they were ours. Also, I had obviously changed this student’s mind about poetry, and thus changed her life.
However, this bubbly state was soon burst. While sifting through student poetry that afternoon, I discovered my desktop dweller’s breakthrough poem was none other than the words of Maya Angelou.
In recalling this smoky, film-noir-like memory of discovering my little plagiarist, I have had two distinct thoughts:
One: Why on earth would someone believe their Language Arts teacher would miss the fact that she had taken words from Maya-freaking-Angelou?
Two: In truly believing that words are powerful, I had to choose to believe that maybe something about these words compelled her and maybe something about her own words frightened her.
Rather than endure the painful vulnerability of searching for her own words, it was easier for my student to hide behind those of someone whose vulnerability had already been articulated and even celebrated. Good writing is inherently vulnerable. This soul-baring process is the most debilitating obstacle any writer will face, and here it was in action. Good writing is also inherently life-changing, and this was the cause I promised to champion when I decided to be a teacher.
I love teaching twelve-year-olds about commas and topic sentences, but I often forget why writing compels me while facing the question being pelted at me: “Why DO words matter?” I’ve learned the process of reclaiming my first love by telling my students about my fueling vision: that writing creates and explores identity, that writing is an act of bravery as you learn to embrace vulnerability, that writing is pure, simple catharsis for those dark moments. I also tell them that for all of this beauty, writing is incredibly difficult.
In that debilitating place where words are hard and vulnerable because Maya Angelou set the bar so high, one begins to ask, “How should a writer even begin? How does an artist lift her head from the safer spot on her desk?” In the words of theologian Francis Schaeffer, it’s actually quite simple: “I would insist that [s]he begin [her] work as an artist by setting out to make a work of art.” Be a writer by writing. Begin.
These reasons are why I am excited about this year’s Poetry Ourselves competition. This is the second year of including student-written poetry at the national Poetry Out Loud competition. Winners of each state Poetry Out Loud competition are encouraged to submit an original work--either written or spoken. This year’s judge, Naomi Shihab Nye, will be choosing one winner from each category. Winning students will be featured on arts.gov and poetryoutloud.org.
This new Poetry Out Loud tradition is the perfect way to tie old and new together, pushing these word-loving students out of hiding. What better way to usher in this new generation of poets than to celebrate the ideas they are just starting to ground in words?
Getting out of hiding and sharing poetry isn’t exclusive to the brave high school students competing in Poetry Out Loud. Minnesota has one of the most vibrant poetry scenes in the country. Lucky for us, Guante has a compiled list of poetry events happening all around the Twin Cities (one of which includes the Be Heard Youth Slam 2017 at the Loft!). Listed below are a few events for poets of all ages and abilities:
Long story short: if you’re a closet poet, get involved. Be a writer by being a writer.
This is convicting (word?) to me as well. My ideals about the power of creative writing often stop short of actually just sitting down to write. I have drawn inspiration from basking in the words of the writing super-stars at the Loft, but just as easily, I freeze in the wake of their prowess the same way my little plagiarizing student froze in the shadow of Maya Angelou.
I choose not to freeze. I choose to embrace all of the awkward vulnerability that happens during writing. I choose bravery in the face of my fear.
Regardless of your word-slinging level, we do hope that you can find your writing home in one of word-celebrating places listed above. We also hope that you will join us as we bask, for a moment, in the shadows of the sage poets who have come before us at the Semifinal and State Poetry Out Loud recitation competition on March 7-8 at the Loft. Together, we’ll bask, and then together, we’ll step forward, writing our way toward becoming writers.
Amanda Fredrickson learned almost everything she knows from teaching 7th grade literature and writing in Minneapolis for the past two years. She is an expert at writing five-paragraph essays and a novice at writing plays, but she definitely enjoys one more than the other. She currently interns at the Loft for Poetry Out Loud in the morning, directs middle school theatre in the afternoon, and makes coffee by night.