Poetry slams can be nerve-racking to the unprepared, but as two second grade classes from Edmunds Elementary School filled Aiken Hall’s Morgan Room on June 8, 2017, it was clear none of them were ill-prepared. The slammers not only memorized original and established works, they came with posters detailing their creative process as well as what they thought made a good performance. One poster titled “What makes a good poetry reading?” outlined how important voice and body movement were while another called “Pillars of a good poem” represented image, emotion, and music as a top priority for these young poets.
Before the slam got underway, one of the teachers explained the judging process. There wouldn’t be points, but instead, a few former students came, instruments in hand, ready to show their appreciation for the arts by way of music. The louder the instruments, the better the score. All the slammers received a well-deserved raucous. If any of the poets forgot a line or two, their fellow classmates were there with a helping hand to get them back on track.
The poems ranged from trampolines and friends to loneliness and loss. One student performed Langston Hughes’ “Dream Theater” while another did Shel Silverstein’s “Diving Board.” And, of course, there was a passionate anti-homework poem (because no one, not even elementary schoolers, enjoys homework). Regardless of theme, all the performers put their hearts into it, giving every onomatopoeia the punch and volume they could.
One thing’s for sure: there was no boring poetry in those classrooms. Many students face a natural aversion to poetry because it seems like the kind of thing old white men do when they have a big vocabulary. Some students might be against the idea of performing in front of an audience, but a study done by St. John Fisher College stated that “teaching spoken word poetry is important because it addresses students’ critical thinking, demographic engagement, and empowers their voice through verse.” These poets saw that poetry doesn’t have to be boring. It can be jumping around while delivering a piece about trampolines or yelling about the rain ruining recess. They have the freedom not only to write what they want to but present it how they like as well. They’ll not only be more inclined to write more, they’ll learn they have a voice only they can utilize.
Slam competitions get less and less intimidating the more you do them. Whether they’re big competitions or for a room of fifty parents, these students already have a jump on the competition. Starting out in the Morgan Room with the support of your parents and peers is a good way to build a foundation of confidence they can carry into more competitions—should they choose to pursue the noble art of slam poetry. Studies have shown that slam poetry is a great way for students to build identity and confidence. The transition from instruments and peers to judges and points will be an easier one now that they’ve had practice.
As for those of us who are already past the second grade, we can learn a few things from these little poets: be silly, write poems condemning homework, and help your fellow writers when they forget the words.