Reading & Literacy

Spoken-Word Poets Bring Words to Life for Students

By Alyssa Morones — September 16, 2013 7 min read
Spoken-word poets Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye pose at the High Line, a park built on what was once an elevated railroad in New York City. The pair travel to K-12 schools and universities across the country to promote their art form.
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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 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, and inspire.

Creative Process

They begin each of their school visits with a show, introducing students to their art form with an original spoken-word performance.

See Also

Watch spoken-word performances from Sarah Kay, Phil Kaye and others.

“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 poems.

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 Fremont 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 interesting.”

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 spoken-word 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.

Spoken-word poets Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay, above, co-direct Project VOICE, an organization that brings spoken-word poetry workshops and performances to schools across the United States and around the world. The art form encompasses verses that were created to be recited out loud, such as beat poetry, rather than read on paper.

“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 students 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, 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.”

Engaging Students

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 spoken-word 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 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 bothers me. It’s a way to let out a little steam.”

Diane Luby Lane, who started the Get Lit-Words Ignite spoken-word-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.

Expanding Horizons

Another way the art form is spreading is through technology. 
“Even 10 years ago, spoken-word 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.”

Spoken-Word Poetry Performances

Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye, of Project VOICE, perform “An Origin Story,” describing how they met and how their friendship grew:

Junior Herrera, 20, of East Los Angeles College performs “Can I Speak About My Culture":

Aishah Allah, 18, a graduate from Hamilton High School in California performs “Confetti":

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Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2013 edition of Education Week as Spoken-Word Poets Bring Words to Life for Students


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