Spoken Word Poetry Doesn’t Have to be Scary

The first day is always the hardest. Often the announcement is met with uncertainty, fear, the feeling that too much is being asked. By the end, writers swell with pride knowing that they created something powerful, something meaningful, something they never thought was possible. 


The spoken word unit begins by viewing 3-year old Pe’ Tehn performing “Hey, Black Child,” written by Countee Cullen. When little Pe’ Tehn first walks on stage, she walks with confidence. Her voice rises and falls, bringing power to each line delivered. As she ends, my students are hooked. They want to watch again and again, identifying performance moves by the 3-year old performer, and craft moves Cullen used in her writing. 

A primary goal is to get my students to see that spoken word poetry is for everyone. Some feel as if they don’t have anything important enough to write about, others are nervous about the performance piece. To help calm some of these nerves, we talk about how spoken word poetry began in ancient times and has its roots in oral tradition. We look at the griots of West Africa and troubadours from the Middle Ages; the shift in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Then, we look at spoken word poetry today and how kids all over the world are finding their voices on stage. They are speaking about things that matter to them in their lives and in the world around them. 

Before writing our own poems, we view dozens of performances to try to gain an understanding of the genre itself. The type of spoken word poems we watch are varied from content, to delivery. Some find power in visuals that accompany the performance, others in the way the words are woven together, and still others in the loudness or stillness the poem conveys. These poems are all powerful for various reasons. 

Mentor Texts

After analyzing various spoken word poems for craft and performance moves, many students feel ready to try their hands at their own poems. However, for those who are not quite ready, providing a structure to work with has proved helpful. There are three specific poems that students emulate year after year. They have a predictable pattern that writers are able to grab ahold of to get themselves started. 

  • “Why Am I Not Good Enough?” by Olivia Vella In this poem, grade 7 student, Olivia Vella counts all the reasons she feels as if she isn’t good enough. It delves into insecurities plaguing many of our students from fitting in to not disappointing others. This poem is not only accessible, it also showcases how lists can become a skeleton for a poem. 
  • The Loneliest Sweet Potato by Sabrina Benaim This poem is written in a similar style to the well-loved children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff. Students pick up on the similarities right away. It doesn’t take much to transfer the idea of one thing leading to another into a poem. 
  • The Future Ancients, by Luka Lesson Luka Lesson’s, “The Future Ancients,” is best for older students. Lesson provides a commentary on how our lives today will eventually all be studied in the future. Our very lives will be analyzed bit by bit by the actions we took and the decisions we made. The illustrations that accompany this poem grab students’ attention. Providing a series of sentence stems helps students craft powerful poems about how they see the world around them. 

The Performance

Once a solid poem has been written, it’s time to think about performance. I’ve had varied success with open mic times-the students who are always willing to share, want to recite their poems and those who don’t share, don’t want to recite their poems. Instead, I now ask everyone to create a video recording of their performance. Performers have unlimited options in how they choose to create their video. Some do a straight video recording, others illustrate their poems and then voice over, some do stop motion animation. In opening up how they choose to create their video, students stay motivated all the way to the end. 

Year after year of having students engage in a unit on spoken word poetry, I am constantly blown away by the performances at the end of the unit. Writers who never thought they were capable of writing and performing a powerful piece of poetry become proud of their final product. They persevere through the “I cant’s” and “I don’t know how to do it” and end the unit with confidence.  

2 thoughts on “Spoken Word Poetry Doesn’t Have to be Scary

  1. The word ‘poetry’ always seems to petrify kids, so anything that is brought down to their level is encouraging. I love these suggestions. I’d often begin with a topic and a word list of anything about that topic and go from there. 🙂


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