Introducing Slam Poetry to the High School ELA classroom

Introducing Slam Poetry to the High School ELA classroom

I’m late to the slam movement, but I am fast falling in love.  I introduced two of my classes to it this semester, and several students and I now share new poems that we find with each other.  I’ll be honest though, slam poetry is risky.

slampoetrygraphic4 - CopyPart of what defines it is the fact that it is raw emotion about painful events–and such raw emotion is rarely pretty or grammatically correct or edited for polite society.  Slam poetry is equal parts performance, metaphor, pacing, story-telling, and advocacy.  It will sucker punch you when you least expect it, either with its painful honesty or its biting ironic wit.

Below are five of my favorite slam poems, all of which I have played in my classroom. Yes, the language is often sailor-like and salty, but that’s part of their power.  Slam poetry is about letting go, and letting people who don’t know your pain or frustration share it.

(1)  Taylor Mail:  If you’re a teacher, and you haven’t been privvy to Taylor Mali’s taylor mali“What Teacher’s Make,” you’ll want to bookmark this and watch it about halfway through test season (what we used to call ‘spring.’) It’s statement of what teachers really do, and what we really make.  Mali’s other work is great, but as a middle school teacher, he sums up why we do what we do, and does it with power and pizazz. Here’s the text of it, but you MUST watch him perform it.   Goosebumps. I promise. (You can find Mali on Twitter at @

(2)  Janette McGhee Watson:  If you’ve ever wanted to wander through a woman’s head janetteand find out what heartbreak and weak and absent fathers do to our psyches, “I Waited for You” by Janette McGhee Watson will take you there. Unapologetically and artistically, her poem is her wedding vows, and they are forceful and brutally honest.  I have so much respect for her; it’s a ten minute treatise on why she is who she is, and why she is marrying the man in front of her, and it is as beautifully painful as anything you’ll see in a long time.  You’ll need to watch this a few times to get all of it, as her rapidfire word play is sometimes difficult to catch, but oh, is it ever worth it! You can find her and more of her work here.

(3) Jesse Parent“To the Boys Who May One Day Date My Daughter” jesseparent.jpgis just flat funny. Teenagers will love it because it’s a dad’s message to boys who, as the title says, may want to date his daughter.  It’s a message every parent has thought at some point, and as a teacher, I think it’s a very cool thing for our kids to know that this is how we feel about them. Funny, threatening, loving, and hopeful, it’s great fun, with only a little bit of controversial content. (Jesse tweets @jesseparent.)

(4) Amina Iro and Hannah Halpern (@hanhalp), the two girls who perform this poem, have taken their personal experiences and differences and made the point that those things aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. With the Middle East still (always?) in the forefront of the news, their poem is and likely will be, timely for a long time. Check out their take on the Arab-Israeli conflict here.

(5) As a trans-racial adoptive mom, Javon Johnson’s “cuz he’s black”   broke my JavonJohnsonheart, and forced me to look at my son differently.  Every person of color in the room will nod and agree, even if their white peers don’t.  With so much talk about racism in the media today, it’s important to remember that you cannot dictate to another person what their own experience is.  This poem helps teach that lesson. You can connect with Johnson on Twitterat @javonism.


6.  Kai Davis:  This last one might require special permission to use in the classroomkai depending on where you are because of the ferocity of the language, but it is so worth it.  Kai Davis’s “I Look Like” has a lot of f-bombs and n-words, but the message and the performance and the wordplay are near perfection. It’s about the judgement faced by smart kids of color by both their white and black peers, and how this one spunky young woman refuses to sell out to anyone.  Kai tweets at @KaiDavisPoetry.


Slam poetry’s increasing popularity makes it an amazing classroom tool, and because of its tendency toward performance, self-evaluation and clever phrase turning, can appeal to a wide range of people. However:  as a teacher, be cautious.  These poems and their honesty and salty language are not for every classroom.

If I’ve missed a good one, let me know in the comments!


A Spectator’s Shame: Tunnel to Towers 5k, Part II

A Spectator’s Shame: Tunnel to Towers 5k, Part II

I’ve already posted about that one amazing moment from the Tunnel to Towers race Saturday, but now, I want to post about some of the things I saw that day that made me feel like Lazy McSlackerpants. 

First, moms pushing double strollers, one kid strapped in, one jogging beside her. My kids would out run me after about six steps, assuming I missed the narrow window to trip them. Then they’d pick flowers, try to talk someone out of gum, and pet every dog in the vicinity, all accompanied with the saccharine smile of faux innocence. 

Two moms running a 5k wearing their babies. WEARING their babies, I said. WEARING THEM! That means the babies are small enough to be tied to them while they are running. Which means they are running so soon after delivery that it makes me squirm uncomfortably. See what I mean about feeling like a loser?

Then, there were whole families out there, sweating together. One family was pushing a double stroller, while one kid jogged and one kid got carried, and they had a grandparent running with them.  

The fastest I’ve ever seen my dad run was trying to get to first base in a slow pitch softball game with the VFW in about 1978. That was seriously funny to my 6 year-old self, and he may have even caught his breath by now. Mom? I’ve never seen her run or do anything remotely athletic, but I’ve always been scared to test whether or not she could…Because she brought me into the world, and can definitely take me out of it. Still. 

I saw a grandma carrying her granddaughter. A GRANDMA, for Pete’s sake. Carrying a grandchild on her back, and she was STILL JOGGING. I love my grandparents, but even when I was young enough to be carried by one of them, I’m not sure that a 5k would even have been on the radar. 

Elementary school kids. That’s not as physically impressive as the adults; I have three little kids, and they probably do at least a half marathon in any given day. But some of them were on the race route, and looked like they’d either run slower or faster than whatever grown-up they started out with. 

And there were some really old people, and when I say this, I am saying it with all the love, respect, and outright jealously my heart can produce. These were old enough they could be in a nursing home commercials old people, and there they were, moving faster than I’ve moved in a really long time, and wearing stretchy tight clothes to do it.  

Me + tight stretchy clothes is one of the top reasons I don’t exercise. I’d have to dress like that to exercise, and since I’m a sympathetic puker, I wouldn’t get anything done except for vomiting with the people who saw me in tight stretchy clothes. And since bulimia is unhealthy, I don’t risk it. See? Safer for everyone else. 

There were also a couple of people I know from work. One lady I knew ran a lot, and two I don’t know well enough to know their level of fitness dedication. Now that I do, I carry that lazy shame with me to work, too. 

I saw two women running in full firefighter turnout gear. Talk about fighting off feelings of complete inadequacy and uselessness–those two women are completely badass. (Yes, I know this is cussing, and yes I know I wrote about my cussing problem already, but if you have a better way to express the supreme compliment that is “badass” please tell me.) Those two women are tougher than me and stronger than me by far, and I’m not ashamed in the slightest to admit that. 

And look in the pictures for the firefighter with her kids.  There just aren’t pretty words to describe how awesome she is and how not awesome I am in the same sentence. 

And as I’m writing this, my belly full of buttery spaghetti and ice cold milk, I know I want to be that healthy, that physically fit. But at 43, and at least twice the weight I was back in my college days, it just feels too overwhelming.   

But then, I think about some of the other people who ran that day, and I think that maybe, there might be hope for me if I just get up and move.  Like Cool Blue Running Pants Lady or Pink Rain Boot Lady obviously did. 

So maybe I will. 

After another episode of Doctor Who. 

She wins the all-around badassery award: two kids AND turnout gear. Give this woman a trophy and a black leather jacket. (PS- I know it’s a crappy picture, but I had to share it, because whoever she is, she’s awesome.)
So many reasons she wins: Carrying the flag, smiling at my girls, AND pink rain boots. WIN!
Halfway through the race, this woman gave our Daisy Scouts smiles and fun, and a really cute running outfit. She wins, too,
This lady wins. I’m assuming she’s Grandma, and she was jogging!!
And he’s still smiling. Dad win!

Follow-Up and Stitches (Twice!)

Follow-Up and Stitches (Twice!)

As I’ve gotten older, I have come to embrace the rule that I won’t say anything about someone that I wouldn’t say to them. I wish I could say I’d lived my whole life like that, but I can’t.

In keeping with that, I talked with C’s pre-k teacher and I gave her the link to the article I wrote about our frustrations with the daily behavior chart. While I waited, she read it, smiled at me, gave me a hug and reassured me that ALL the pre-k kids are like that, and not to worry. She even told me something helpful he’d done that day, jumping up and helping move tables back in place after nap time. 

I told her those were the kind of things we needed to hear on the chart, especially those of us with really busy kids. We talked about how the school’s ongoing construction was impacting how the students were moved around the campus, and our shared fear that C would go exploring in those areas and end up in the rafters. 

We chuckled together, and she promised we’d see more positives. 

And then today, Corey ran–and by ran, I mean at top speed–into a cabinet in classroom. 

Several hours and three stitches later, he’d peeled the steri-strips off before we’d left the parking lot AND before the Versed the had actually worn off.

That’s my boy. 

And, on the way home, he picked out the stitches, so he had to go back for round two: more Versed and the non-dissolvable kind of stitches. 

See what I mean? You can’t make this stuff up! 


Pre-K and the Daily Behavior Report

Pre-K and the Daily Behavior Report

My husband and I struggled with the decision to put our youngest child in pre-k this year.  People who know us assure us that it’s because he’s a boy, and we’re only used to girls.  Our little boy, C. is “busy.” And busy is the nicest word we have found to describe our capricious little half-sized tornado.

I started praying for his teacher before we even knew he got into a pre-k class, because we knew teaching him is going to be a challenge.  Trust us, parenting him is no peanut butter and jelly sandwich, either.

Today, I am feeling more protective of him than usual, and defensive for him.  Read on, and I think you’ll understand.

His teacher is highly recommended, and everyone I’ve spoken with has loved her, so I know (hope, pray, expect) that it will get better.


Dear Teacher,

I’m not sorry for the snarky, desperate note I scribbled on C’s daily behavior log today, but I do feel the need to explain.

I was in a hurry, and took a bad picture. My response reads, "We've been working on this since he was a baby!"
I was in a hurry, and took a bad picture. My response reads, “We’ve been working on this since he was a baby!”

That little boy right there?  He’s mine. He’s our youngest, our last, and the only boy.

He doesn’t look like me, or my husband, but his little brown hands hold our pale ones for evening prayer each night.

When I come home from work, he charges at me, with an exuberant, “Mama!” and slams into me for a fast hug, before rushing off for more playtime.

When he talks about his daddy, his bright eyes light up, and he jabbers with excitement about his daddy’s trains, his daddy’s truck, cooking with his daddy, and swimming with his daddy. He points at my husband and says, “That’s MY daddy.”

And he talks about all six of his sisters, his speech teacher, Overtime at church, his birth mom, his grandparents, coloring, dancing, the movie Home, and riding his scooter.

He loves running, dogs, driving his sisters nuts, and seeing how many things he can stuff into another random thing. He likes building and taking apart, he plays jokes, wants his boo-boos bandaged, is a pro at finding weird places to pee, and he will, at the ripe old age of four, do cannonballs off the high-dive with no life jacket, and laugh all the way down.

He has the temper of a wildfire, and the drowsy snuggliness of a decades-old quilt. He wants to be read to, but rarely can sit still past page three.

He makes the silliest faces, and in perfectly good humor, will ignore you the first 147 times you tell him to go get in his bed. And on request #148, he’ll wriggle down the hall, taunting that he doesn’t like us.  Minutes later, we hear, “Mama, Daddy!  I want YOU!”

We have to set a timer at dinner, or he will play with his food, his sister’s food, the dog, his silverware, my silverware, visit the bathroom three times, and try to go outside at least once.

Dentist’s offices don’t use as many toothbrushes as we do, because they can be used for everything, including disassembling the flush mechanisms on the toilet, brushing his hair, playing with his feet, and any number of ways to annoy his sisters. I’ve already mentioned that? Oh yeah, he’s a pro at getting them mad enough to tell like a dying Ton-Ton on the ice planet Hoth.

But in the midst of all the crazy he creates, he will stop, look up, smile, and blink charmingly at you, like the perfect little angel he could be if he never moved.

So when I get notes from you, every day, saying he needs to work on keeping his hands to himself, I have a hard time responding.

Not one day has gone by since he started walking—and he pretty much skipped crawling–that we haven’t, several times in the span of just a few minutes, told him to keep his hands to himself.   To be still.  To stop that.

He is curious, insistent, helpful, stubborn, and very, very clever. He gets bored once he’s figured something out.

We work on his sitting still skills.  We practice following directions, using routines and procedures, and staying in line. Every. Single. Day.

C. reminds me of my uncle, whose nickname he shares: athletic, really bright, fearless, and hopefully, someday, smart enough to walk the line between adventure and trouble.

I hope he continues to love to learn, and get excited about being in school like his big sisters.

And I worry that if all he hears is that he needs to stay in line, keep his hands to himself, and stop swinging his lunchbox, he will lose the exuberant joy he has when he discovers something new.

And while I know he needs to do all those things in the classroom, and I also know that he needs to hear the good he does too. So do his parents.

So, could you help a mama out, and maybe once a week, find something nice to say about my little boy?

He really is trying.

Thank you,