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!

Faith Is Not A Four-Letter Word

Faith Is Not A Four-Letter Word

Hi, my name is Tracy, and I have a cursing problem. 

My first instinct, when pretty much anything off-kilter happens, is to break out all the salty words I learned growing up.




Sunuvatrailer hitch!

That’s me.  

Except I use, and fight using, the real versions of these words. Daily. Hourly. And if I’m honest, sometimes it’s actually minute to minute. 

And as an English major, I can use most of these words quite flexibly in at least three, if not four, parts of speech. I am (mostly) not proud to admit it, but those closest to me know my struggle. It is, as the saying goes, real. 

I am a public school teacher, and have managed in my 18 year career to only curse at a student out loud in front of a class, once. Today, members of that class are some of my favorite Facebook buddies, and the object of my frustration that day has grown up to be a remarkable young man with whom I occasionally have really interesting conversations. So, thankfully, I didn’t scar him for life. 

My propensity for profane language has also put me in the uncomfortable situation of having to explain to my children why they are not allowed to use the same words as mommy. I am not proud of this, and am sharing only to place the story to come in its proper context. 

After a lifetime of having to bleep my language for stubbed toes and dropped bowls of cereal, imagine my surprise when, as I was being t-boned by a mid-sized pick-up truck early Friday morning, I wasn’t cussing.

I was calling out, “Oh God! Jesus!”

In the moment of my life when I was more afraid for my personal safety than I’ve ever been, I didn’t use my day-to-day go-to list of sailor’s words. 

I resorted to my faith. 

It’s one of the strongest memories I have from the wreck, and may come to be one of the defining moments of my faith. I don’t publicly talk about my faith often, because I know that I don’t set the example of what a Christian should be, (refer back to the beginning of this this for a reminder).  

I also have always treated my faith as a private thing, something to nurture and struggle with privately, individually. I know this isn’t what the Bible teaches, but again, me = completely imperfect. A lot of my family are atheists, and for the sake of keeping peace, I often avoid religious conversations, preferring to live by example rather than profession. But so strong is the memory of 6:17 AM Friday morning, that I’m reconsidering the implicit treaty of silence that my non-believing friends and family and I have shared. 

One of the few sermons I specifically remember from my childhood, involves Reverend Dicer from the Tipp City Church of the Nazarene telling the story of a friend of his who had drowned. He shared with us his hope that his non-Christian friend had looked skyward as he sank and asked for God’s blessing on his life and impending death. 

And a friend of mine once taught me that baptism is the outward sign of an inward change. For me, that inward change has been a slow, decades-long procession working toward doing the best I can each day, every day, to be worth the price Christ paid. 

Most days, I count far too many mistakes, too many moments of weakness, and too many failures of thought, speech, and action to come close to even a fraction of the value of a life sacrificed. 

But the one time it really counted for me, a true test of who or what I’d call on, I feel like I passed that test. 

I hope in the days that come, as my bruises come to the surface and fade away, and the sore muscles knot and stretch, I will keep that gratitude for my life, and that instantaneous acknowledgment of my faith at the forefront of my mind. There is great peace and comfort in knowing for certain what you believe, and why you believe it, and how it will show. 

So for now, as I navigate insurance, claims adjusters, car pool and potential van shopping, I will cling to that comfort, and the gratitude I feel for my life, my aching muscles, and my faith