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!

 

When White People Comment on My Transracial Family

When White People Comment on My Transracial Family

I bet that title got your attention a little.  Good. I’m glad you’re here.

Toward the end of a twenty-three hour road trip this summer, I attempted to explain to my daughters M and N that because there are very few people of any color where we were going, we were likely to have more than our usual number of stares and comments.  Because we are a white parent/black children family, we get a lot of both.

N didn’t say anything; she usually doesn’t.

M said, in her typical blunt way, “If there isn’t anyone who looks like us, why would you take us there?”  Her depth often shocks me, and that it is my job to help her use her powers for good and not evil (yeah, we’re nerds like that), is a scary venture.

Anyway.

Good question, kiddo.

This is what I told her:

  1. Because you go where your family is.
  2. The color of our skin does not dictate where we go or what we do.

I want my girls to be as intentionally culturally courageous as adults as they are unintentionally as children.  They mix and mingle with everyone, talk with ease amongst kids of all backgrounds, and I don’t want them to lose that.  So as they grow, we have conversations about race, race perceptions, culture, community, and how our family and their birth families all fit into the conversation. But that’s at home.

When we’re in public, we are very conspicuously on display.  And people who see us, and are intrigued by us, often feel compelled to communicate their feelings about us to us.  What follows is almost always an awkward “I-don’t-spend-much-time-with-minorities-but-I-feel-like-I-have-to-say-something” conversation that happens mostly with white people.

Most comments come down to three things: where we “got” them, their above-average adorableness, and the way their hair is styled.

Asking me in front of my kids, where I got my kids is like walking up to someone and asking where they bought their car.  Or asking someone with an eggplant in their grocery buggy where the vegetable section is because they’ve always wanted to try eggplant. My children are not cars we have purchased, nor are they eggplants we obtained because we were curious.  They are children with ears that work. What they can’t do is process all the nuances, assumptions, and social issues loaded into that question.

Physically, my kids are just flat adorable; two of them have never taken a bad picture, and one of them has a smile and laugh that lights up the world around them.  They all have lashes to die for, beautiful smiles, and gorgeous glowing Hershey and mahogany skin.  They are four, five, and six, so they’re even in a cute age group.

And without fail, every time we’re in public, people comment on their cuteness.  This consistency leaves me suspicious.  Are the comments truly about the epic levels of cute, or are they something else?

When a white family is out in public with their children, how often does another white person comment to them about how cute their kids are? I believe that if my kids where white, or at least looked more like my husband and me, we would get almost no comments about their physical attractiveness.  And I don’t think there’s anything malicious about this.  Hang with me, we’re almost to the theory.

Then people ask about their hair. They want to know who does it and how does it stay that way.  A side note on basic etiquette:  Please don’t touch my kids when you ask that about their hair; they are not puppies.  They have personal space and full control over who does and doesn’t get to touch them.  It’s very awkward to have a stranger walk up, touch a poof or braid, and ask who does them.

To answer that, for the most part, I do, unless it’s a style I can’t do, or am feeling lazy enough to pay someone else to do it.

But what’s behind the question?  Are you trying to make conversation to recommend a stylist, or are you just being nosy?  I’ve never seen a white person ask another white person who does their child’s hair.

It doesn’t matter how they have it styled, when we are in public, anywhere with people milling about, we get comments from random strangers about the beads, the braids, the poofs, or the ‘fro.

Here’s my theory:

This brief public interaction is not about my children or my family at all.  It is a way for the the other person to offer their recognition of our uniqueness, and to somehow validate it and offer us a sense of acceptance.

I think the comments and questions are, in part, to prove to themselves and our family that the speaker is not racist, and that they are happy to see families like ours. I see it as them wanting to offer support and acceptance, and not knowing what else to say except that our kids are cute.  I truly do appreciate the warm fuzzies.  I do.

But.

While I’m grateful that lots of people want to offer us that validation, I wish they’d just smile at us and leave it at that.

I love that people want to reach out, but the hyper-inflation of my kids’ ego is getting difficult to manage. Trust me, they know they’re cute.  And when they get tired of hearing it, sometimes it’s difficult to keep their manners in check.

During that long road trip, we went to a famous national retailer that rhymes with CallTart, and my kids quadrupled the people of color count in the store that day.

I kept count because I knew it would be a doozy.  We got:

  • eight “your girls are so pretty”
  • four “I love the bling/beads/braids/braids” in their hair
  • two randomly shared hair stories that involved mixed-race nieces and nephews
  • four hostile glances
  • four knowing smiles

By the fifth compliment, M. had had enough and pretending no one was there and that she hadn’t heard anything. N has her own set of drummers in her head, and never seems bothered about people, unless those people are her siblings, and then it’s radar-lock battle time. So she just did her own thing, sometimes smiling, sometimes doing her odd little dance.

While I understand the impulse to offer something, anything, please consider what you say, what your motivation is, and what your goal is.  It is so important to offer people whose causes we support whatever help and encouragement they need, and telling me that my kids are cute doesn’t do much to forward that agenda.

If seeing my family provides a valuable opportunity to analyze your beliefs and behaviors, that is an awesome self-evaluation time for you, and I’m glad you’re embracing it.  But none of that is truly about my children, me, or my husband. That is all you, considering your place in the world, and sorting your way through racism and dealing different cultures.  I’m betting that saying that I have cute kids isn’t really what you want to say, but it is the easiest thing to say.

(And on another side note, please, for the love of all things everywhere, don’t use words like bling, bro and girlfriend just because my kids are black.  If you use, “Hey girlfriend!” with all little girls, fine, but to bust out the slang just because my girls look different than the ones you’re used to? Insulting.)

I love that there are so many people in the world who want to share with us that they are cool with our multi-cultural, multi-generational family, and I am thankful that only on a few occasions has anyone been completely rude or thoughtless.

But after so much of the same, it is very difficult to explain to them. They understand that we look different, and they sort of get why people stare at us and comment, but they aren’t capable of understanding all the racial subtext of those interactions yet.  I dread the day they do, because those will be new levels of long difficult conversations.

A smile, a nod of affirmation, or a note slipped into my hand requesting a phone call would be AWESOME.  I might even pass you a yet-to-be-created-but-in-the-works business card leading you to an already-created-but-still-pretty-dead-Facebook group for transracial families.

And I would call you, and we’d have a fantastic conversation, in which I would thank you for both recognizing our family and respecting the boundaries we’re trying to put in place for their safe passage into adulthood.

Since adopting our three, I have learned a lot about racism and racial issues, and experienced a tiny bit of it, but it is nowhere near what my kids will experience as they grow.

The biggest thing I have learned is that unless we talk about all of it, nothing will ever be better.

And that’s why I wrote this.

Let’s talk.

Just not in front of my kids.