Poetic Rhetoric — Spoken Word Poems in AP Lang

For a long while now, I’ve wanted to write spoken word poems with my students.

I use Sarah Kay’s “Hands” at the beginning of the year to start students thinking about their lives and the important moments that shape them. We draw hands in our notebooks and fill them with words that represent our memories. Like many of you, I first did this myself with Penny Kittle, and now I draw a hand in every notebook as one of the first pieces I write in it.

I use Shane Koyczan’s “To This Day” and ask students to write a response to it. Sometimes they tell me things that break my heart. Like the fall on the first day of school when two different girls in two different classes wrote about the abuse they experienced from their fathers at home.

These and other poems students find interesting and inspiring, and while they’ve always worked as never-fail quick writes, I wanted to challenge students to use all the skills we’ve focused on this year to write their own poetry. My student teacher, Zach, and I finally figured out how.

And students wrote some powerful poems with some perfectly poetic language.

We called the assignment:  Poetic Rhetoric. what-matters-most-in-life-are-quotes-and-stuff-that-tell-you-what-life-is-really-about_motto

The initial task read like this:  Craft a spoken word poem that addresses a personal conflict and/or a social issue, include rhetorical techniques and literary and rhetorical devices to convince your audience of the need for positive change. Perform your poem for the class live, or create an automated slide show with visuals, or a video recording as a way to digital.

Every day for a week we shared a different spoken word poem. Sometimes we wrote responses as a way to mine for our own ideas for topics. Sometimes we studied the lyrics, closely reading and analyzing structure, tone, and literary devices. We encouraged students to use the work of these poets as their mentors:  “Remember, we learn to write when we study good writing.”

We listened to “Paper People” by Harry Baker, and we talked about theme and sentences that hold the most weight, ones that might be his position statement.

We listened to “Education” by Aadil Malik, and we talked about evidence and examples that support the main idea.

We listened to “Touchscreen” by Marshall Davis Jones, and we talked about repetition, puns, and other literary devices that make language clever and meaningful.

We analyzed the structure of “To This Day,” and we talked about how Koyczan moves from self, to another, to another, to everyone as a way to finally get to his moving plea “to get a better mirror.”

Zach taught mini-lessons, reminding students how to use personification, puns, allusions, and fresh figurative language. We gave students time to write in class, and time to talk with one another, and time to talk with us about their process and their product.

We provided resources on how to write performance poetry like this and this and this.

And students wrote beautiful and meaningful arguments.

Most students performed their poems live in class. (I did allow for a teleprompter since I am the worst at memorizing myself.) We have a slam poetry night coming up on our campus in April. I hope many of my student will perform their poetry again there.

Here are the lyrics to some of the ones I personally enjoyed. I wish I had video of the performances. You’ll have to trust me — they were awesome.

Nefertiti Franklin:  WelcomeToStereotypesAA

Jennifer Melendez:  Find Your Charge, which includes an evaluation of her writing process

Kennedy Jenkins: Use Your Mind

Fabian Gutierrez: ADPoem

And here is an example of one of the poems published digitally. I love her language.

Jessica Ortiz:  People Love to Talk

Reminders to self for when I do this writing unit another year:

A. Take more time with topic selection. As with any writing, if students choose topics that are too broad, or they do not know enough about, the writing is harder to revise.

B. Meet with students more often. Conferring is essential to helping students find what they want to say. Too many students procrastinate and then think they can produce quality writing at the last minute. I must remember to confer at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the writing process. Schedule time for this.

C. Allow time for students to provide one another more targeted feedback. Although they met in small groups and talked about their writing, they did not use their time as effectively as they could have. If I will be more purposeful in modeling what a helpful feedback group looks like, students will be able to help one another more.

I love teaching students to write. I’m not sure there’s a better gift than reading their published work and seeing that they understand the power of their voices. Sometimes they blow my socks off with the force of their wisdom. I love it when they get it.

Have you used spoken word poetry in your writing class? How? What are your favorite poems?

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7 thoughts on “Poetic Rhetoric — Spoken Word Poems in AP Lang

  1. […] my students have been writing spoken word poems as arguments. They chose personal or social issues they care about, and they’ve crafted drafts that argue […]

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  2. […] up:  As we move into choosing topics for our Poetic Rhetoric unit, I will remind students of the importance of investigating all sides of a topic and the […]

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  3. Sarah M. Zerwin April 4, 2016 at 11:34 am Reply

    Thank you so much for this. We’re launching into some work with spoken word poetry and this helps tremendously, especially the poems you used for mini lessons and what focus you had for each poem. Awesome! Here are a few of my favorite poems to use with students:
    “High School Training Ground” (http://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_london_high_school_training_ground?language=en)
    “OCD” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnKZ4pdSU-s)
    “Shake the Dust” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qDtHdloK44)
    “Shrinking Woman” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQucWXWXp3k)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy April 4, 2016 at 11:57 am Reply

      Thank you for sharing these poems. Best of luck as you work with your students!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Karoline April 3, 2016 at 9:08 pm Reply

    Amy, this idea is awesome and I’m thinking about using it as I dive into a senior legacy project with my students based on an issue in their school or community. I always struggle with the idea of grading poetry. Do you evaluate students on their use of language and rhetorical devices, on completion, or another set of criteria? Thank you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy April 3, 2016 at 9:58 pm Reply

      Grading is often difficult. For this assignment I had a set of criteria: poetic elements, including a few literary devices I reviewed in mini-lessons, use of the appeals, especially a logical structure, and then the presentation itself. Each part made up a third of the grade. This is the first year I’ve done this writing task, and the outcome and the learning were better than I expected. Best wishes if you do something similar with your students!

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  5. Angela Weston April 1, 2016 at 12:31 pm Reply

    Amy, I’m just starting a unit on poetry with my honors juniors, and love these ideas for helping them develop their own voice and poems. Thanks!!

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