School News Network: Godwin Poetry Slam

Nov 18, 2019

Godwin Heights Middle School Poetry Slam
Credit School News Network

Godwin Middle School eighth graders tapped into their own stories two write poetry, inspired by authors and the poetry of rapper Tupac Shakur.

When Language Arts teacher Betsy Berry introduced a poetry unit to her eighth graders at Godwin Heights Middle School recently, the response was...less than enthusiastic. By the time the unit was finished, students were writing their own poems in their free time, sharing their verses out loud, and illustrating their poems in art class.

How did that happen?

For starters, Berry chose poets she thought would resonate with her students -- writers like Langston Hughes, Sandra Cisneros, and Jason Reynolds. She also introduced the poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” by rapper Tupac Shakur. That poem, Berry said, was the turning point. Her students were moved by the piece, and found it relatable.

Berry challenged the eighth graders to write their own rendition of “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.” And write, they did. They shared their stories, their struggles, and their trauma, said Berry, who called the experience “powerful” and “healing.”

Student Travis Reister, whose mom died of cancer in 2016, uses poetry as an outlet for his grief. Eighth grader Kierra Stimoff writes poetry with a beat to address social injustices that she sees. Julian Maysonet found his voice through the unit, using his poems to share his family’s experience of racial profiling.

At the end of the unit, Berry held a poetry slam in each class of about 25 students. She showed her classes YouTube clips of spoken word performances, and gave them plenty of leeway: they could perform a poem they wrote, one they had studied, or something else.

Many students now keep journals, where they jot down new poems. Many illustrated their poems with encouragement from art teacher Kim Urbanski, who collaborated with Berry.

Students were sad to see the poetry unit end, but Berry has promised them a monthly in-class poetry slam, giving them another reason to keep the verses flowing.

For School News Network, I'm Bridie Bereza