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Easy Ways to use Performance Poetry in ELA

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Performance Poetry

When it comes to an engaging poetry unit, I believe the #1 building block is performance poetry. There’s something about watching contemporary poets stand up and deliver their work that is undeniably engaging.

Kids might hate the piece they see performed. They might love it.

They might feel their skin crawl watching it because they think the poet is so awkward… or get goosebumps because it so exactly describes their own experience.

But whether they love it or they hate it, in my experience, they’re INTO it. They’re THERE for it. And they love debating about it.

So today on the podcast, I want to talk about performance poetry, and how to use it in your classroom. By the end of this episode, you’ll walk away with my favorite clips, lesson ideas, and classroom event possibilities.

You can listen in to this episode below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

Easy Performance Poetry Activity: Watch Clips and Judge Them

One of the first things I tried with performance poetry, and ultimate the simplest and most consistently successful, was to have students watch clips and judge them. I’d explain that in a slam performance, judges hold up cards with the numbers 1-10. That’s it. So simple. They don’t have a rubric. They don’t have to explain their decisions. They just feel how they feel.

So I invited students to do the same.

And wow, the looks on their faces when they realized that their idea of a 10 might be someone else’s idea of a 2! The conversations that followed our short clip viewing, quick judging, and then rationale sharing tended to be fun and impactful. It helped students become aware of the different things poets were doing that others were attracted to (or repelled by).

You can incorporate this into a poetry unit so easily, with just 3 or 4 minutes at the start of class, whether or not you’re building toward a slam or other type of poetry performance event of your own.

Let me share a few of my favorite clips.

Here you’ll see Grand Slam Poetry Champion Harry Baker at TedX. In his talk, he gives both his poem “59” featuring a love story about prime numbers, and his incredible tongue twisting piece, “Paper People.” It’s pretty hard to choose which is best, so I’ll leave that up to you (or maybe your students).

I found this poem from the documentary Slamnation a loooong time ago, and while I’ve found poems I like more since then, I still absolutely love watching people’s reactions to Alexandra Oliver’s “Love.” Her purposely awkward presentation is like nothing I’ve ever seen, and students tend to find it utterly hilarious or horrifyingly off-putting. As such, it makes a great subject for debate. Try not to guffaw too loudly from behind your desk while you’re watching in class.

“My Honest Poem” by Rudy Francisco is a perennial ELA classroom favorite, because it’s so easy to guide students into writing similar poems of their own. It’s featured here on the Button Poetry Classroom Channel, which is a great resource for finding classroom-friendly poems. This can be a challenge otherwise, as so many poets include a swearword or two (or five).

Hold a Poetry Tournament

If you’d like to play more performance pieces in class but you’d like to have some kind of specific structure or end goal in place, a poetry tournament is a great way to build in two daily clips AND help your students do some quick argument practice each day.

Choose your clips and tuck them into a bracket (the one below is in the “Teach Living Poets” section of The Lighthouse). You can grab Melissa Alter Smith’s as well, and substitute in any clips you especially want to feature.

Performance Poetry

Then play a pair of poems for your students each day and let them vote on the best. You decide how extensive to make the voting. It can be a simple show of hands with eyes closed, a short piece of argument writing explaining their choice, or a quick rubric that helps them score across categories of poetry elements you’re discussing in class.

As the days go by, your poetic finalists will advance to the finals and your classes will choose their ultimate poetry champion.

Work on Sharing Meaning through a Choral Reading

Watching group performance pieces is such fun. Groups have a whole additional host of techniques available to highlight meaning in the poem. Check out these examples.

Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye are such amazing performance poets! I couldn’t resist sharing this one even with its one swearword.

When you invite students to try out group performance, you can let them perform original pieces you’ve created in classroom workshop, or you can give them a poem that’s a class text you’d like them to understand better. Invite them to experiment with the techniques of choral performers, like these…

Volume change: add a crescendo (going from soft to loud in a line) or a decrescendo (going from loud to soft in a line) or say a word or line loudly or softly

Pace change: vary your speed from fast to slow or slow to fast in certain sections

Repetition: repeat a key word or phrase once or several times, with one or more voices

Paired voices: have two people read a word or phrase together to emphasize it

Single voice: have one person reading alone after a group has been reading to draw attention to that section

Group voice: have everyone reading a line or section together

Sound effects: add sound effects of some kind that somehow relate to the text

Beat box: have one or more group members creating a soft beat box effect during a section or the whole poem

Movement: have members of the group moving at various points in the poem – their movements connected to the text or to the vocal decisions

Tone: give a line a frightening, lighthearted, nervous, loving, etc. tone

After some time to practice and annotate their poem scripts, be sure to give your groups a chance to perform back to the class!

Write and Perform I am From Poems

“I am From” poems are an easy win for any poetry unit. I’ve done them with so many groups of kids, and they’ve never failed.

Writing can be so personal. Especially when we’re asking kids to write in their real voice, about things that matter to them. So I’m always in search of writing assignments that help students write about their lives in ways that feel doable and beautiful, inspiring and easy. From there students can begin to add layers of complexity and allow themselves to be vulnerable in the writing if they feel ready.

At some point fifteen years ago I stumbled across the idea of having students write these poems, inspired by George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m from” (listen to the audio) or (read the text).

Lyon weaves together vivid images from her life as a girl, drawing on little things like art projects she did, products she used, things her parents said, as well as sensory details from her life experience, to create a window into her past. It’s a striking poem, and also an easy one to understand and to emulate (perfect for class!).

Have students start by brainstorming the kinds of details showcased in Lyon’s poem – the sensory details and vivid memories of their pasts. A template like this one makes it super simple.

Each stanza goes something like this…

“I am from….
From … and …
I am from … and …..

So if a student had brainstormed imagery like this: 

  • raisins lined up on crunchy peanut butter celery
  • my worn-out red ping pong paddle with the handle duct-taped on
  • my Dad’s loud laugh
  • my brother’s protection

Then a stanza might look like:

I am from the crunch of ants on a log for snack after school.

From Dad’s loud laugh and Taj’s brotherly protection.

I am from a worn out ping pong paddle with a winning record. 

I’ve had many students write and perform these pieces in class with great success over the years. They also lend themselves well to creating a group piece, either in writing, on colorful paper taped up on the walls, or spoken in a collaborative video.

Tap into Poetry Out Loud

Poetry Out Loud is a national organization that can help you put on a spoken word poetry event in your community. But the key difference between hosting a slam or jam (more about that in a second) and a POL event, is that students don’t recite their own original work at Poetry Out Loud, they recite from an anthology made available by the organization.

If you’d like kids to feel the thrill of performance and have the chance to work on memorizing and delivering a poem effectively but not the pressure of writing their own pieces, Poetry Out Loud could be a good option for your program. You can grab all their teacher resources right here.

Host a Poetry Slam for Performance Poetry

I’ve hosted more than 20 student poetry slams now, and each one has followed a similar flow. Rather than spend ages, we’d usually spend about one week preparing and then hosting our slam.

I rolled out the plan on Monday in each of my classes.

I explained the concept of the slam, in which poets stand up and read a poem, and judges score the poem on a scale of 1-10.

There would be no rubric, no specific criteria except the feelings of the judges.

I pulled up some slam clips as we discussed earlier and asked them to write down the scores they would give if they were judging.

As I called on students to give and explain their scores, we all realized opinions varied wildly. But as the oft-repeated poetry slam slogan goes, “the points are not the point, the point is poetry.”

That day I also explained the plan for the week. I let students form committees to produce our slam – one would create programs, one would be in charge of judging and also choose and prepare an emcee for our slam, and one would plan the ambiance (location, refreshments, decorations).

Throughout the week we watched more slam clips for inspiration and to practice judging.

We worked on writing poems and talked about different strategies we were noticing on the clips for performing them effectively. (Taylor Mali’s “I Could be a Poet” is a hilarious way to highlight some of these techniques – watch out for one swearword.) We almost always used the “I am From” workshop as at least one option.

We met for a few minutes each day in committees and I rotated from group to group to be sure everyone was making doable plans.

Then I arrived Friday to poetry slam venues that varied wildly. One class held their slam on a beautiful school patio with flowers hanging from the trees overhead. One class sat on the bleachers by the baseball field. One welcomed us to our classroom, after remaking it to look like a coffee shop. One before-lunch slam featured burritos. In one memorable slam, the emcee rapped the introductions for each poet.

These slams became some of the most memorable events of the year.

Watching my students perform their poems all over the school, cheer wildly for each other, coordinate their own judging, and truly enjoy the process was very moving for me across classes, schools, and even countries. (Yes, I hosted slams in Bulgaria too!).

If you’re feeling nervous about trying a slam, you could always run a “Jam” instead. Everything is similar, except you don’t need to score the final poems. Students perform as part of the event but the competition is taken out of it.

Either way, I really encourage you to just jump in and try it. Setting a short time frame makes it far more doable, and you’ll learn a ton the first time around that you can apply the next year.

You might like this blog post, Creative Poetry: Ideas, Activities, and Prompts for High School ELA.

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I'm Betsy

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