Students Voices Speak Louder Than A Bomb

This post was originally published on Pass the Chalk.

So often, my students view poetry as something removed from their lives. It’s for old people in dusty books. As one of my students put it, “Mr. Mishleau, I’m not a poetry kind of guy.”

What they (and I) didn’t realize, was that some of the best poetry is in them, waiting to come out. Perhaps not in the traditional prose of the old, dead white people Language Arts curriculum tends to emphasize, but in a relevant, modern and uniquely sophisticated style all their own.

Earlier this year, I took a group of five kiddos from my middle school in Minneapolis to Chicago for three full days of writing and educational workshops, regional and national performances and opportunities to network and collaborate with students from across the nation.

Louder Than A Bomb, the youth spoken word competition, offers a unique space for students to cultivate and present their own stories.

I’m hard-pressed to find other examples of a trip, albeit a three-day one, that has had such a profound on my understanding of pedagogy or sense of self.

Poets from Tulsa, Dallas-Fort Worth, Toronto, Baltimore, Milwaukee and many other places around North America shared their pieces at the national symposium.

On Saturday night, the strongest performers gathered for the regional finalists for the Chicago LTAB chapter, the largest and original chapter. These performers, who are from across zip codes, performed at the huge and ridiculously fancy Cadillac Palace Theater in Chicago’s South Loop.

In essence, this experience made me look very critically at how I teach reading and writing to my 6th grade students. The caliber and authenticity of performances I saw from my students and those across the country left me tearful and spirited.

The stories they told were moving, certainly, but the realization that brought me to tears was the fact that these were stories I have heard. From my students.

While these poets were bathed in a spotlight, performing on the same stage as Broadway plays to a sold-out audience, my students had shared equally strong stories in the less classy setting of my classroom. While they weren’t uttered with strong intonation, skillfully crafted alliteration and extended metaphor, I have heard stories that are just as raw and moving between do-nows and classroom transitions.

In a moment of shame, I understood the snuffed potential in such moments students have shared deep things with me and I, not knowing what to do, moved past them after a moment’s discussion.

Louder Than A Bomb showed me how voice can be used for more than developing a relationship with students (which is, obviously, huge). It can also be integrated deeply into teaching content.  This may not sound groundbreaking, but in my limited training and experience, this was never truly shown as a model for teaching students. As I enter the role of Corps Member Advisor this summer at Tulsa Institute, I’m hoping to bring in such an approach from day one. Our students deserve it.

For educators and leaders interested in learning more about this, Young Chicago Authors, the organization that started Louder Than A Bomb, they have some amazing curricular resources. Watching the documentary is a great first step.

If you want to see more student poets, check out Teach For America’s Poet Warriors Project. They work to showcase amazing student poetry (both written and on video) from across the country. If you’re in the classroom or working with kiddos, they’re a great resource!

Our students have amazing things to share, are we actively engaging in cultivating and listening to them?

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