The name of the class was Poetic Justice, and the Eagle Rock School students enrolled last trimester received a little poetic justice of their own earlier this year by snaring a position in a big-time poetry slam in San Francisco.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a poetry slam is a competition at which poets recite or read original work. Poetry slamming began in Chicago in the mid-80’s when performance poet Marc Kelly Smith began experimenting with open mic night and venues for poetry readings by making them competitive.
My students knew it was a long shot when we applied for a slot in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival, which was held last month in San Francisco. After all, we’d never performed or participated in slams outside Colorado’s Front Range. On top of that, we’re a fairly small school, and we’re new to big-time spoken-word poetry competition.
Nevertheless, we applied to participate, and the festival’s powers-that-be graciously placed us on a waiting list. Then at the last moment, our school was pulled off the wait list and we were welcomed to participate into the four-day mid-July festival.
Student Engagement Through Spoken-word Poetry
This was indeed a highlight for a classroom of students who — on a daily basis — express their passion for poetry by reading, writing, viewing and performing all things related to spoken-word composition. In conjunction with what they are learning, our students also explored their own identities, refined their writing and analytical skills, developed performance and public speaking abilities, and built some well-deserved self-confidence.
Shortly after being accepted to participate in the 20th annual Brave New Voices event, we arrived at the City By the Bay for four full days of workshops, spoken-word performances, showcases, community and civic participation events. The slam offers a platform for young artists from around the world to share their stories and speak of the contemporary realities of their lives.
All total, there were about three dozen teams participating, including students from Denver and Colorado Springs representing our home state, as well as teams from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, North Carolina, and more. As newcomers to the game, our objective was to expose the students to the vastness of the world of spoken word, enabling them to tell their stories — and most important — to have fun!
Our students each wrote individual and group pieces and performed their truths in front of strangers from all across the country. It was beyond powerful and brave and they should be so proud of themselves and all they accomplished.
The first night of the event we moved ourselves and our luggage into residence halls at San Francisco State University, and then attended the opening ceremonies — an event that was an enormous celebration of different ideas, identities, love, and poetry performances. The following day, we attended youth writing and performance workshops, with topics that included:
- Gender Equity and Sexuality
- Borderlands, Refugees, and Immigration
- Fighting White Supremacy
- Environmental Justice
- Reclaiming the Roots of Latino Poetry
- Book of Rhyme. Transitions from Performance to Publication
- Utilizing humor in poetry
- Utilizing different language in your poetry.
Meanwhile, instructors and staff attended sessions on collaboration, sharing practices, and discussions around the impact of poetry in youth’s lives.
On Friday evening, everyone attended a section of semifinal performances. Our Poetic Justice team had developed a connection with the Philadelphia competitors, so we went to their competition to cheer them on.
Evening activities featured decompression zones, late-night open mics and slams, and a dance. One highlight was “Queeriosity,” an evening of poetry to celebrate gay youth and allies.
Experiencing San Francisco
Saturday, we decided as a team to put the emphasis on relaxing. We did some sightseeing, went to the beach, ate some ice cream, and then went back to the residence halls to get ready for that evening’s final competition. Held at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, we found ourselves in the front row of a sold-out 3,500-seat theater.
Afterward, our students went to several after-hours events, attending the dance or impromptu student-led poetry slams that kept popping up all night. Everyone was excited to share and none wanted the time to end.
Following the festival, we stayed in San Francisco for a few days, checking into a nice hostel near downtown and immediately embarking on a tour of Chinatown. The following day we went on a guided bike tour of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. Our tour guides took us around the area and we went up and over the bridge and ended up in Sausalito where we took a ferry back to the pier in San Francisco to have a dinner.
On Tuesday — our final day — we went to Exploratorium: The Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception where we got to experience the Tactile Dome. The dome was in total darkness and visitors have to make their way by touch. There are tunnels to maneuver through either standing up, sitting down, sliding or crawling. To me, it was an intense experience, and the students really seemed to enjoy it and have fun. After the museum, we went over to Twin Peaks (two hills that rise 1,000 feet above San Francisco, providing an unmatched view of the city) and walked around some old ruins and then the beach.
Returning to campus in Estes Park, we all agreed it was a positive experience and we vowed to go again next year when the poetry slam takes place in Chicago.
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About the Author: Meghan Tokunaga-Scanlon is the Music Instructional Specialist at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado. There, Tokunaga-Scanlon is responsible for creating and developing the school’s music curriculum; coordinating and directing the school’s theatre and dance programs; directing various music ensembles; coordinating outreach and partnerships with local communities and the Berklee College of Music’s Southwest Network. A native of Colorado, she earned her Bachelor of Music Education from VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, Illinois.