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CFSW 2010: Poetry in the Schools Workshop

Article by Kathryn Hunt

The Canadian Festival of Spoken Word’s main event is definitely the competition – the poets from cities across the country getting up on stage and going head to head for the title of National Champions. But along with the bouts – and the showcases and jam sessions – the festival also provides a chance for the spoken word community to share skills, with their workshop series. I caught the one on Bringing Slam to the Schools, led by Danielle Gregoire and Lara Bozabalian, both of whom have a lot of experience working with children and youth.

The people at the workshop were there for all sorts of reasons – from looking for ideas, to wondering how to start a slam in a high school, to questions about details like where to find funding and how much money a poet should ask for to work with a class. And Danielle and Lara did what they could, in the limited time they had, to touch on all of them. I realized, in the workshop, that a lot of these poets are professional artists, or want to be – they were here because they want to make their poetry financially viable. And one of the best ways of doing that happens to also promote the art form and foster the next generation of poets.

Mostly what the two leaders did in this workshop was to give their tricks – some exercises they use to get the kids writing, usually without really giving the game away that they were writing poetry until after they’d already done it: the trick, with kids as with adults, is often to get them to do the thing, then tell them what they’ve done, rather than to stand up and give a lot of theory or spell things out. In a classroom, not all the kids will even want to write poetry, so a certain amount of sneaking it in helps. “Don’t tell them what a metaphor is and then ask them to write one,” Lara said. “Set up a way that they write the metaphor first, then tell them. And high-five the teacher, because now she can cross that off the curriculum list.” (That is an important one: it’s particularly good if you can show the teacher that the kids are learning something she can report back. It’s all about showing that their time is being spent in a valuable way.)

The exercise they had time to actually do with us was one where each table took a group of random words, then speed-wrote a group poem and performed it as a group. They hadn’t really taken into account that it was a room full of poets, so the poems produced were a little longer, and took a little longer, than anticipated, but Danielle did a great job of using the spaces between presentations to talk about how she uses this exercise to show the kids, while having them engaged in something, the basics of a slam – how she models listening, shows them how to snap and get involved in the poem as an audience member, and so on. Then Lara ran through a collection of possible exercises, mostly loosening-up exercises meant to dispel the students’ fears about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers and to get them used to just writing.

There wasn’t a lot of time for questions, but the questions there were went straight to funding – how much to ask, where to go for funding, how to write a proposal, how to explain what the value of what you do is, how to assign a value to what you do (something I find poets have particular trouble with.) And they did pass around an email list and promised to send more materials on and keep the conversation going.