Controversy continues to surround the role that the arts play in school systems, with many who believe that such creative outlets are far less important than more concrete subjects like math and science. More specifically, poetry is regarded as less and less significant, even in literary studies.
However, poetry is an important subject for a diversity of students across the nation. The age-old craft is a useful medium for promoting literacy and creativity, all the while building a sense of community and strengthening emotional resilience.
While traditional poetry can feel archaic to contemporary audiences who find the dated subject matter dull or confusing, spoken word poetry can be powerful and relevant for audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
BTRtoday speaks with Dave Stieber, a teacher and spoken word poetry coach in Chicago. He has coached this form of poetry for six years, taking only the past two years off due to a change in schools. He’s currently on hiatus to focus on attaining his National Board Certification for teaching, but plans on coaching again next school year.
Stieber admits that growing up he was entirely uninterested in poetry.
“It always seemed pretty dry to me in school,” he says. “I was never exposed to spoken word. I was always exposed to very traditional poetry in books. The content didn’t appeal to me, and the style didn’t appeal to me.“
It was not until Stieber’s wife invited him to attend Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB), an event in Chicago which happens to be the largest youth poetry festival in the world, that he realized the impact poetry can have on its audiences.
LTAB is a month-long competition featuring 120 Chicago high schools competing in Olympic-style poetry slams. Hosted by Young Chicago Authors, LTAB celebrates youth voices by providing a safe space for poets to come together and share their stories.
“It was amazing to hear students performing totally different types of poetry than I had ever heard, sharing their stories, and seeing other kids support them,” Stieber describes.
Spoken word poetry allows participants to express themselves, while simultaneously inspiring listeners. The arts in general–albeit writing, performing, painting, playing music, or any other artistic expression–allow artists to expose themselves on a deep and personal level, and encourage others to empathize with them.
Spoken word events also provide a comfortable space free of judgment, where poets are unafraid to reveal even the most hidden parts of themselves. Everyone there has a story to tell, and that is why they have gathered together to share their messages.
“The whole premise of Spoken Word poetry, in my opinion, is it allows them to share their stories and provides a space for other students who want to hear those stories. So it’s pretty powerful,” Stieber supports.
Furthermore, it forms a sense of community. It doesn’t matter where participants come from when they are in such a shared space. No matter the race, gender, class, or background, their voices matter and their stories will be heard.
Stieber explains, “You’ve got kids from different parts of the city, and Chicago, like most big cities, is super segregated by race and by class. So when you can bring kids together who have the same interest in poetry, and they share their stories… it opens a lot of doors for the kid who’s performing it, as well as the audience who’s listening.”
Feeling inspired after attending LTAB, Stieber began coaching spoken word poetry at the school he was teaching. On Fridays, he would host an open mic where students could read their own spoken word pieces. He eventually formed a spoken word poetry group consisting of six freshman to participate at LTAB.
“A couple kids performed [in class], and we were like, wow this is amazing— you guys are going be on our poetry team. And they were like, what does that mean? And we were like, we don’t really know either,” he admits. “From there we all learned together.”
While poetry is something that comes from the heart, as any artistic expression, written poetry skills can still use some refining. Working alongside a spoken word poetry coach or teacher allows students to receive feedback on their work and reflect on their pieces in a new light.
“Basically we just got them to express their stories, whatever they wanted to share,” says Stieber. “Then we kind of helped them write it in ways that maybe they didn’t know before, just refine their ideas a little bit.”
Through spoken word, poets can use their work as a form of release to escape from reality. It allows them to immerse themselves in their expression. However, it can also be used to cope with reality, as the writer is able to express their raw and honest emotions in a way they might not be comfortable with otherwise.
“Students have a lot of stuff that they need to say and need to express, and I don’t think schools do a very effective job at allowing them to express what they need to say, and care what they see and experience in the world,” Stieber says.
As a result, it is incredibly important for students to participate in arts programs. Even the Senate has acknowledged the importance of the arts as they recently passed an act that regards them as core subjects in school systems.
The arts stimulate the imagination, improve cognitive and creative skills, and strengthen problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Therefore art courses are able to help children develop skills needed for other core subjects.
Stieber describes the impact he has seen spoken word have on his students.
“Just by being able to first get their story on paper and get that off their chest, then being able to perform it and have other people listen to it, and after they say it, they come off stage and people are like, wow that was really powerful, and talk about how they felt about the poem, and the interaction that comes with it, it’s a very powerful whole event… the writing, the performing, and the reaction to it.”
For anyone who has never experienced spoken word poetry before, do yourself a favor and find a nearby event. There are powerful messages just waiting to be heard, and at least one of them is bound to move even the most apathetic listener.