Poetry Encourages Self-Expression

Writing poems can help students address difficult issues and become agents for social change.

Poetry is a way for students to explore topics they might not otherwise talk about. It’s also a powerful tool for social justice.

I was reminded of this as I ran a teen poetry slam at my local library recently. Youth—ages 12 to 18—gathered, wrote a poem and performed their (clean) poems an hour later. I started by going over the basics of a poetry slam. For most students, it was a new experience. I encouraged the youth to see their poems as a form of self-expression. I wrote suggestions on the board:

  • Write about something you hate without naming the thing you hate or using the word “hate.”
  • Write about an experience of violence you committed, witnessed or experienced.
  • Think about the ways dating, arguing with a parent or friend, or deciding where to hang out can seem like games. Write about the games people play.

Poetry topics ranged from sadness over the death of a pet to what it feels like to be silenced in school by bullying. At the end of the slam, the poets were elated they'd had the chance to perform and express their feelings in front of an audience of supportive parents and peers. It was raw power.

It made me wish I’d taken the poetry slam one step further and incorporated a social justice unit to highlight issues and ideas students believe aren’t visible or part of the broader public perception. The information and the words of my students would open a dialogue about social justice and diversity.

For inspiration, we’d look at MK Asante Jr.’s “Two Sets of Notes,” a poem that discusses historical falsehoods and the effect on African-American students. I’d share the slam of poet Amal Kassir who, in “This is for the Ladies,” talks about women’s beauty and dignity in a world that doesn’t always honor authenticity.

I’d ask students to consider race, class and gender as they began to write. We’d look at a pair of organizations in our community that focus on immigrant rights and death row abolition.

I’d provide excerpts from writing that focuses on social justice, with a focus on topics already being addressed in the community. Examples of works I might draw from include:

  • Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow
  • bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody
  • Chen Ching-in’s The Revolution Starts at Home
  • Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains

To me, one of the beautiful things about poetry—both reading it and performing it—is that it allows students to explore different ways of being and living. If they perform their poetry, it’s also an opportunity to amplify their voices, to help others better understand them and their lives.

Clift is a writer and a substitute teacher with a focus on youth labeled with behavioral issues. She also develops and delivers programs for seventh- to 12th-graders in nontraditional settings.

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