Developing First Sounds: Engaging 21st Century Literacy through Poetry & Spoken Word

Developing First Sounds: Engaging 21st Century Literacy through Poetry & Spoken Word

First Day at First Sound

Brandon Santiago leads a class using the whiteboard

As I took my seat in the back of the room, waiting for the first session of the conference to start, the diverse spectrum of faces and people around me joined together to create an orchestra of "getting to know you" conversation. The small roar was brought to a halt as a voice rang out above the others. A large Latino man who looked to be in his mid-to-early twenties came to the front of the classroom. His long black hair was tied tightly in a bun; each ear adorned with a diamond stud. His shorts were baggy and sagged below the waist with a plaid button up t-shirt left unbuttoned to show the contrast between the white tee underneath and the wood beaded cross hanging from his neck. His hip-hop aesthetic conveyed a sense of style and confidence, but most importantly, identity. As he delivered a passionate spoken word poem that critiqued the current educational system and detailed his, and other youth of color's often negative experience with it, I tried to keep my ears tuned to the intricate rhymes, ideas, and lessons that I could learn from him.

This man, Brandon Santiago, found his voice in spoken word poetry. It offered him an opportunity to grow as an individual that the schools had not. He was trying to give that chance back to the youth who were—are—like him.

This past week, July 22-24, 2013, San Francisco-based youth organization Youth Speaks and the University of San Francisco School of Education collaborated to deliver the inaugural First Sound Summer Institute at the USF School of Education . The Institute brought together artists and educators from across the Bay Area who represented every level of education from elementary to graduate. The three-day Institute was designed to give attendees insight into the Youth Speaks pedagogy, implemented primarily via writing workshops, and to teach educators how to incorporate some of these techniques and ideologies into their own classrooms.

As a recent Stanford graduate and artist whose work and passion focused on spoken word, hip-hop, and hip-hop pedagogy, I was excited to be representing the Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning.

The Mission

School systems nationwide are failing young people on both an academic and personal level. To combat this, Youth Speaks aims to shift perceptions of youth by empowering them through the spoken and written word as well as oral/aural literacies. Youth Speaks gives young people the tools necessary to develop and express their individual voices, using their lives as primary text to engage with, view, and critique the world. Their pedagogy is specifically designed to create safe spaces for youth to do so – something many schools do not. While their mission is focused on middle and high school students, their pedagogy and ideologies are also readily applicable to higher education.

Setting the Space            

Like each writing workshop, “I Am Not Who You Think I Am,” led by Arts-in-Education Program Director, Michelle “Mush” Lee, began by setting two rules: 1) There are NO wrong answers and 2) The standard is yourself. The Youth Speaks educators and workshop leaders deliberately establish these rules to allow youth to express their thoughts without judgment and to be unafraid to develop their own individual artistic, poetic, and critical voice.

Youth Speaks hopes that eventually, this newly found voice and poetic spoken/written literacy will be used by marginalized, oppressed, or silenced youth to create their “first sound." For youth who often feel misrepresented, misunderstood, and devalued by our society, these rules are necessary in order to create a safe space that will be able to facilitate their intellectual and personal growth.

Building the Classroom Community

Throughout the Institute, James Kass, the founder and executive director of Youth Speaks, as well as each workshop leader, emphasized that the whiteboard (or blackboard) is meant to serve as a tool of engagement—instead of dictation—for the classroom.

James Kass, Executive Director and Founder of Youth Speaks, uses the blackboard to lead a class discussion about

Many of the workshops began with an exercise that allowed the classroom to establish a palette of shared terms and knowledge by thinking critically about a concept, phrase, or prompt.

For instance, the very first workshop of the Institute, “I Live Here,” led by James Kass, asked members of the class to define what it meant to live (Live), define where we live (Here), and lastly, who we are (I). Individuals offered responses as diverse as the array of histories and backgrounds that each individual brought with them to the classroom. The facilitator then wrote each class member's response on the whiteboard. This not only acknowledged those individuals’ voices, but also created a shared palette of knowledge and sense of community in the classroom through the language and ideas that each person brought with them into the space.

Facilitators stressed that if an individual offers a word or term that is intriguing, or even offensive, then the educator should ask that individual to “go deeper” by asking them what they meant by their comment or why they offered that term. The educator can also bring the other members of the classroom into the conversation by establishing the norm that they can challenge or question other individuals. Rather than run away from conversations that are challenging or difficult to have, Youth Speaks believes that it is important to respond to challenges by encouraging new dialogues – these conversations are where real learning and growth can take place for youth and the educators themselves.

"Scaffolding": From Community to Individual and Back

Establishing the relationship between the classroom community and the individual is essential in the growth and transformation of youth. Typically, after the class engaged in creating a shared knowledge and space, the facilitator asked that members then spend time individually developing their thoughts via free-writes, poetry, and one-on-one discussions. This exemplifies one of the steps in the “scaffolding” of the writing workshop.

Attendees of the First Sound Summer Institute work individually during a writing exercise

The scaffolding framework is designed to create a reciprocal and supportive relationship between the individual and the classroom community, which is used to bring students along the path and purpose of the lesson. By implementing both individual and communal exercises, the educator allows students to engage with and think about the concepts at hand without falling or getting pushed over the edge into non-participation.

After completing the time allotted for their writing exercise—a conversation with the self--students return to the community space and the floor is opened for anyone to share their work--a conversation with the room. For those who choose to share their voices must be celebrated and validated by applause and/or conversation. Students may choose not to speak or share: this is okay. Youth Speaks believes that every student moves at a different pace. If an educator pushes a quiet student too hard that student may never want to open up and share.

Growing in the Uncomfortable Safe Space

A safe space, however, does not mean that it is always comfortable. Within discomfort exists huge potential for growth and learning. What is important is that students can trust the teacher and that they feel supported by the space, even when feeling uncomfortable.

During a discussion panel at the Institute, Dr. Susie Lundy, Director of Bay Area Programs for Youth Speaks, Jeff Chang, Executive Director of the Stanford Institute for Diversity in the Arts, Dr. Darrick Smith, Leadership, USF School of Ed, and Dr. Patrick Camangian, Teacher Education, USF School of Ed, all agreed that the most effective way to engage youth in the classroom is to authentically present yourself to them. Youth need to see your passion for the subject and also recognize your own humanity so that they can trust that you will recognize theirs.

Representatives from Youth Speaks, the USF School of Education, and Stanford's own Jeff Chang discuss the use of hip-hop and hip-hop pedagogy in the classroom

In my own experience opening up to people, whether it is talking with them or delivering a spoken word poem that reveals some of the struggles I have gone through, or having people, including educators, open up to me, that sense of vulnerability is the best way to make a connection. It is then critical that educators open up to their students, revealing insight into their own experiences, thoughts, and feelings—something that current school systems and administrative norms frown upon. Even though leaving oneself vulnerable may seem uncomfortable at first, it is one of the most, if not the most, effective ways to connect with students and get them engaged in the classroom.

Building the Trusting Teacher-Student Relationship

Too often, teachers and educators believe that they have to maintain a role of power and authority in front of, or over, their students. Instead, it is necessary that educators grant students a sense of power and authority in the classroom and in their own learning.

One way to do so is to recognize that each individual’s personal narrative equips them with knowledge and perspective on the world and its workings. After all, life is primary text. Another way to grant students power in the classroom is to ask them if it is okay for you to share something with them. Using techniques that allow students to hold power in the classroom makes them feel engaged with the material at hand and even want to be engaged in their own learning.

It is critical to recognize what issues are most urgent to students. What do they want to talk about? What do they need to talk about? Many of the difficulties teachers have with their classes are because the teachers fail to understand their students. Organizations like Youth Speaks are working to help educators understand the necessity of this teacher-student relationship. It is all the more crucial that educators learn to empower youth by fostering their individual voices, supporting and encouraging them to use their literacy to engage with the world, and to use those voices to make their First Sound.

See Also:

Interacting With Students

Supporting Vulnerable Students

Characteristics of Effective Teachers