National Writing Project

Louisiana Teachers and Students Make Poetry Rock with WordPlay

By: Art Peterson
Date: July 2008

Summary: In a cooperative venture, LSU Writing Project and the Baton Rouge nonprofit organization WordPlay engage students in writing by bringing spoken word poets into the schools to model and spread their art.

 

LSU Writing Project teams with WordPlay
Baton Rouge high school student Thomas
Hinyard "spits" his new work at a poetry slam.

In 2005 an auspicious meeting was held at CC's, a coffee shop on the campus of Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. LSU Writing Project Co-director Susan Weinstein had arranged a get-together between her friend Anna West and Elizabeth Willis, the LSU site director.

A poet, West had arrived in Baton Rouge with an idea for building the literacy skills of local students by introducing them to spoken word poetry. Her organization would be called WordPlay, and it would facilitate its goal by bringing spoken word poets into the schools to model their work and help students create and perform pieces in this genre.

But West was stymied. She had arrived in Baton Rouge from Chicago just after Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005. Baton Rouge is the largest city near New Orleans, and its population had doubled almost overnight. The Baton Rouge schools were overwhelmed with new students. Faced with this emergency, says West, "No school administrator had much time to listen to my ideas about the value of a poetry project."

In Chicago, where she had been the director of the organization Young Chicago Writers, West had partnered with the Chicago Area Writing Project developing programs at the Children's Museum. She had in fact known about NWP ever since she had decided—at age 20—that she wanted to teach writing. "I knew that the writing project was the most influential organization in the field," she says. So she was eager to meet with Willis.

Willis also recognized an opportunity. "I realized we could help each other," she says. "Anna needed access to the schools, which we had. And the LSU Writing Project wanted to raise its profile to attract more teachers."

Spoken Word and the Summer Institute

So a partnership was struck. Willis used her influence to bring WordPlay to five Baton Rouge classrooms the first year. But that was just the beginning. Willis and West devised what became known as the Red Stick Writing Teachers' Collective, a monthly gathering sponsored by the writing project that brought together teachers and WordPlay poets for writing, food, fellowship, and shop talk.

Before WordPlay I thought poetry was cards at Wal-Mart.

"Our first meeting drew 20 teachers, some of whom had signed on to WordPlay, some who were our regular teacher-consultants, and some other teachers who had heard about the WordPlay program and were interested. Out of this group we were able to recruit several candidates for our summer institute."

And that's the way it has been ever since. "A visit from a WordPlay poet is now a key ingredient of each summer institute, which in turn serves as a device for recruiting teachers to open up their classrooms to WordPlay."

West, too, is delighted with the writing project connection. "We wanted the teachers we worked with to be partners. Like the writing project, we believe that teachers of writing should write. We didn't want to go into a classroom and ask the teacher to step aside. When WordPlay poets are working, everybody writes. And during our workshop we depend on teachers to conference with students along with our poets."

Spitting Poems and Speaking the Truth

WordPlay, with its emphasis on performance, has brought a cachet to poetry in the classroom that the school marms of a previous era could only have dreamed of.

Says Connie McDonald, a teacher-consultant with the LSU Writing Project and a WordPlay partner teacher, "WordPlay performance poets visit our classrooms once a week. They are rock stars at our school. Students put up posters and eagerly await their arrival. When they arrive, the room becomes a cooler-than-it's-ever-been place to 'spit poems and speak truth.' The poets read, unpack, and model poems, then guide students through a prompt and give them plenty of time to create their own pieces. There is always time for students and teachers to share and perform their pieces."

LSU Writing Project teams with WordPlay
Megan Whiten matches the spirit of her words
with the liveliness of her performance.

It's this performance aspect of WordPlay that has made a difference not only in Baton Rouge classrooms, but throughout the city. Student work does not need to die after a classroom hearing. There are open mics and All City Teen Poetry Slams culminating in the Teen Slam Nationals.

McDonald, who teaches at University High School, the Louisiana State University laboratory school, describes the difference these citywide celebrations have made for her students. "Most of my students have never experienced poverty or issues related to it. WordPlay brings together students from very different schools in the parish for the common goal of writing. My kids get to know kids from parts of the city they have never even driven through, and gain perspectives and empathy they didn't have before."

Presently about 40 percent of the teachers involved with WordPlay are writing project teachers. At the summer institute these teachers have discussed the importance of relevance—with a capital R—as they meet students in their classrooms. The WordPlay poets have knowledge of contemporary relevant works that connect with kids.

And, McDonald says, "The performance element that comes with spoken word lessons adds a dimension that most teachers, even writing project teachers, are not familiar with. We get a chance, as we do in writing project presentations, to become the student, to write and share along with them and to replicate lessons we like for other classes we teach."

West says she and her colleagues learn, as well, from the teachers they work with. "They've told us," she says, "that we need to spend more time on revision. So now we do."

The partnership between the LSU Writing Project and WordPlay has created a reciprocity that benefits hundreds of Baton Rouge students, leading them to a whole new understanding of what poetry is.

As one student poet put it, "Before WordPlay I thought poetry was cards at Wal-Mart." No more.

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