The more I teach middle school English and the older I get, the more I realize how difficult it is to bridge what so many cited as a major social problem in the sixties; the "generation gap." As an adult trying to reach middle school age students in a world that is quite different than the one I grew up in, I am constantly remembering those days when as a youngster, I proclaimed that the adults just didn't "get it." They simply didn't understand. Now that I am the adult and a teacher, no less, children undoubtedly are feeling the same way as I did about adults during my adolescence, so I am always searching for ways to understand or to reach my students. How, after all, can we really reach the students without understanding where they are coming from? And although they are probably not prepared to admit it themselves, wouldn't it be nice if they could understand where we were coming from?
This realization really hit home last year when I was preparing a poetry unit for my students. In the past my annual attempt to incorporate a poetry unit into my eighth grade language arts classroom in recognition of National Poetry Month had ranged from moderately successful to one of those "aha" moments that teachers live for. When I first began teaching in New Haven seven years ago I was able to utilize the poetry published in our textbook (Frost, Giovanni, Dickinson) to generate some discussion of poetry and get students to write some of their own works. As the years progressed I substituted various poems, bringing in outside works and authors in an attempt to get students to get involved with poetry. It wasn't until last year when I invited a group into my classroom to do a poetry slam that I saw students really embrace poetry through "the spoken word."
This moment last April was an eye opening experience for me as I realized that a renewed interest in poetry through the "open mike" and the "poetry slam" is born from a desire to speak out against a world that many of our children find disheartening. Not unlike the Ginsbergs and the Dylans of the fifties and sixties, participants in the modern poetry slam are often concerned with some aspect of the social breakdown of modern society. I watched last year as my students rebelled through their own poetry, angry at the streets, angry with their parents, angry and confused with themselves. Actually many of them were confused about the same things that many others, including myself, were grappling with during our adolescence. As my students tried to work through their disillusionment, I recognized the many similarities between modern times and those of the sixties.
As I began to think about it I was able to draw many similarities between myself and the children, my times and their times, my worries and their worries, my anger and their anger. How did I relieve my anger and frustration--through poetry and writing. I am the last of the "Baby Boomers," a term unknown to many of my current students. My fellow "boomers" were equally frustrated and confused, ready to bend the rules, to challenge the norm and the accepted. They followed the beat poets, the Ginsbergs, the Keroacs and they became the Dylans the Giovannis the Brooks', the Ferlenghettis, the Seegers. They became the anti-"father know best" generation. They fought against the wars and the rules. They blamed their parents and the politicians. They read in bars, at open mikes, they sang in concerts and on street corners, sharing their poetry, sometimes for poetry's sake, sometimes for the sake of change, sometimes to question. The songs and poetry of the sixties and seventies led to the open mike sessions that characterized the eighties and nineties. From the open mike I believe I can trace a direct link to what today is being called the "spoken word" revolution and performance poetry. Young people's modern poetry has become alive through the spoken word. Due perhaps to the development of our electronic world, where TV images race past the eye on music videos and the "X Box" has replaced the hoola hoop, the poetry of this generation cannot just sit on a page. Instead it is prompted to come to life through the words and animation of the speakers. The spoken word is just that, the living poetry, read with feeling and emotion and movement, often-inviting audience members to join in, to interact and to work with the poet.
In this unit I will introduce students to the performance poetry of the past beginning with the Beat poets of the 1950s and leading into the protest poetry and music of the 1960s. I will attempt to lead students through a discovery of the performance poetry of the past and allow them to draw their own conclusions as we study the modern poetry slam and the spoken word revolution, which is a part of this modern poetry movement. Students will read the poetry of others and read and write their own poetry at first, mimicking past poets as they find their way to their own inner voice and hopefully are able to perform for their classmates.
In this unit I will make links that I think I see in the history of poetry and the natural need to rebel that appears with adolescence and sometimes never goes away. By showing students how writers of the past worked with poetry as an artistic form of expression, I hope I can come close to making the link I saw forged in my classroom last year. I am a firm believer in the therapeutic value of creative writing and I want to share that value with my students, many of whom may find an outlet, a way to work out their issues in the modern poetry slam.