|Posted on November 13, 2013 at 6:10 PM|
Until September this year, Peter Kahn was perhaps the only full-time spoken word educator in the world. I met him in 2002 on a two-year sabbatical from his post in Chicago through a regular meeting of poets and writers I'd helped to establish in London. We soon found we shared an interest in using poetry as a tool to work with young people, particularly to reach out to disaffected or disenfranchised youth. The difference? I'm a poet. Peter was employed as a high-school English teacher.
It's easy to turn to the United States for inspiring ways of working with spoken word poetry and young people. The US hosts not one but two of the largest, internationally renowned youth poetry slam programmes – Brave New Voices (a national programme) and Louder Than a Bomb. Each year, Youth Speaks, the organisation that produces Brave New Voices, works with around 200,000 young people through poetry and spoken word. A docu-series based on Brave New Voices was screened on television network HBO, which is undoubtedly a testament to the fact that spoken word is much more a part of mainstream American culture.
The Spoken Word Education programme that Peter Kahn pioneered in his Chicagoan high school is, by the same token, unparalleled. For a population of more than 3,200 students, Peter is an infamous figure, capable of all the benefits that are often attributed to poetry workshops in educational settings – improving students' literacy and speaking skills, developing reluctant writers, developing students' aptitude for literary analysis and sparking a genuine belief in the power and value of of creative self expression and imaginative thinking.
Further, Peter's status as a member of staff allows him to work towards more sustained benefits – developing student voice and emotional literacy, building students' self-esteem, increasing academic motivation, developing a sense of community through an after-school spoken word club, and increasing parental involvement and parental relationships with the school.
There's a body of evidence that speaks to the value of Peter's role. I'm fond of a story he told me about a student of his who was in danger of being excluded and already had gang affiliations. After an initial period of involvement in the Spoken Word programme, the student rebuilt relationships with other teachers in school, and improved grades in other subjects. At the end of the story, that student graduates to become an English teacher.
The idea of taking poets and spoken word artists into schools is not, in itself, an innovation. There's a range of activity that happens on this side of the Atlantic that can and should be celebrated, from the Poets in Education scheme offered by Apples and Snakes to the work of other long-running projects and organisations such as Leeds Young Authors, Young Identity (Manchester), and Write Down Speak Up (Birmingham). And that's not to forget the workshops run by a range of individual teaching poets in schools, PRUs and other educational institutions across the country.
For much of my career, I've been one of those poets, arriving as if by magic at the start of a school day and often disappearing as quickly as I'd arrived, even as much as I like to maintain meaningful relationships with the schools I visit and see the work live on beyond the workshop or project. If a one-off or short term intervention can have a life-changing impact on a student, what would the potential benefits of a sustained, long-term commitment look like? How much more impactful could those experiences be if embedded in a larger number of student's school careers, rather than being packaged as special events for a chosen few?
It's the appreciation of the value of a long-term, embedded experience that drives the spoken -word education model, which Peter returned to London to establish in conjunction with Goldsmiths' MA Writer and Teacher course in 2012. Each spoken word educator is both a practising poet skilled in the writing and performance of poetry, and a trained educator with their own body of lessons, resources and pedagogical strategies. As educators, they're valid members of staff, aware of what does and doesn't work in a classroom, able to work in a range of different lessons on the timetable, even beyond English and drama, and challenge the perception that poetry is an exclusive pursuit. As embedded poets, they're recognised as active practitioners of the craft they're imparting, they can focus completely on their students' needs and are less susceptible to the range of other drains on a teacher's time.
Peter Kahn is now in Chicago, taking the programme he started here back to the city where he first developed the model, but now he's not alone. This September, the first body of educators he trained in London have taken up full-time positions in their own resident schools, and a new cohort have begun training. Six London schools have the opportunity to work with spoken word educators and, in the future, many more.
Jacob Sam-La Rose is a poet and programme director of Spoken Word Educators. You can follow him on Twitter @jsamlarose