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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Class Slam

Tomorrow is the last day of instruction for my classes. Hurrah!

And I end the semester on a very high note, for two of my classes finish tomorrow with the third round – the final round – of a class slam.

I have taught two sections of 2nd year composition this semester – in which students write expository, argumentative essays about literature. We have read and talked and read and talked and drafted, revised, revised, edited and polished, edited and polished, and proofed, proofed, proofed our way through 4 critical essays about various stories and a novel.

But I wanted to end the semester with something fun and relatively speaking, easy. Or at least, so fun that my students would think it’s easy (but actually, it’s not).

First, I sent them out into the world at large, searching for spoken-word events or slams. They were required to attend at least one event and write a review. They returned to the classroom, many of them, in a state of shock and hilarity. Far too many of them had no idea that poetry could be performance – that poetry could kick your ass – that poetry could make your brain steam, your heart pound, your feet stamp, and your voice call out in response to the poet and the poem – hooting and hollering. Far too many of them thought poetry was an old man in a stiff white shirt, reading in a monotone voice from a dusty book, sucking the life out of the words and never, ever making you feel anything at all.

But they went to poetry events and slams at bars and taverns, cafes and pizza parlors, and came back excited, enthralled, invigorated. That was the easy part - I lulled them in.

Then we began to investigate what Billy Collins calls “poems in the air” and “poems on the page” and talk about the differences. We read and we listened. We talked about the meaning of the poem and how its form on the page hindered or helped craft that meaning, and how its sound in the air did the same. They had to write two critical papers about poetry – and discuss the differences between poems on the page and poems in the air and explain why those differences matter – or why they don’t. No one complained - they wanted to discuss and write about poetry (even the ones that groaned when I said we would be writing about poetry).

Then I delivered the sucker punch. I told them: you must write poetry.

Their jaws dropped. But, but, they stammered, we aren’t creative writers.

Oh really? I said. Too bad, because you must write poetry. And not only that, you must compete in a class slam.

What? What? They shouted. But Ms. G – that’s not fair – we’re not creative writers.

Too bad, I said. Do it anyway.

They relented, hanging their heads low, mumbling in their seats. Fine, we’ll do it. But what do we write about? How does it work? What are the rules?

You write about anything you want.



Are you sure? ANYTHING????

You're writing poetry - that's art and I don't censor art.

What about the rules for the slam?

There are no rules.

How can there be no rules?

Ok, there’s two rules: 1. the poems cannot be longer than 3 minutes. 2) the judges must judge on content and performance.

So what's the criteria for that? What basis do they judge the content and the performance? Will you give us a rubric?

There isn’t any criterion. There is no rubric.


There is no criterion, no rubric. Judges decide based on whatever they like, whatever they don’t like. And then they score your poem however they feel like.

That’s ridiculous, they said.

Yes, I said. It is.

We formed groups. Each student wrote three poems and brought those poems to their group. And each group selected three poems (one for each round) to enter in the slam. On Monday, we had the first two rounds of the slam. Groups performed their poems. Judges rated the poems on the Olympic scale of 1 – 10. The audience applauded the poems and the poets, then applauded or booed the judges as they revealed the scores. The numbers were tallied, and the four highest-scoring groups (out of five) moved into the second round. After the second round, the three highest-scoring groups moved into the final round – that’s tomorrow.

I heard some terrific poems. Some were wise, some were sexy, some were sarcastic, some were about love and angst, some about social change. One was about chocolate cake. Some were about sex. Some were about war, strife, terror, and politics. Some had nothing to do with anything but were just plain fun. One of my quietest, softest-spoken students suddenly became a spoken-word star. One student who has struggled all semester with essay writing suddenly became the best writer in the room. And all I heard on Monday when our two rounds were finished was how much fun everyone had. Students didn't want to leave class - I had to kick them out. They wanted to talk about the poems, tease each other, clap each other on the backs. One student visited me in my office today to tell me that even though he has struggled with the course and knows he is failing (he will take the course again over the summer), he feels he accomplished something. "I can't write an essay very easily," he told me, "but I know I can write poetry now."

Victory is mine!


Blogger Jack K. said...




For you are truly a teacher.

I was moved and excited as I read your posting.

I hope it is possible to read some of their works.

But, alas, they have to give permission and you would have to tell them about this blog, which you should NOT do. So, I can only relish in your VICTORY, and know were are all the better for it.

You are living proof of the value of...

serving with integrity, caring about those you serve and sharing the love in your heart/soul.




May 14, 2008 6:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for the compliments jack. i've got no end of satisfaction from this unit - and truly from the whole class.

and you are right - i would love to post some of my students' work, but yes, i would then have to give them the link to this blog. can't do that - though i don't believe in censoring art, some of my work is not meant for my students. though i have a few colleagues who write poetry and short fiction and tell me that i shouldn't worry about that. i read at an open mic several months ago - and because some of my students were present, chose one piece over another to read - just not ready to say the words "fuck" and "cunt" in a poem in front of my students ... hahahahaha!


May 14, 2008 6:27 AM  
Blogger Pete Bogs said...

I have never been to any kind of slam before... I have f*cked a c*nt, however... or so I recall...

May 14, 2008 6:12 PM  
Blogger Jack K. said...

The compliments are well deserved. It is a privilege to know there are dedicated, principled people like you in this world.

A person of honor and integrity knows that discretion is the better part of valor. While your students may use the words fuck and cunt, they don't have to hear them from you until they are adults.

I am fortunate to have crossed your path, dare I say again? I am sure we have known each other in past lives.

Continue to flap and swoosh and challenge the young thinkers.

May 15, 2008 2:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I could have been there to see, Bird. Congratulations on ending the semester on such a high note.

May 16, 2008 9:40 PM  
Blogger Pete Bogs said...

doesn't poetry seem too "soft" a thing to have a slam for?

PS: new video up at my blog...

May 18, 2008 5:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon- you sound as if you know me - either in the material world or the cyber one. who are you?

bogs baby - you've read some of my poetry - is it "soft"?


May 18, 2008 6:42 PM  
Blogger boneman said...

well gal, it's late this evening, but, tomorrow I'll open a bottle of wine to congratulate you with.
Sure, I know you won't get here to have any, but, I'll also cook some chicken with it, share the chicken with the dogs, give the cats extra soft food in the evening,...yup.
Gonna make everybody in the house smile and celebrate your wonderful victory!

You actually do this kind of win more than you say, don't you?


May 18, 2008 10:07 PM  
Blogger LeftLeaningLady said...

If I go back to school, can you be my instructor?

How awesome to know there are still teachers out there who can thrill and excite their students while the students are learning!

Thank you.

May 19, 2008 1:26 PM  

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