The Power of Poetry and Performance
By Jenny Griffin
America SCORES students don’t just write poetry, they perform it with contagious verve and spirit. SCORES poet-athletes showcased their work in energy-packed poetry slams earlier this year in San Francisco and Oakland that brought cheering audiences to their feet. The slams were produced through a collaboration between America SCORES Bay Area and the Bay Area Creative SPARC Poetry Program.
Mike Taylor, SPARC’s program director, founded the Bay Area-based organization in 2009 to introduce slam poetry to Bay Area elementary and middle school students. Their goal: to get kids comfortable with public speaking, to boost their creative writing skills, and to help them think critically about the world around them. SPARC brings nationally ranked slam poets to teach kids the art of the poetry slam. It’s performance poetry taken up a notch, and deliberately written for competition. Poets face a panel of judges and are scored on the use of poetic language, facial and body language, and fluency. Slam poetry demands physicality, energy, confidence, and time limits. With only moments to capture an audience, slam poets throw everything they have into the effort.
For SCORES, bringing SPARC into the mix was a way to not only supercharge poetry slams, but a way to leverage SPARC’s rich network of performing artists. “By collaborating with SPARC, we were able to bring local teaching artists and poets into our SCORES classrooms to inspire and prepare our students for poetry slams in multiple regions,” says Yuri Morales, SCORES Chief Program Officer. “And they brought incredible talent to the slams, providing an MC, guest poets, DJs, and break dancers.”
As Taylor explains, the competitive, game aspect of slam poetry is hugely beneficial in teaching poetry to kids. “Often, students initially think of poetry as something out of reach and impossible to understand,” he says. “We show them poetry is fun, and once students think of something as fun, they automatically start learning it. We’ll introduce a game to teach a literary device or writing techniques, and the competition hooks them. We don’t even call them literary devices; we call them a “tricks”, as in, take this trick and see what you can do with it. Students stop thinking about how do I do this? They’re thinking about the rules and how they stay in the game. In the process, they’re learning about wordplay and the manipulation of sound, and all the ways they can make their poetry come to life.
The game-like, competitive approach, brought increased dynamism to the SCORES slams. Leah Morales organized the Oakland slam. “Many of our SCORES staff come from soccer backgrounds, but fewer come from spoken word, performance, and poetry slam communities,” she says. “Including people who embody that community was crucial to this year’s slams. The competitive aspect and the added incentives heightened the kids’ willingness to really prepare for the event.”
Energized by the success of the 2020 poetry slams, SCORES and SPARC started looking for more ways to collaborate. When COVID-19 struck and schools closed in mid-March, SCORES sprang into action to adapt its poetry and soccer curriculum to meet new demands by going online with targeted lessons for students and families. Recognizing an opportunity within a roadblock, SCORES hired SPARC to help develop its online poetry curriculum at SCORES U, creating lesson plans based on poetic devices, figurative speech, and the more technical aspects of writing poetry. “They’re a nice complement to the more theme-focused lessons we already have in place,” says Morales.
But it’s more than that. It’s about making sure the poetry component of SCORES is front and center. "The partnership with SPARC is measurably elevating our poetry program," explains SCORES Executive Director, Colin Schmidt. "We always get called a soccer program, but the magic is in the poetry and in the way soccer and poetry can come together to stretch and support kids. Poetry gives our students a way to put words to emotions, to find their voice, to make sense of their unique place in the world, and that’s incredibly important, especially right now.”