Slam Poetry in the English Classroom

For high school English teachers, starting a poetry unit is tricky business. Get it wrong, and students are likely to fall asleep in the middle of your lessons, or give up when they think a poem is too challenging. When starting any unit, you need to ‘prime the pump,’ and make students excited about what’s to come.

When it came to my poetry teaching woes, I had a great mentor teacher. He had a few tricks up his sleeve, one I want to share with YOU! In this article, I will teach you how to use spoken work (aka slam) poetry to get your students excited about poetry and the unit ahead.

That said, let’s get started!

Note: The poems in this lesson include adult material. If you want to use this lesson with younger audiences, don’t worry: there are plenty of clean slam poets out there whose poetry has the same emotional impact. Keep one thing in mind if you use alternative poems: start with an emotionally neutral poem, then go heavy, and finish with something lighthearted.

The Poetry Unit Hook to End All Hooks!

For this lesson, you will need some unique materials:

    A seven-page blank ‘booklet’ for each student. Each page should be roughly 4” x 4”. The pages should be stapled together.

You can have students make these in class, or do it yourself the day before. Make notebooks for yourself, too. Participating alongside your students will make them more engaged, and you will be able to share your impressions with the class, encouraging shy students to speak up.

When students come into the classroom, hand each of them a blank booklet. Besides writing their name on page #1, have them complete a warm-up on the following prompt:

    What do you think of poetry? Have you ever enjoyed reading it in school? Be honest.

Give students 2-3 minutes to write. Then, spend 5 minutes letting students share their opinions. Write them on a board you don’t plan to use for the rest of the day. If you’re doing this lesson for multiple classes, you can hide one class’ responses by covering them up until students in the next period are finished.

Explain that the class will start a poetry unit, but in a unique way. The class will watch modern poets of all ages perform their poems. And since you are a narcissistic teacher (say it as a joke), the class will start with a poem by a teacher:

"What Teachers Make" by Taylor Mali

After students watch the video, have them complete the following prompts on page #2 and page #3. Give students 3 minutes to write.

    What is your gut reaction to this poem?
    How do you think your reaction would be different if you simply read “What Teachers Make”?

Spend 5-7 minutes discussing both questions.

Introduce the next poem. Mention that it is by two young men your students’ age, and their life experience is very different from theirs. Play the video:

"Lost Count: A Love Story" by Nate Marshall and Demertrius Amparan

After students watch the video, have them complete the following prompts on page #4 and page #5. Give students 3 minutes to write.

    What emotions are you feeling right now?
    What imagery from the poem stands out to you?

Spend 5-7 minutes discussing both questions.

Finally, tell students that they will end the lesson on a lighter note.

"S for Lisp" by George Watsky

After students watch the video, have them complete the following prompts on page #6 and page #7. Give students 3 minutes to write.

    Why do you think George wrote this poem?
    What lessons/ideas do you take away from this poem?

Spend 5-7 minutes discussing both questions.

Transitioning into Your Poetry Unit

There are many ways to connect this lesson to your poetry unit and the ‘traditional’ poems your students will read in class. One way is to turn poems into spoken word poems (aka bringing emotion to the page). Asking students to perform poetry may be a bit of a hard sell, but if you do it first, they’re likely to follow along. Another idea is to have students write original spoken word poems that incorporate the poetry concepts required by your curriculum.

Final Thoughts

Spoken word/slam poetry can both hook your students and open their eyes to poetry’s transformational power. I encourage you to explore other sample lessons, poems on YouTube, and poetry resources used by other English teachers at your school.

Good luck in the upcoming unit!

As a high school English and social studies teacher, Thomas Broderick developed a test prep course that helped his students earn over $500,000 in college scholarships. Now a freelance writer and consultant in the education field, he is happy to share his wisdom with students and teachers. You can contact Thomas through his website