I enter the classroom, greet the classroom teacher, and feel uneasy about where to set down my things. As a teaching artist for the Alley Theatre in Houston, TX, I practically live out of my car and my backpack. With me, I carry books, paper, a portable speaker, copies of poems, highlighters, post-it notes, and dry erase markers. A portable classroom on my back.

The teacher will find a corner for me to place my things and say, “They’re all yours.” I hesitate for a moment as I take my place in the front of the room and begin. I am here to teach high school students about the art of slam poetry. I will spend anywhere from four to eight weeks teaching them how to write a poem on the page and then bring it to life on the stage. As with any new artistic endeavor, some students are naturally drawn to this art form, while others only learn to appreciate it when I’m no longer there.

The final outcome of our time spent together is the opportunity to compete in the Bayou City Teen Slam at The Alley. But before they are ready for that last step, I must teach them what slam is, how it differs from other forms of poetry, and to write and revise at least two poems for the qualifying slam held at their school.

I start my residency at each school by performing some of my own work. Many of the schools I’m placed at are low-income schools that serve predominantly minority student populations. When I begin my lesson with a piece about my Afro-Latinidad, students are usually taken aback because I don’t look like the stereotypical Latina. However, within a few moments of my performance, they are immediately reengaged. I speak their language, I share their story, and they like what I have to say.

I have them watch me perform a poem and ask them what poetic elements they heard and how my performance of the poem differs from their understanding of what poetry is. From there we engage in a lively discussion about what makes a poem a poem and I provide them with a prompt to get started. I really enjoy asking them to write either “I AM” poems or “Where I’m From” poems in the first few sessions. These topics naturally draw them in and require them to do some introspection.

Jasminne Méndez performing. Photo by Cressandra Thibideaux.

Depending on the length of each residency, we will spend half the sessions working on writing and revising using a variety of literary devices and poetic techniques. The second half of the residency focuses on the performance aspect of slam poetry and how to prepare the voice and body for an on-stage interpretation of their work. I work with students on articulation and projection exercises, and challenge them to read and share their work using a variety of emotions, character choices, and physical movements. The goal of this work is to have students feel comfortable with their words in front of an audience. Each class allows the time and space for students to share their work and receive feedback on content and delivery of the poem.

At the end of each residency, the school is expected to host a preliminary slam competition on campus. All students that have signed up to participate will bring two poems to perform. From there, the top three students that win will go on to participate in the Alley Theatre Grand Slam.

Addison Antonoff performing. Photo by Cressandra Thibideaux.

This year, the Alley held slam poetry residencies, run by Luis Galindo and myself, at Reagan High School, Waltrip High School, High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA), Carnegie Vanguard (CVHS), Academy of Choice, Sharpstown High Sschool, and The Briarwood School. There were a total of fifteen students participating in the slam at the Alley and prior to the competition they were able to take part in a slam poetry workshop as a part of Houston’s Bayou City Slam series.

With over 150 audience members in attendance and local press covering the event, the Alley Teen Slam competition provided a unique and rewarding experience for local Houston teens who may never have been exposed to the art form otherwise. With poems ranging from the political to the personal, this year’s slam winners Addison Antonoff (HSPVA), Hailey Strader (CVHS), and Rukmini Kalamangalm (CVHS) wrote about everything from the attacks in Paris to their love of reading and their struggles with depression.

Andrew Stewart from Waltrip High School performing. Photo by Cressandra Thibideaux.

The whole process was a transformative experience for many of the first-time students in attendance, including Addison Antonoff, whose father went on to say, “It has opened up a whole new world for my daughter… The students were so energized and inspired by these workshops. 

As their teaching artist, I find it very rewarding to see student growth from the first workshop session to the last. In a time where testing is the focus of education and where the arts have taken a backseat in most schools and classrooms, it is refreshing and empowering for me to be able to instill a love and excitement for literature, performance, and the arts in these students and their teachers.

If you’re inspired by the work we do at the Alley with slam and want to try it at your own school but aren’t sure how to start, think about introducing a few slam poetry videos into your poetry unit and start with the question, “What makes this a poem?” Then provide students with one of these writing prompts to get started writing their own spoken word pieces. Want to take it a step further? Ask other teachers or in your school to help you host an after school slam to keep the students excited and engaged.

Remember that writing and performing is a journey, it may take students some time to warm up to it, but those that do may have finally found a way to use their words and their voice to empower and inspire others.