A spoken word club in high school changed the lives of students. Now you can read their poems

When Peter Kahn became an English teacher at Chicago-area Oak Park and River Forest High School, he was terrified of teaching poetry.

“Poetry was my least favorite subject as a student, and my least favorite subject to teach as a teacher,” he says. “I was terrible at that.”

So he enlisted the help of one of his former students, who suggested the idea of ​​a poetry slam – a competition in which poets perform spoken word poetry in front of a live audience.

“The student with the lowest grade in my class ended up winning,” Kahn explains. “And I realized that was something powerful.”

That was in 1999. Inspired by the club’s potential to engage students, Kahn started an after-school spoken word club in high school. And for more than 20 years, the club has created a space for students to engage in storytelling.

/ Penguin Workshop


Penguin Workshop

Many have gone on to become award-winning poets, scholars, or even National Young Poets Laureates. Now a new anthology titled Respect the mic showcases some of that talent.

Here is an excerpt from a poem by alumnus of the club, Anandita Vidyarthi, who is now a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her poem is called “Bi, Bi Brown Girl” –

“There are three things we never talked about at home:

my adoption, my sex and my homosexual thoughts

We have more secrets than furniture

They lie on the sofa and sit with us for dinner”

The anthology features 76 honest and powerful poems by the club’s students and alumni, with a foreword by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess. Over the years, Kahn has invited distinguished poets like National Book Award winner Terrance Hayes and National Poetry Slam champion Patricia Smith to visit his class.

“‘Respect the mic’ was something we originally said in the club when people were speaking in the public, and it became a motto for the club,” says Dan Sullivan, also known as Sully . He is one of four editors of the anthology.

Sully went from planning to drop out of school on his 17th birthday to playing and helping to establish the club in 1999.

“My friends and I had these freestyle figures in the hallway and everything [like that]but I was often not engaged in the classroom,” he says, adding that the club bridges the gap between the classroom and the lived experience of students. “For me, it was that missing piece.

Here is an excerpt from Sully’s poem, “& I Can Find A Home There, Too.”, which is one of the poems in the anthology –

“Chicago was never mine. That doesn’t mean I can’t love it.

It means I can leave. It means there is another landscape

and I can also find a home there.”

Poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib, who also edited the book, says he was drawn to poems like these that deal with geography.

Indeed, the first of the book’s five sections focuses on poems that celebrate this sense of belonging – it’s titled “Notes from Here.” Poet Franny Choi, the anthology’s fourth editor, came up with the themes for these sections, which also include one titled “Coming Of Age” and another titled “Monsters At Home.”

Both Abdurraqib and Choi came into the world of slam poetry, and Abdurraqib says it’s a particularly good tool for young poets.

“There is a real continuity and a closeness that makes it possible to build an archive and a lineage,” he says. “And I think this book can testify to that and be a great blueprint for schools around the world.”

For Kahn, the anthology and the club were meant to help students like Sully at the time who simply didn’t like school, as well as students of color—black students in particular—who, Kahn writes in the book, were faced with an “empty opportunity” in classrooms. On average, they had a lower GPA than white students.

Consider this excerpt from the poem “Oak Park Mutters Statistics” by student Kyla Pereles, Class of 2021 –

“In this piece of no-town

people are proud

of their diversity

Even though the realization

gap in my high school

the looks”

Ultimately, the publishers hope the anthology will take that power of poetry and move it beyond the Oak Park classroom, so teachers like Kahn, who once feared poetry, can inspire themselves and their students.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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