Harvard Educational Review
  1. Brave New Voices

    The Youth Speaks Guide to Teaching Spoken Word Poetry

    By Jen Weiss and Scott Herndon

    Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001. 120 pp. $15.75.

    Many young people in the United States are immersed in the world of popular culture, particularly hip-hop music. For this reason, Jen Weiss and Scott Herndon’s book, Brave New Voices: The Youth Speaks Guide to Teaching Spoken Word Poetry, will be helpful for teachers working with young people in all kinds of settings. Weiss and Herndon invite teachers to draw on young people’s experience with hip-hop to push their students to become conscious and critical producers of the spoken word. As Weiss and Herndon assert, young people will then feel more confident about themselves and share with others what they have to say about the society in which we live.

    Brave New Voices is based on the workshops that Weiss, Herndon, and others have conducted in New York and San Francisco for Youth Speaks, a nonprofit, grassroots organization. The book is a guide for teachers, community organizations, and educators in afterschool programs who would like to teach about spoken word poetry, or “poetry that is written on a page but performed for an audience” (p. 118). Weiss and Herndon tell readers, “We want to put poetry into the hands of as many teenagers as we can. Our strongest connection is through you, our community of dedicated and passionate teachers” (p. xvii). Brave New Voices is meant for “teachers who want to be involved in the creative lives of their students” (p. xxi).

    The book is designed as a blueprint for a five-week workshop on spoken word poetry. It is divided into six chapters. Each of the first five details one week of the workshop, and the sixth explains how to culminate the workshop with a live performance of student work. The first chapter, “Week 1: Getting Started,” gives teachers some parameters for beginning the workshop. The authors emphasize that the workshop should be student driven. Weiss and Herndon warn against teachers exerting tight control over the structure of the lesson or the activities of the students. They invite teachers to allow themselves to feel afraid of the students, and to believe that any resistance they may encounter from the students is “vulnerable resistance,” or resistance that the students may have to feeling vulnerable, which will subside as the students are drawn out of their shells and into the workshop. The authors effectively convince readers that teachers must create a space that allows for the inclusion of all students’ voices so as to “empower everyone and anyone who wants to start writing about their world and begin speaking their minds with sharpened wits and chiseled words” (p. 19).

    The second chapter, “Week 2: Generating Momentum,” addresses how students can form a community in which they themselves become one another’s audience and provide support and feedback to each other. Weiss and Herndon suggest that students think of their poems as meaningless until they bring them to student-centered workshops, read and discuss them, and have other students provide them with their insights.

    “Week 3: Using Rhythm and Hip-Hop” invites teachers to expand and coach students to polish the work the students are starting to write. The authors define hip-hop and assure readers that they don’t have to be experts in the genre in order to conduct the workshop. As they explain, “We think it’s a boon because when you encounter unfamiliar terrain, you must listen” (p. 60). The authors encourage teachers to look beyond spoken word poetry as merely a written work, but also “as a complex of written, visual, and aural performances” (p. 62), and to create a pedagogical space in which they can be surprised and have fun with the young people in the workshop. Weiss and Herndon suggest, however, that “the sooner you can learn what poetry means to your students, the sooner you can begin to coach them to write productively in whatever mode they choose” (p. 55).

    In “Week 4: The Politics of Poetry,” Weiss and Herndon recount the history of the spoken word as an art form, especially its link to politics and political voice for marginalized groups. According to the authors, the spoken word movement purposefully broke away from the highbrow, academic definition of poetry and operated outside of the conventional frame of “serious” poetry. Instead, spoken word poetry was founded on an acceptance “of all cultures, social types, and voices” (p. 78) and focused on the politics and poetics of oppressed people. This chapter is informative, but even though students do not learn it until the fourth week of the workshop, readers of this text would have benefited from knowing this background information sooner. A contextual and historical understanding of spoken word from the beginning would give the readers a lens through which to consider all the chapters in the book.

    “Week 5: Revision and Performance,” describes how students revise their work based on the critiques given by their peers. Weiss and Herndon suggest guidelines for revisions, including a clear understanding of what the poem is about, what it means to its creator, and how to make that meaning clear to the audience. They also provide some specific exercises for revising.

    The final chapter, “Letting the Poets Speak: The Poetry Event,” gives teachers suggestions and checklists to help them organize a spoken word poetry performance with the students’ help. This chapter is technically helpful but the least inspiring, due to its checklist-like presentation. This ending is especially anticlimactic considering that, for the five preceding chapters, the authors included works by and reflections of young people who have participated in Youth Speaks.

    In addition to including young people’s voices throughout Brave New Voices, the authors provide suggested exercises at the end of each chapter. This will help teachers who do not have much experience in teaching poetry, spoken word poetry in particular. Some of the exercises are clear and exciting, while others may not be specific enough to guide some teachers. The book also provides useful references to poems, documentaries, and other resources.

    The book is an inspiring introduction for teachers unfamiliar with spoken word poetry, although novices may need more guidance. For teachers familiar with spoken word poetry and with the culture of hip-hop, this book may provide the jump-start they need to organize a workshop. For others, like this reviewer, the book may spark thinking about poetry and youth empowerment. It brought to light the fact that there is a large culture of spoken word poetry for young people, and all of us should consider seriously how we can integrate elements of it at the very least, especially as it provides an alternative approach to learning from what is usually presented in a traditionally structured school, which may serve to hook students and create a space for their voices to be heard.

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