Teaching Shane Koyczan and Modern Poets in Schools

by Rhianna Urquhart, UK North Blogger jaBlog!


Our first annual poetry contest had 1,160 entries from young poets in 56 countries!

I used to think poetry was boring and for old people. The curriculum was filled with the stuff. Wordsworth’s poem about daffodils was a particularly boring poem I had to study.

That was before I saw To This Day, an animated video with music in the background. A man spoke over the video. His name is Shane Koyczan. I listened and watched one of the most heartfelt, beautiful things I’d ever seen, and I’ll talk about To This Day later. For now, all you need to know is that I had just happily listened to a poem. From there, I found more of Shane Koyczan’s poems and discovered that I really liked one particular type of poetry—spoken word poetry.

Spoken word poems are written to be performed. They are poems that are not content to be left on a piece of paper. They have rhythm and style that no other poetry has. Poets often perform their poems with music behind them in “poetry slams.” These poets perform alone, in pairs, or in groups. The poems can be about anything. Every spoken word poem deals with every day issues that people face—bullying, body image, family, friends, relationships, religion, revolution. They deal with war. They deal with love. They do not deal with daffodils.

My question is this—why aren’t we using modern spoken word poetry in schools? Why are English teachers still using William Wordsworth and Robert Burns to encourage teenagers to enjoy poetry? It doesn’t work. Teenagers will never be interested in poems about clouds.

Teenagers don’t cringe at spoken word poetry. Many of them love it because of the passion that spoken word poets convey while they read poems that hit hard and that mean something. Most of all, teenagers can understand and connect to the poems.

Take To This Day. The project involved Shane Koyczan, a Canadian, and a team of musicians and animators. His poem is about bullying. He starts off by slamming the rhyme “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” by saying,

“As if broken bones hurt more than the names we got called,
And we got called them all.
So broken heart strings bled the blues as we tried to empty ourselves so we would feel nothing.
Don’t tell me that hurts less than a broken bone.”

He talks about having to cope with bullying in school, and then Koyczan attacks a belief that is rooted in society that people who are being bullied ask for it, saying the a depressed boy was “four fifths suicidal, a tidal wave of anti-depressants and an adolescence of being called popper—one part because of the pills, ninety-nine parts because of the cruelty.” He asks why bullying is being so blatantly ignored, reciting, “If a kid breaks in a school, and no one around choses to hear, do they make a sound?”

In his poem, he talks about an issue that affects teenagers and can probably relate to at one point in their life. To This Day went viral, attracting the attention of 12,515,159 views on YouTube and shared over 73,415 times. Is this not more meaningful and appropriate compared to,

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils?”

It does not stop with Shane Koyczan. Neil Hilborn’s OCD also went viral. Brenda Kent tackles body image, as does Kate Makkai. Sarah and Phil Kaye perform a poem together about friendship. There are thousands of poems.

Spoken word poetry has subjects that are about current events rather than seven or eight stanzas about how much the poet loved his girlfriend, filled with useless and impossible metaphors that make no sense, only used to make the poet in question feel smarter than the rest of us.

Six London schools introduced spoken word as test to see the pupils’ reactions. It was found as an effective way of improving confidence and improved the pupils’ ability to express themselves. Leadership and team building skills improved, as did literacy skills. The pupils were so enthusiastic they asked for a spoken word after-school club to be run. An eleven year old student said, “I have a new appreciation for spoken word. I have learned how to turn pictures into words.”

I’m not saying we should take old poetry out of the school curriculum altogether. Daffodils are boring, yes, but there is something about them that has stood the test of time, which has to be admired. I’m sure there is the odd student that even liked that poem. We need to have a balance, however, and it needs to happen soon if we want to keep people interested in poetry. Spoken word is a form of art that needs to be introduced into school curriculum to keep poetry alive. With this article, I hope I’ve raised a little awareness of what spoken word is and why it so desperately needs to be introduced into schools.



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