Mason Researchers Encourage Self Expression Through Slam Poetry

Posted: February 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm, Last Updated: February 22, 2013 at 3:06 pm

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By Catherine Probst

Many of us can remember our first introduction to poetry. Some of us reveled in the symbolism and form used by poets such as Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. And some of us were left scratching our heads and wondering what terms like meter, rhythm and diction meant and why they mattered.

Anthony Pellegrino. Photo courtesy of Anthony Pellegrino

Anthony Pellegrino. Photo courtesy of Anthony Pellegrino

Mason researchers Anthony Pellegrino and Kristien Zenkov got mostly the latter reaction when they began working with students at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va. Nick Calamito, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher, asked them in 2010 to help him get his students interested in poetry.

Putting their heads together, the team came up with a unique idea to pique students’ interest in poetry — they would create ‘slam’ poems that focused on the common theme of what it means to be an American citizen.

A relatively new phenomenon, ‘slam’ poetry started in Chicago in the 1980s. According to Pellegrino, assistant professor of secondary education in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), ‘slam’ poems are typically provocative in nature and share a dual emphasis on writing and performance. The poems also draw from the authors’ prior experiences to provoke questions, identify controversies and contribute insights about personal or political topics.

“I was very interested in slam poetry when I was in high school and college. I always loved poetry, but slam really spoke to me. When I began teaching, I noticed that many students found it hard to connect to traditional forms of poems,” says Calamito. “When I introduced slam poetry to these students, they were immediately receptive to it. It became an engaging medium to have students use the ‘tools’ of poetry in a way that showed students just how powerful words can be. When I teamed up with Professors Pellegrino and Zenkov, they added some very meaningful components to the project that helped promote students’ creative and more thoughtful explorations of citizenship.”

Kristien Zenkov. Photo courtesy of Kristien Zenkov

Kristien Zenkov. Photo courtesy of Kristien Zenkov

The students were also challenged to take or collect a pool of photographs to illustrate as many concepts of citizenship appearing in their poems as they could identify. Zenkov, associate professor of literacy and secondary education in CEHD, notes that these illustrations allowed the students to creatively emphasize what they believed were the most significant contents of their poems and to visually synthesize the key ideas they were expressing in writing.

For five weeks, the researchers attended two sessions of Calamito’s language arts classes, each with about 25 students. They began by familiarizing students with slam poetry by reading slam poems and watching slam poetry performances. They also helped students understand how slam poetry contrasts with more traditional forms of poetry that students generally dislike.

The researchers spent the next year analyzing the results of the project and discovered some interesting outcomes.

When posed with questions about citizenship, most of the students responded with similar

answers — terms such as “pride,” “patriotic” and “loyal” were common, as well as notions of responsibility and obedience. According to Pellegrino, these answers represented the fairly simplistic understanding of citizenship they anticipated from the students.

Surprisingly, however, when students put pen to paper, they offered some compelling, personal and honest thoughts on the topic of citizenship. One of the most common themes in the students’ slam poems focused on the suffering that exists among certain segments of the U.S. population that many people simply ignore.

Students were also concerned about other injustices, such as society’s flawed focus on appearances, stating that citizenship has nothing to do with skin color, clothing choices or religion. Others noted how they believed that citizens should be environmentally aware of how they are using the planet’s resources.

Students also expressed their impatience with adults’ ineffective attempts to act as responsible and responsive citizens. Thus, many of them felt that they wanted to be able to act as citizens on their own accord, rather than wait for the examples of adults — parents, teachers and community leaders — who they feel fail at their citizenship efforts.

The researchers were also struck by how the students illustrated, using their pictures and words, a more complex notion of “seeing” than what was initially introduced to them.

“The students consistently challenged us with their metaphorical take on ‘seeing’,” says Zenkov. “They seemed to appreciate that vision was about more than what our eyes do, and actually involves a mindfulness of the realities of society, the challenges others face and the justice with which the U.S. should be functioning.”

As the project came to a close, the students were asked to perform their poems in front of the class and creatively display the images they took or chose.

“This project gave students the opportunity to explore familiar, yet often unexamined, notions of what it means to be a citizen, as well as what it means to be a young person in society today,” says Pellegrino. “As educators, we gained some valuable insight into youths’ understanding of and appreciation for the concept of citizenship, which will help us come up with innovative ways to engage students in civic education.”

In the future, Pellegrino and Zenkov hope to work with students in urban areas. They led a similar project in Haiti and, with the support of Mason’s Center for Global Studies, have funded plans to take the project on the road to schools in Washington, D.C., Cleveland and Iraq.

Write to Colleen Kearney Rich at

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