Stand Up, Speak Out

Posted by Liz Kelleher on June 1, 2015

Making Breakthroughs: Using Spoken Word Poetry to Teach History

An innovative new collaboration took place last spring connecting classrooms and teaching students literacy and performance skills through the study of history and spoken word poetry. “Stand Up, Speak Out,” a four-week program designed by Facing History and Ourselves, brought professional spoken word artists into Grade 11 classrooms as part of a unit of study that explores the history of genocide and issues of identity, tolerance, and community.
Session 1Spoken word artist Matthew Jones, stage name Testament, speaking with Facing History students in Canada. Photo Credit: Nick Kozak
“Spoken word developed as a platform for social commentary, social justice issues, and advocacy – giving people a voice to be heard in a forum where words rule,” said Jasmine Wong, Facing History program associate in Toronto, who helped develop the resources and teaching strategies for the unit. “Like any art, spoken word has the power to move us, to stretch our ideas, and to create change.” Over the course of the project, four artists visited Grade 11 “Genocide and Crimes Against Humanities” classrooms at four different schools from Toronto to Hamilton. During the visits, the artists discussed the history of spoken word and shared techniques for writing and performing poetry. They prompted students to write and speak about the community and global issues that matter to them, and reviewed the students’ written and performed work with the class. “This was a natural fit into our curriculum,” said Rob Flosman, one of four teachers participating in the project. Flosman, who is the assistant head of history at Waterdown District High School in Hamilton, has worked with Facing History for the past three years. “We prepared for the project by reflecting on the types of questions we consider all semester: ‘What creates hate?’ ‘What creates injustice in society?’ We looked at national and global moments from history as well as current events through media clips,” he said. “It’s been incredible to watch my kids come alive – they’re just on fire.” “When I first heard about it, I wasn’t that excited. It sounded like just another project, and I’m not too much into hip hop or anything,” said Waterdown District High School student Reilly McCleary, 16. “But in that first session, the visiting artist asked us to think about the things that bug us – politically, socially, economically. Things started coming into my head. It’s really hard in high school to try to communicate these bigger picture ideas out to other students. This has really been a perfect way for me to communicate these world views that are otherwise hard to talk about.” McCleary, whose brother is a soldier, wrote a piece called “Ignorance” as part of the project. “It’s about how ignorance creates conflict, is a catalyst for conflict,” he said. “As a high school student, it’s very hard to get out and speak out,” he said. “This was a gateway to letting yourself be heard.” “To be able to relate to history, you need to be able to see your place in that history,” said Matthew Jones, one of the professional spoken word artists involved in the project. Jones, who goes by the stage name Testament, regularly works with educators and classrooms throughout Canada. “Oftentimes, the voice of young people is a voice that isn’t heard or isn’t validated, which I know is one of the worst feelings in the world,” he said. “Kids have things to say. They’re concerned about the way society judges people and labels them. They’re aware of their self-image, of name calling, of bullying. These issues are just so relevant to them. The ability to express yourself regardless of what you’re expressing is something that needs to be shaped and utilized. If we suffer in silence, we bottle things down.”
[caption id="attachment_2524" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Students at Riverdale Collegiate in Toronto with spoken word artist Lishai Peel. Photo credit Nick Kozak Students at Riverdale Collegiate in Toronto with spoken word artist Lishai Peel. Photo credit Nick Kozak[/caption]
As part of the project, the students from the different schools involved used digital media to connect with each other, share their work, and explore content and primary source materials that inspire them. “I have always wanted to make a difference in the world, but I never knew how,” Toronto student Aisha P. posted on the project Facebook group. “Now, since I’ve learned a little bit more about the world, I feel like I can go out and maybe help make a difference, however small it may be.” For the final assignment, each student will create a spoken word piece and will perform it in front of their peers, educators, and the visiting artist. To celebrate the project’s culmination, representatives from each school will perform alongside the professional artists at a free event, open to the public. Also called “Stand Up, Speak Out,” the event takes place April 24 at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Signy and Cléophée Eaton Theatre at 7:30 p.m. _________________________________________________________________________________________ Bring it to your classroom: Five Facing History Resources That Use Poetry to Build Skills Facing History's Julia Rappaport wrote this article. For questions or tips on how you're using Facing History in your classroom, email her at April is National Poetry Month. Which poems will you share with your students? We'd love to hear from you! Tweet your answer to @facinghistory. FHAO_nk-227 "I am from a day where the colour of my skin, the ethnicity I have doesn't matter because I am a human" - Aisha P.  Ancestors   FHAO_nk-232   "Knowing the past is knowing your future: From the history within your ancestry; Knowing details within your moral compass; With the crimes against humanity." - Jason R. Identity Poem FHAO_nk-239"We need to pierce our darkness with our light Make it fear our conscience’s might" - Rajaat G.  Dark Passenger


This is where Canadian Facing History and Ourselves teachers and community members meet to share reflections, scholarship and teaching practices that will inspire, challenge and improve teaching and student learning. Our stories provide a window into diverse Facing History classrooms in Canada, and invite you into the discussion.

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