Having a Voice

Rob Lessig had a vision. It wasn’t too sharply focused, and it was admittedly a bit of a crazy idea, but it all centered around one idea: “stories are relevant.” He wanted to create an event that would showcase storytelling and all the different modalities through which we tell stories: film, poetry, art, music. And the Storytelling Festival was born.

Rob, English teacher at Mitchell High School and founder of Ghost Factory Press, said the idea had its origin when he took a class on “narrative theory” a few years ago. Sounds like an English teacher, right? And the idea grew to fruition.

Saturday, at the City Auditorium in Colorado Springs, high school students, their teachers, and community members gathered and moved through small auditoriums in the building to take in student-produced films, a fashion show, dance, jazz concerts, and rock and roll sessions. The theme holding the evening together was story – how do we tell them, in what genre, and with what craft?

I hung out in the halls of the City Aud to check out the student art for sale, but my main focus was on the slam poetry event. Last spring, I had the privilege and honor of judging the Slam Poetry contest featuring students from Colorado Springs District 11 high schools.

The Storytelling Festival had a twist – the Teacher Poetry Slam. Teachers from D11 schools spit their best poems in fevered three minute poems. Students and audience members snapped fingers when they were moved and “ooohhed” and “ahhhhed” at lines that particularly sung to them.

hosts

Student hosts provide some comedy before introducing the next teacher-poet.

The Teacher Poetry Slam ended in a three-way tie!  Dan Reicks from Russell Middle School, Sarah Hook and Andrew Ziegler from Mitchell all received PERFECT scores for their performances!

I was able to catch up to only three of the teachers who participated; other participating teachers were either swarmed by their students or they had made their way to some of the other events in the Aud.

I asked Miranda Popp, a teacher and colleague of Lessig’s at Mitchell High School, what was the power of slam poetry for these students. “It’s the empowerment itself. It gives formerly voiceless people the spotlight,” Popp said. Slam Poetry often is very introspective with topics ranging from commentary on social issues, to identity, to abuse, to questions about gender. Miranda said that slam poetry is healing: “the speaker heals from saying it; the others heal from listening to it.”

Slams are competitions among poets and are judged on delivery and language use, as well as the message delivered. This isn’t your restrained “poetry reading”; slams are performance art. While some slams can be a bit aggressive (for lack of a better term) in crowd response and scoring, the teachers in D11 have done a great job to create a positive event — seen in the vulnerable topics the students choose and the supportive spirit the audience offers.

Todd Hegert, an English teacher from Palmer High, agreed. “Slam poetry is so strong on word play, in language, and in telling a story” that it sets it apart from other poetic forms or events and it is “more compelling” to the current student population. “They get to tell their story, talk about the world around them, work toward solutions.” In the long run, Todd says, these “young voices are equipped with the language to shift the political and social landscape.”

One teacher I could not interview, but all three of the other teachers mentioned, is Chris Hartman from Coronado High School. His work with students and his efforts in creating the student Poetry Slam competition are recognized by students and teachers, alike.

“I love how this night showcased students and the arts,” Popp said. “Arts are so important to our students, and show that our students are human beings. This is more important than the standardized assessments” that are so much part of their educational world.

 

Lessig agreed, saying that once the expenses are met, the rest of the proceeds from the evening will be donated to arts education in our community. He reminded me that all the events tonight – the films, music, art, dance – were student created.

“The arts build community,” he said. And, as the program for the night’s event stated, “Stories create our world.”

 

One Response to “Having a Voice”

  1. kjhartmaninarvada Says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Vince. It’s so wonderful to see Colorado Springs teachers and students telling their stories through different mediums.

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