Tears and Joy: Horizon’s Spoken Word Project

Devin Jones, Head of Media and Photography

As usual, Mrs. Britt’s junior English class did something spectacular, and for quarter four, they created and performed spoken word poetry. Instead of students dressing up to play historical figures from the 1930s, they are going up on stage in different costumes. They are going as themselves.

Modern spoken word poetry has a rich, complex history, with its roots in the Harlem Renaissance through its connection to the blues, and continued popularity through the beatnik poets of the 1960s. Today’s spoken word became its own genre as a performance art in the 1980s, defined by its use of language without dependence on melody. In Britt’s classes, students are tasked with the challenge of creating meaningful, thoughtful poems about anything they desire. They are given complete creative freedom, allowing any form of expression; however, the challenge is not writing the poem, but performing it in front of the class. Because spoken word is meant to be performed (rather than read), it is crucial that the content of the poem is meaningful to the speaker; also important (okay, required) is the emphasis on sound through the use of poetic elements, like internal rhyme and purposeful line breaks, as well as shifts in the voice inflection and tone.

Students often use the project as poetic catharsis, which certainly makes for a powerful performance and allows the writer’s peers a better insight into the life of the writer. The power of these performances has been enriched by the trust that has been built in each class throughout the year. It takes a tremendous amount of trust for students to really “put themselves out there,” one of the main goals of the project. The performances have been heartbreaking, funny, upbeat, and inspirational; this mix has helped continue to establish the family feel of the class. After the first set of performances, Andi Vitagliano, a student in Mrs. Britt’s block 4 English class, said, “It feels like I met a lot of new people today,” to which Mrs. Britt replied, “These are the kids that have been in this class since the beginning of the year.”

The Spoken Word Project is the ultimate form of pushing students out of their comfort zones. Previously, the students have performed Harlem Renaissance monologues and, more recently, speeches. Before, the performers could hide behind their Harlem character to deliver a monologue or a comfortable podium to present a speech, but the Spoken Word Project is different: there is nothing for the performer to hide behind. It is just the poet, a spotlight, and the audience. Many find the prospect of standing in front of their class and performing a personal poem terrifying. However, the feelings of accomplishment and confidence at the end of the project is worth more than all the time spent huddled over your notebook trying to think up something that rhymes with orange.