Teaching Drama

Using Spoken Word Poetry to Engage Reluctant Drama Students

Written by Lindsay Price

Episode 161: Spoken Word

Do you have students who just don’t want to be in your drama class? How many of you are struggling to find a way in? In this podcast teacher Christa Vogt talks about self-preservation, changing expectations (not lowering them), changing plans, and using a spoken word poetry unit to reach her students. She started from scratch and wasn’t afraid to demonstrate the process. Check out her journey!

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and Theatre educators everywhere.

I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.

Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!

This is Episode 161.

You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode161.

Okay, my friends, my listeners, everyone out there in Podcast Land! See? I go off in a direction; sometimes, it works – that one, not so much!

Okay, I have a question for you. I have a question and I know a lot of hands are going to go up, heads are going to nod. Do you have students who just don’t want to be in your Drama class? Have you had students who just didn’t want to be in your class? I know you do.

That’s always a question that kind of floored me because, I’m like, “Who doesn’t love Drama? Who doesn’t?” am I right? And I’m not right because there are tons of students out there who are in Drama classes and they don’t necessarily want to be there. Classes are flooded with those students and it’s a struggle to find a way in. So, let’s talk about that.

We’re going to talk to a teacher, Christa Vogt, who used spoken word. She didn’t know anything about it, never done it, but took the plunge to use it to find a way in.

Let’s hear her story.

LINDSAY: Hello, everybody!

I am speaking to Christa Vogt.

Hello, Christa!

CHRISTA: Hi, Lindsay!

LINDSAY: How are you today?

CHRISTA: I’m great. How are you doing?

LINDSAY: I’m doing all right.

So, tell everybody where in the world you are.

CHRISTA: I am in the southeastern part of Virginia. I teach high school in Virginia Beach and I live in Norfolk which is just a neighboring city.

LINDSAY: How long have you been a Drama teacher?

CHRISTA: This will be my sixteenth year, but not consecutive. I took three years off after ’08-’09. Took a break and came on back.

LINDSAY: Ah! Well, you came back!

CHRISTA: Yeah, I did! I wasn’t sure if I was going to but I did.

LINDSAY: Yeah, some people don’t. Some people go, “That’s been enough!” but that’s all right.

Why Drama and Education? Why was that the bent for you?

CHRISTA: Well, quite honestly, I was a figure skater for fifteen years.

LINDSAY: No way?

CHRISTA: I mean, I did the Disney on Ice, Star Wars on Ice – just performing. When I went to college, you know, when everybody gains that little bit of college weight and I tried to get back on the ice, things had shifted and I realized it wasn’t really the sport that I liked; it was the performing and theatre was that, but not on ice.

LINDSAY: Well, no – well, I was going to make a joke and I’m just like, “No…” I had this visual of Shakespeare on Ice.

CHRISTA: You know what? There probably is something out there.

LINDSAY: To be or – whoa!

CHRISTA: Yeah, woohoo!

LINDSAY: Okay. So, you made the transition from ice to theatre. You were motivated towards performing. Did you think you were going to be a professional actor?

CHRISTA: No, because I knew that I loved the art of it but not the fierce competition of it. I just wanted to be able to do it – not have to fight for every little bit I could get.

LINDSAY: Yeah, Craig was a professional actor for fifteen years and just hung his hat up and went, “I am not meant for that aspect of it.”

CHRISTA: Yeah.

LINDSAY: It’s the business that just can be quite sucky.

CHRISTA: Yeah, and that’s the part that did not interest me – the business – or really the harsh competition that it takes to be in that business. It was really the art of it.

LINDSAY: Yeah. How did that translate into being a teacher?

CHRISTA: I was a TA for a couple of years in college and I actually thought I want nothing to do with teaching. I want to be the furthest thing away from it, ran with the best running shoes I knew away, and that summer I got a call saying, “Oh, so and so recommended you for a part-time job at this Virginia Beach high school, thought you’d be great!” and I thought, “Uh, yeah, it’ll be a great gig for a year.” I’ll do that for a year until I figure it all out, you know? I kept calling myself an actor who teaches and then, somewhere in that first year, it made the shift that I was a teacher who also acted. So, I have no idea. It found me. I couldn’t tell you.

LINDSAY: That’s so funny! I was just about to ask, what was that shift? And then, it’s just like it just sort of fit you.

CHRISTA: Yeah. You know, after a while, I found myself focusing more on what and how I was going to teach next versus what I was going to do next when this “gig” ended.

LINDSAY: Isn’t that funny, eh? It found you.

CHRISTA: It’s that life happens – whatever that saying is about life is what happens when you’re making other plans or something.

LINDSAY: Yes, absolutely. Did you have experience in high school with theatre?

CHRISTA: Yeah, with my ice skates on and my walking guards because I didn’t want to be late to my lessons.

LINDSAY: That’s so funny.

CHRISTA: There are switches and beyond that stage when everybody else is in costume and I’m in my, you know, yes, leg warmers and sweatshirt with my ice skates on and my walking guards because I wouldn’t have time to put my skates on. So, yeah, but I wasn’t really paying attention to it, you know?

LINDSAY: So, sixteen years later, what is it about teaching that keeps you there?

CHRISTA: I think it’s probably similar for many teachers. It’s being there when that passion awakens in the students – whether it’s a passion for the art of theatre truly or them finding that confidence within themselves – to be onstage or even just to raise their hand in class without blushing – you know, all of those transfer skills they can take to other classes and into their lives after school – the presentation skills, the collaborative techniques that they learn, the time management, all of those good things and seeing that sort of come alive in them and them take ownership of those experiences is really exciting. And, of course, when they really dig theatre and want to continue, but that’s not the end goal.

LINDSAY: No, and – well, this is the reason I’m not a teacher – it always surprises me when the vast majority of theatre students really don’t care about theatre all that much. You’re like, “What? What do you mean?”

CHRISTA: “How could you not?”

LINDSAY: “How could you not? Ah, look at me, I’m onstage!” but that is the truth of the matter and I think that is what makes the theatre classroom so important – for exactly what you’re talking about – all those transfer skills, all those non-assessable skills that they don’t learn in any other classroom and, just when you think about sending out someone for an interview, you know, where do they learn not to blush or not to stammer? It’s that theatre class. That’s what we say anyway.

CHRISTA: Yes, I know.

LINDSAY: To anyone who will listen.

CHRISTA: Yeah.

LINDSAY: And so, this all comes around to the reason that we’re talking today is that you have had a particular class recently which is chockablock with students who aren’t all that interested in theatre.

CHRISTA: Yeah, we call them the spirited group.

LINDSAY: Ah!

CHRISTA: They’re energetic and spirited. Yeah, they’re not interested in theatre or focusing or listening or waiting their turn – you know, none of that.

LINDSAY: Right, and it must be very difficult when it’s en masse.

CHRISTA: Yeah, I know that, you know, class sizes vary among the country but this class is a class of thirty which is large for our school and the room is jam-packed and I’ve done I don’t know how many seating charts. It doesn’t matter because, whoever they sit next to, they just continue not caring about the class with the person they’re sitting next to, you know.

LINDSAY: It’s like a virus. It spreads around the classroom.

Okay. So, we’re going to talk about one thing you did which had some success. How do you take care of yourself? Because I know that there are many teachers out there listening – which is the reason I wanted to talk about this with you – who are in the exact same boat, who just don’t know, who are frustrated with trying to reach these students. What are some things that you have done to sort of take care of yourself so that you’re not getting dragged down? Or are you? Are you able to take care of yourself in this situation?

CHRISTA: Well, to a degree, yes. I kind of big picture it. That’s what I call it. I really kind of step back and realize this is a blip in my life but it could have a huge impact on theirs so I have to keep that in mind and sort of approach it with love.

What are these kids needing? So many of these kids come to my classroom with all sorts of baggage – whether it’s school, home, work, or all of the above – and, since theatre isn’t the traditional desks in rows, math problems on the board or essays to write, I found that these kids use this class as some sort of exhale. So, I am really careful not to take that away from them because I know they need it. I can see it when they walk in the room. But I also have to find a way to maintain integrity of the course and what I’m trying to do with the curriculum.

It’s that concept of changing my expectations for them – not lowering them but changing them and meeting them where they are and changing what I thought I was originally going to do with them and find a way to do it in a way that they are going to grow on to.

The beginning of this year, I haven’t taught this particular course since my hiatus so I was gearing up for it. Over the summer, I created about a month’s worth of learning plans, lesson plans. During the in-service week, I broke my thumb drive that had all of those plans on it and I was absolutely devastated. I was able to recover – well, my husband was able to recover some of them – but, once I got into that classroom, within 25 seconds, I thought, “Oh, well, it doesn’t matter what I had planned because none of that’s going to work with this group.”

They’re just staring at me, you know, “What are you going to teach me? What are you doing? Why are you looking at me? Why am I here?” You know, I had kids in the room for every reason from it was the only elective that fit in their schedule or their mom said they couldn’t take chorus again or their dad made them because they don’t know how to speak right, you know.

The thought of them performing for public terrified them. I just asked, you know, a show of hands, “How many of you are aware of the fact that this class has a performance requirement?” and nobody’s hand went up. I saw everything from fear to anger across 92 percent of the faces in the room. I thought, “Hmm… No, I can’t go in the direction that I thought I was going to.” I tried because that’s what I had planned.

But, over the winter break, I was in the car, coming home from New Jersey from seeing my in-laws and I happened to hear an NPR interview with the poet, Sarah Kay, and she was talking about her TED Talk appearance that she did a while ago and I’d never heard of her but I thought, “Huh, that sounds interesting!” and she talked about how, when she first performed spoken word poetry, that somebody in a hoodie tapped her on the shoulder afterwards and said something like, “Hey, I felt that.” You know, something like that, and that made Sarah Kay hooked, realizing that she could reach people in this new form of communication, if you will, and something struck me; listening to that interview, I thought, “Huh, I wonder if these kids would dig spoken word,” you know which I knew nothing about other than seeing it on TV and hearing this interview. But I thought it would be worth it to look into and check it out.

So, over winter break, I spent three solid days in my office at home, reading up on it – whatever I could find on the internet, watching as many videos as I could and doing my best to practice performing spoken word because I never have and I brought it in and those were the most focused three and a half weeks that I’ve ever had with that group, you know.

I just found that these kids, I do a warm-up activity every day and I call it “lights up” and it’s either a quote or a picture or a video and they’re asked to respond to it – either in paragraph form, write a poem, or draw a picture so everyone can participate. What I was finding is that these kids wanted to share their stories and, in the traditional curriculum, as this course is written, there really isn’t a place for that in the way that they were wanting to tell their stories.

So, when I came in and said, “We’re going to do performance poetry – specifically spoken word,” they looked at me like I was nuts. And then, I, with great passion and volume, I said, “You know how teenagers are always told, ‘Stop talking! It’s not about you!’” of course, everyone groaned in recognition and raised their hand to the heavens saying, “Yes! Yeah!” and I said, “Well, guess what? Spoken word is all about you.”

LINDSAY: Oh, man, you hooked them!

CHRISTA: And they were silent. They were ready. That’s what I found; they needed to be heard and they wanted to speak. That really worked for them.

LINDSAY: Christa, I got goosebumps! I just got goosebumps!

A couple of things, let’s clarify just a couple of things. First of all, what defines spoken word? What is spoken word? What defines that form?

CHRISTA: For me, the way I taught it, I taught that it is a performance poetry that is self-examining and self-empowering. I just kept repeating that phrase – it is self-examining and self-empowering. It’s poetry that’s meant to be performed versus simply recited out loud or read on the page. There are gestures that go along with it; there are characterizations that go along with it – that’s how I defined it for them.

LINDSAY: It kind of sounds like it’s a blank verse kind of thing so that there’s more of a rhythm to the talk rather than…

CHRISTA: A-B-A or something.

LINDSAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHRISTA: It’s just blank verse. There can be rhyme; there doesn’t have to be. There can be alliteration; there doesn’t have to be. But it’s the rhythm, yeah.

LINDSAY: I think that, in the Drama classroom, the whole notion of telling your story and sharing your story, it’s the kind of thing that I, in a different vein, I think that is why playwriting to me is so important for teens because it is one avenue to share what is going on inside of them and to put it into the voice of another character.

CHRISTA: Yes.

LINDSAY: And I think what you’re talking about does the exact same thing for students who have a different skill set.

CHRISTA: Yes, absolutely. You know, I followed the spoken word unit with playwriting for that very reason – because some of the kids couldn’t find the rhythm or couldn’t find the flair or the flavor but they have found it in the playwriting unit. But, you know, before this, they weren’t ready or they weren’t interested in telling their story in some sort of structured way that had to do with class. They just wanted to talk, you know?

LINDSAY: So, how did you find that structure for them? What are some exercises that you did to lead them towards a spoken word performance?

CHRISTA: Well, every day, I showed them some examples and it took a very long time to find appropriate examples. I wanted to rip my hair out but I have a good list of people or places I found on YouTube and some of them are TED Talks and some I just knew where the profanity came and I pushed mute because it just got the point where, “Okay, this is a really good piece, they need to hear it, but not the S— word, for example.”

LINDSAY: Can you think of one person off the top of your head that we could add in the show notes?

CHRISTA: Daniel Beaty, Joshua Bennett, Sarah Kay – there’s three.

LINDSAY: What was the first one? Daniel Kay? No.

CHRISTA: Sarah Kay. Daniel Beaty. His one that I showed is called “Knock Knock” and that is actually the first spoken word that I ever saw online.

LINDSAY: Awesome.

You showed them examples but I think the other thing too which I think is important for teachers doing this, you practiced it yourself and you modeled it.

CHRISTA: Oh, my god, it was hilarious. Yeah, I also think it’s really important for students to see that teachers go through the same process as they do – you know, writing, rehearsing, performing, getting nervous, messing up – and I said to them, “I have never performed spoken word poetry – or poetry – in my life, let alone in front of a class, so here it goes,” and I just went all out for it. It was a short one. There was one of the exercises I had them do, I got them to do the same format, but them watching me do it, thought, “All right, if this lady can do it…” you know, and her story’s not that interesting so…

LINDSAY: But it was an engagement, right? You know, it did get them to do something.

CHRISTA: Yes, on their own. Solo pieces were coming out of this which blew my mind, you know. The girl who was there only because her mom said, “You can’t do chorus anymore,” did an extra piece as an audition to get into our main showcase. So, I think it worked.

LINDSAY: You need to put a little… that’s a notch, man. Like, that’s a prize. That’s a ribbon! That’s the word I’m looking for!

CHRISTA: A ribbon!

LINDSAY: That’s a ribbon!

So, you showed them examples, you modeled for them. Did you have them just start automatic writing their stories? Did you get them into a format right away?

CHRISTA: It was exercises. I mean, really, since I’m not an English teacher or a poetry teacher, I couldn’t really speak specifically on how to get that rhythm, you know. The first thing I did was a word wall. I had maybe five of those huge poster-size stickies. On each one, I wrote a word – I don’t remember what they were but big topics like time, fear, mystery, secrets – something like that. I gave every student a sticky note, five sticky notes, and they had to write one word that came off the top of their head based on each of those topics and then they put them on the big poster paper. I have thirty kids so each poster topic had thirty sticky notes on it with words. And then, after that, they were to, just by foot traffic, go to the wall that interested them the most and they were to read all thirty words, take ten of those words, and use them to write a poem, and that’s all I said. That was their first one. Obviously, they’re going to go towards the one that speaks to them the most and picking out words that speak to them the most, they’re going to tell the story they need to be telling that day. That was one thing.

Another one we did was just fill in the blank. I had them write the words “I am” ten times on their paper and then, without thinking, write only truths – only the now only truths. That’s the one I performed for them because I don’t know what I’m doing. They said, “I don’t know what to write!” I said, “I am sitting here thinking whatever it is, write that truth.” Some of them were really great. Some of them were actually hysterical and some of them were really very moving and just with ten lines, all beginning with “I am.”

LINDSAY: I think that sentence starters are my absolute favorite go-to because you’re doing the work for them and yet they are doing all the heavy lifting because, just to say, “I wonder… I wonder if…” or “What if…” or “Why does…” and just “I am…” there’s just so many possibilities and it’s the great way to find their tone – whether it is moving or funny or very, very personal.

CHRISTA: Yeah.

LINDSAY: Without saying to them, “Find your voice.” You don’t need to tell them. They just discover it.

CHRISTA: They just do, yeah.

Another one I did was a shape poem. They could pick a triangle, diamond, or square. All that did was dictate the number of words per line. If it was a diamond, the lines went down like the first line had one word, the second line had two words, you know, all the way up to seven and then back down – six, five, four, three, two, one.

LINDSAY: Oh, I like that!

What I’m hearing too is that, because these all come from them, that the poems that they had to write had to be their stories as opposed to being distant from the subject matter.

CHRISTA: Yes, every single day, I did this silly gesture of self-examining and self-empowering. So, self-examining, I sort of put each hand like a binocular and then I sort of looked down at myself and then I lifted up, with muscles, you know, my biceps, self-empowering, because a lot of times, these kids would get hung up on the self-examining all the bad stuff and I wanted to sort of lift them out of that and keeping true to the form of spoken word because everything that I saw and read about spoke about that – that it’s self-empowering. Yes, there’s a painful story potentially to tell, but the second half of it is coming out of that and self-empowering. I found that, when kids struggled with that, because some of these kids are dealing with deep personal issues, some of them are clinically depressed and so they had trouble coming out from the other end of that and I would just say, “Well, what would you tell somebody else? Give the advice to somebody else, that’s what you’re writing. You know, if you can’t quite believe it yet, that’s okay, but I still need that self-empowering piece,” and that was the sort of permission that they needed and they were able to do it.

LINDSAY: Did you have any issue with students writing such personal stuff that they refused to let anyone see it or hear it?

CHRISTA: No.

LINDSAY: That’s awesome.

CHRISTA: No, and it could be because I told them to keep in mind that these are going to be shared and turned in. So, if there’s something that’s too much, this is not the venue – because I did want to make sure also that it was kept classroom-appropriate enough that I didn’t need to call guidance or something.

LINDSAY: Absolutely. Third parties do not have to be involved.

CHRISTA: Right. And then, their final one was called “that one thing” and it was they had an option of doing a solo piece or joining and weaving in with other people’s pieces. And so, it was, you know, “What is your greatest fear? What is your greatest joy? What is your greatest pride? What is your greatest anger?” I don’t know if I phrased it that way and “How do those relate to your culture, society, and self?” because those were sort of the recurring themes in spoken word – culture, society, and self.

And so, after they wrote their piece, at that point, they could either do a fill in a blank, a shape poem, or make their own word wall. Then, they joined up with other people who chose that same theme and they decided, either: “I’m going to stick to my solo piece” or “Hey, that’s cool, I think we could weave these in and out of one another” because I did show them a variety of spoken word performances that were duo or larger group. So, they got to make a choice there at the end.

LINDSAY: So, not only does it sound like a successful unit but it sort of speaks to, even though perhaps in a non-traditional format but it really does speak to the heart of what Drama class is about.

CHRISTA: I think so.

LINDSAY: Communication and collaboration and expression.

CHRISTA: Yeah, I think so, yes.

LINDSAY: I think that’s amazing. As I said, I really wanted to share this with our listeners in terms of those who might be struggling.

So, how are you now with these students? And she laughs.

CHRISTA: Well, that unit is over!

LINDSAY: It’s a distant memory!

CHRISTA: Yeah, it was, I’m telling you, it was beautiful. It was a good three and a half, almost four weeks and I thought, “Oh, my gosh!” and then that unit was over and I said, “Okay, there we are.” But I will say that, whereas in the beginning of the year, I couldn’t get anyone to express any sort of excitement about performing publicly and now they are. Now, they are wanting to share their work and I can sort of get them in fits and starts of quiet focus but I do know when it’s time for them to perform – whether it’s in the middle of class or the end of class – they’re ready. You know, they’re doing something.

I would encourage teachers who are having a similar spirited group as mine to just go for it and not worry about having the experience in this kind of thing. I found that most of the kids were far better than I was at doing this so I would just keep having them do it and we would talk about so and so’s piece and why that was effective. What sort of rhythm are they finding or what words are they emphasizing to help visualize their story, you know? They were far better examples than my little “I am…” poems.

LINDSAY: I mean, you know, peers learning from peers, peers teaching peers, there’s nothing wrong with that.

CHRISTA: No, I think it’s excellent.

LINDSAY: Well, I think you get a gold star. I think that I really enjoyed hearing this experience and I think that anything that gives students even an iota of confidence towards some standing up in front of others and even doing a little bit of performing, I think that’s an awesome success.

CHRISTA: Well, thank you. I hope it continues. We’ll see.

LINDSAY: Ah, thank you so much, Christa, for sharing this with us today!

CHRISTA: Well, thanks for having me!

LINDSAY: Thank you, Christa!

Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS!

Christa is also a member of our DTA – the Drama Teacher Academy.

I wanted to tell you about something new we’ve added to the DTA this year and that’s units. We just talked about a spoken word unit. We have got units! Not only do we have 183 lessons plans to choose from but we’re also adding complete units with standards tie-ins, with assessments – it’s the whole package!

This month, we just added seven – seven new units – all of which can be applied to a Drama 1 or a Theatre 1 curriculum. How exciting is that?

So, to learn more about this – and the Drama Teacher Academy – simply go to DramaTeacherAcademy.com or you can find links for everything I mentioned in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode161.

Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”

And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.
Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

About the author

Lindsay Price

1 Comment

  • I’m a student and I believe you should do it regardless because my teacher made this a unit to open ourselves up as a classroom and make a statement because usually society mutes us so she let our voices roar.

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