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A teacher's Brief But Spectacular take on how spoken word poetry amplifies student voice


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Judy Woodruff: Peter Kahn has taught English and spoken word poetry to thousands of students at Chicago's Oak Park and River Forest High School since 1994.

Now, in collaboration with his current and former students, Kahn is releasing the anthology "Respect the Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School."

Tonight, he offers us his Brief But Spectacular take on spoken word poetry.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Peter Kahn, Teacher and Poet,: One of the things I love about teaching is seeing kids who didn't believe in themself develop that self-confidence and then go on to do big things with it.

I definitely consider myself a teacher first, poet second. I use poetry as a vehicle to reach young people and adults. Thirty students look at me and 45 minutes later, look to me, and I'm hooked. And I'm floating and anchored at the same time, for the first time. And I'm whole and broken open, and I'm spinning and stunned still.

I used to hate poetry. I hated it as a student. I hated it as a teacher. I was inept at teaching it. And in the mid-'90s, I brought in a former student, Jonathan Vaughn, to help me out. And he came in. And he mentioned the idea of a poetry slam. And my students asked if we could do that.

So, we went ahead and did a poetry slam. And the student with the lowest grade in my class ended up winning it. And everybody looked at the kid differently after that. And he looked at himself differently, more importantly.

And a light bulb went on. And I met up with some sophomore English teachers, and we redesigned the curriculum to make it focused on contemporary poets, musical artists, and getting kids writing and sharing their own poetry.

We teach them some basic skills and some more advanced skills, but it's really about their voice. And it's about personal narrative and sharing with them some contemporary poets they might not be familiar with, particularly writers of color, and giving them ways into their own narrative and the tools that they can write poems that they're proud of.

And then, on the last day of the week, it's very nerve-racking for most kids, because it's public speaking and poetry that they don't think they're good at, but we get them up in front of their classes and they share one of the poems that they wrote during the week.

Students: All the girls whose bodies are in question, whose skin is open-ended be a bleeding Bible, be the breast milk, and the Britney. Be the Brandy, and Beyonce. Be the bad, and the booty and the brain cells.

Aren't you glad that you're a -- mmm -- 'cause knock, knock, who is there? Not me no more.

Student: I'm still breathing. I'm still breathing.

Peter Kahn: I think it's tragic how little investment there is in poetry and other arts in schools.

We are so fortunate that our school has made this big investment. And one of my life goals is to get this kind of programming in other schools. Poetry is having quite a heyday now, in part because of Amanda Gorman. And spoken word poetry is becoming the mainstream as a result.

Because we're going through so much as a society, as a world, writing about what you're going through is a really healthy way of doing that. So, I think poetry has a primary place in the world at the moment. And I think it's going to keep expanding, and that more and more people take to writing it and reading it.

My students teach me every single day. They teach me about humanity, about empathy, about courage, about standing up for themselves. They're as much of a role model to me as I am to them.

My name is Peter Kahn, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on how spoken word poetry amplifies student voice.

Judy Woodruff: So uplifting.

And you can watch all our Brief But Spectacular episodes at

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