Slam poetry class allows young poets to be heard even in remote learning

Continuing to run during online learning, East’s new slam poetry course has managed to keep their art going during the pandemic and keep students invested in new ways to come together and make their voices heard.

With slam poetry running as a class for the first time this year, there has been much to figure out regarding what is needed for the most effective means of learning, but slam poetry has not only run smoothly, but also developed a class that students in the class describe as more of a community rather than just a period during the school day.

The idea for a slam poetry class was first proposed by the course’s current instructor, Tim Ochoa, about four years ago. At the time he initially brought the idea to the table, the funding was not able to be gathered, so the class was not able to run until a few years after its proposal. This year however, School District 308 decided to officially begin running the slam poetry course that Ochoa had brought to them.

Since about last March, Ochoa, along with Erin Holtz from Oswego High School, has been discussing what the class would look like starting this year, organizing how it would be run, and getting lessons prepared. Ochoa has been very happy with the class and said he believes it has been pretty amazing so far this year.

“Mr. Ochoa has been absolutely spectacular. He is so understanding, kind, and has such a great heart. Ochoa has made everyone feel heard and welcomed,” senior Kate Rousseau said.

The art of slam poetry itself that Ochoa has helped to introduce to East with his class is quite different from other forms of expression and other English classes especially. Slam poetry is the performance of spoken word poetry, and oftentimes will involve performing poetry for an audience. It is a form of creative writing with the focus not just on the writing itself, but also on the ability to convey the poem to listeners. With other English classes focusing more on writing essays and reading novels, slam poetry takes some of those elements and shifts the focus to more creative writing.

“It’s definitely different from any curriculum I’ve experienced in an English class before,” junior Cian Perez said. “I honestly have found it more rewarding and meaningful than any other English class I’ve taken. And it’s one of my favorite classes now.”

While Ochoa has only just started teaching the slam poetry class this year so far, he has been involved in slam poetry since college. Over the years of being involved in creative writing in which students are able to choose to write poetry, he has found that this kind of writing has an impact on students for years to come.

“When I see students at our open mics and alumni come back and talk to our students or want to help out, I can see the impact that it’s had,” Ochoa said. “I think a lot of things in teaching you don’t see the impact until years later. With slam poetry, you see it immediately and then you see it continue to grow.”

As the slam poetry class has started up this year for the first time, the biggest factor on how it has been run is the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions that have been put on school due to it. These restrictions have made some of the traditional aspects of slam poetry not possible at the moment, and online classes have somewhat made the processes more difficult for students.

These difficulties aren’t only because of video calls having poor connection or lagging screens, but also because of the basics of slam poetry and the key aspects of its performance. Body language, the timing of the reading, and other factors are important to slam poetry, and within the remote learning environment, these are not able to be focused on and portrayed as effectively.

“Online school has made this class in specific harder because one of the biggest parts of slam poetry is how you execute and perform it, so over a computer it’s really hard to convey it the way we want,” senior Katherine Kennedy said. “An example would be a group poem we wrote last week which was difficult to write with others over a screen and really difficult to talk all together over the computer because of the internet being slow.”

Brandon Leake made history this year as the first spoken word performer to appear on NBC’s hit program ‘America’s Got Talent,’ a variety show highlighting various performers with the dream of earning $1 million and the chance to perform in Las Vegas. At his first audition for the show, Leake was awarded the coveted Golden Buzzer by host Howie Mandel. The opportunity fast-tracked Leake to the live performances, bypassing all other colleagues at the auditions at that time. Leake would go on to win the entire season of the performing arts show in September of 2020.

“I honestly have found [Slam Poetry] more rewarding and meaningful than any other English class I’ve taken. And it’s one of my favorite classes now.”

— junior Cian Perez

However, even with the negatives that online learning has caused for the slam poetry class, students are remaining positive and are making sure their voices are still being heard through their poetry. The online learning environment even has some benefits in making the class more comfortable for some students. 

“I think there’s something to sharing or presenting your ideas where a number of the students might be a little more comfortable in that they’re just performing behind a screen,” Ochoa said. “It’s a little bit different than getting up on a stage in front of people or in front of a microphone so I think in terms of ease of feeling comfortable to present, I think it’s easy when you can just look into the camera and not see anybody.”

The online learning setting has even allowed for more flexibility in the structure of the curriculum, and this has led to the class being able to be shaped to exactly what the students need, and what will allow them to share their work with their peers in the most effective way, while still giving students time to learn more about slam poetry itself. With this ability to tailor the class to the students due to the more flexible online setting, the connection between peers has also been able to be strong and make it a fun place to be.

“There is something so special about having a class that lets people, especially teens, be vulnerable about their lives, opinions, and experiences with people who are taught to [and] eager to listen, understand, and support their peers,” senior Alissa Madalinski added. “We started an Open Mic Friday where the class can have time to volunteer to read their pieces from the week with the class, and it is crazy. We needed to reserve an entire day in the week because what started with two people volunteering, more and more began to feel more comfortable that now everyone wants to share, so Mr. Ochoa needed to change our schedule to reserve Fridays for just that.”

With both the positive and negative effects that have come with online learning in the slam poetry class, students as well as Ochoa have kept their goal of showing their art to their audience at the core of the course. No matter the differences from how the class was originally going to be set up to how it is being run now, the community that has formed between peers within the course is still as strong as ever.

“We are very small, less than twenty students, and I think Mr. Ochoa really brings us together, since he has taught us how to listen to others,” Madalinski added.

Slam poetry and the comradery that it has created with the students has not only brought them together in class, but also outside of school. The positive environment of the class that has been fostered by both Ochoa as well as the students has allowed slam poetry to be not just a new English class, but a community of students coming together to express themselves.

“Our class is filled with people who have experienced every struggle imaginable, and our Google Meet Chat is always being spammed with love and support the entire class time,” Madalinski added. “Everyone is just radiating love, support, and positivity in our class, and it is amazing.”

Interested in slam poetry? Check out these titles.

The Poet X

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is a novel written in poetry form. The novel follows a young student named Xiomara who is navigating through life, religion, expectations, school, and more. She joins her school spoken word club to verbalize what she can’t always find a way to say. This novel is for anyone who has ever felt silenced by the expectations around them.

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop is a poetry anthology from various artists with poems based on the aesthetic and cultural aspects of hip-hop. This novel is for anyone interested in poetry that wants to find poetry in a genre they are familiar with, that being hip-hop.


Milagro by Penelope Alegria is a collection of poems about family lineage with emphasis on immigration, its effects on family, love, and sacrifice. This is a collection of poetry that will interest those who want a more emotionally driven collection of poetry to dive deeper into.

Liam Fitzpatrick is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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