Lavorya Hunt starting writing poetry a year ago after doing a piece for her church. But she really didn’t have an appreciation for it.
“At first, I just thought about it as something I did,” said the 14-year-old, who is a student at John Hay Elementary School in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. “I really didn’t know I had that true talent.”
Lavorya’s talent emerged last week when she and 20 other Hay students, all seventh and eighth graders, participated in a poetry slam workshop with students visiting from London. The visitors recently won the London Teenage Poetry Slam contest, which included a trip to the States to share their techniques in writing. The weeklong visit was part of a cultural exchange program with Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Lavorya learned that poetry is more than just stringing words together that rhyme. Poetry also is a medium that conveys emotions, raises social awareness and can be theatrical. She said the workshop was challenging, but she was heartened that kids from another country were willing to share their knowledge.
“Nobody has ever done this,” she said. “They came all the way from their home to Chicago just to teach us something that they learned. It teaches us that no matter how far people are … they want to help you.”
The workshop featured a writing exercise where students worked in small groups to draft a spoken word performance piece. The piece was themed “Where are you from?” Students had to use imagery, metaphors and choreographed movements to describe their communities. The workshop ended in a performance of the Hay kids’ final works. And the students from London performed their winning works.
The idea of the poetry workshop is to make the world smaller, says Peter Kahn, a teacher at OPRF, who has coordinated the exchange project for the last seven years. Getting students together from different backgrounds eliminates stereotypes perpetuated by television, Kahn said.
“Most of the kids in Chicago probably never talked to someone from England, and kids from England have not talked with kids from Chicago Public Schools,” Kahn said. “Hopefully, what they see is that some of where they are from is very similar, even though they live an ocean apart. And some of where they are from is quite different. It is making the world broader and smaller at the same time.”
Poetry as an art form allows students to unapologetically express their inner thoughts about their community and their environment, he said. Poetry is therapeutic, according to Kahn. He says that, as a teacher, he’s seen marked behavioral changes in students who express themselves through poetry.
“I have kids with anger management issues. When I get them writing, they are less likely to get into fights, less likely to curse out a teacher,” he said, adding that he would like to see more spoken word projects in Chicago. Training teachers to use spoken word exercises can be powerful in teaching academic skills so that kids will embrace learning, Kahn said.
With Def Poetry Jams and movies like Love Jones, spoken word poetry is very entrenched into American society, but not so much in the United Kingdom, explained Jacob Sam-La Rose, artistic director of London’s youth poetry slam project. The project was the brainchild of Kahn, who while on a two-year sabbatical in London started a citywide youth poetry slam.
“A project like this is to get students to engage in poetry and to see poetry as something valuable and a valid means of expression, a valid means of getting their voices out,” said Sam-La Rose, also an author and poet.
Hay student Carlton Tolliver, 12, was amazed at some of the similarities teens faced in the two countries. He learned that youth violence, a major concern in the States, also is a problem across the pond. But he saw that both countries have positives, too.
“It shows that Chicago and London are alike because both have their good times and bad times,” Carlton said, adding that the workshop gives students new ways of crafting poems. “I always had a thing for poetry, but this enhanced it and evolved it to another level.”
Jack Lyddiatt, 13, a student from East London’s Kingsford School, was impressed by the creativity. He said that the Hay students were amazing to put a performance together based on a poem they crafted within hours while working with students from another country they hardly knew.
“They are on another level,” Jack said. “Of all the people I’ve seen perform, these guys are in the top three. And I’ve seen a lot.”
This story was first published in Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal’s sibling paper on the West Side.