With quarantine, at times, comes opportunity. In this instance, it comes in the form of young people with outstanding poetry having a new version of the annual Freshman Poetry Slam. The study and creation of poetry is not something new at Oak Park and River Forest High School, but who is judging it and how it is presented has changed. 

This year, outstanding poems were recorded by students in their own homes and those that rose to the top were evaluated by top-tier poets, only available perhaps because of COVID-19. And the students’ work, previously contained within the walls of the school’s auditorium for an audience of freshmen and their English teachers, is available on YouTube for all to see. 

Peter Kahn, English teacher and Spoken Word educator, and Christian Robinson, assistant Spoken Word teacher, bring a poetry unit to all freshman and sophomores during their English classes over the course of the school year. They instructed one-third of the freshmen in person and continued with the remaining two-thirds through e-learning when the quarantine began in mid-March. An audio lesson was recorded, as if they were in the room with the students, Kahn said, and then they provided comments as the poems came in. In all, approximately 850 freshmen studied and wrote poems.

From these works, the freshmen English teachers chose poems that stood out to name 32 in-class champions. These students recorded videos of themselves reading their work. Then, poems were judged by two Spoken Word assistants who are club alumni, Vann Harris and Noelle Berry; English Division Head Helen Gallagher; Robinson and Kahn. The field was narrowed to 13 poets.

The poetry teachers tried to replicate the Freshman Slam process of previous years, but it was not quite the same.

“We offer feedback along the way and hopefully, they are employing that,” Kahn said. “We would have been meeting live with students during lunch periods to work with them on their revisions and they would be practicing with each other in the hallways.”

“One of my favorite things is when we are doing those lunchtime sessions and kids who don’t know each other are suddenly becoming friendly with each other,” Kahn continued. “And, that is also where we are recruiting new students for Spoken Word Club.” This is what Kahn is missing the most right now, along with getting to know these students better and seeing experienced Spoken Word students work with these freshmen, he said.  

Three to four freshmen become club members from this process. Robinson, a 2011 OPRF grad said he joined Spoken Word in this way. 

The final round was judged by poets Aimee Nezhukumatathil, José Olivarez and Jamila Woods, and Supt. Joylynn Pruitt Adams. 

Nezhukumatathil is a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow and the freshmen class studied her poetry under Kahn and Robinson. José Olivarez, the son of Mexican immigrants, penned Citizen Illegal, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. He co-hosts the podcast “The Poetry Gods.” Poet, singer and songwriter Jamila Woods has collaborated with Chance the Rapper (appearing on Saturday Night Live with him) and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and has a solo career. She is a member of Dark Noise, a collective of poets and educators of color.

This is not the first time OPRF has attracted notable judges. National Book Award winner Terrance Hayes has judged as well Pulitzer Prize winner Tyehimba Jess and T.S. Eliot Prize winner Roger Robinson.

“The support our school gives us and, as a result, the reputation our school has, is rather international,” Kahn said. “So when I reach out to a rather well known poet, we have connections and they’ve heard about how talented our students are and how enjoyable they are to work with. It’s a pretty easy sell.”  

Those talented students include those recognized at the 2020 Freshman Poetry Slam. Announced May 19, co-champions are Lauren Edwards and Irewamide “Wami” Osikanlu. Runners up are Leela Chaloemtiarana, Nainoa Ohata and Rhea Richards. The other finalists are Katherine Bromet, Colette Delgado, Anabel Govea, Victoria “Tori” Hutson, McKenna Macon, Maya Souden, Phoebe Tanocea and Taylor Montes-Williams. 

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