How to teach Spoken Word

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By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

The founder of Oak Park and River Forest High School's Spoken Word program is hoping to replicate his work in other school districts through a teacher-training initiative he has developed with Concordia University. 

Peter Kahn, an English teacher who runs OPRF's Spoken Word Club, took a leave of absence last school year to train teachers in London on becoming "spoken word educators." Kahn has replicated that effort in the states through a partnership with Concordia University Chicago, which launched last fall.  

Spoken word education is a discipline Kahn created in 1999 when he was hired at OPRF to start the club. He expanded it beyond the popular student club and into his classroom curriculum. It's been a dream of his to turn spoken word education into a discipline and career path for teachers.

"Not everyone wants to be a traditional teacher, but they like spoken word and if they had the opportunity, they would pursue this as a career in education," Kahn said.  

He currently has an intern he's working with at OPRF on becoming a spoken word educator. Kahn has also trained teachers who work in the Chicago Public Schools. He has spent time in London developing poetry slams with local artists there. And every fall for the last decade, London high school teens have visited OPRF to participate in the school's poetry slam. 

Along with teaching at OPRF, Kahn is an instructor at Concordia, working in its Innovation Program to train spoken word educators. Former OPRF superintendent/principal Susan Bridge, who now teaches at Concordia, is working with Kahn in the program. She hired Kahn at OPRF in 1999 and fully supported what he wanted to do with spoken word. 

At OPRF last week, Bridge visited OPRF to observe Kahn's intern working with students. 

Training for spoken word educators involves studying English, literature, speech and history, and learning about social/emotional development, Kahn explained. 

Those disciplines are also part of the art of spoken word, which involves a poet reciting his or her poetry to the audience. A performance can range from funny to serious, involving theatrical elements like drama. Spoken word poetry also involves a range of topics and issues — relationships, families, history, politics or pop culture.

OPRF's Spoken Word Club typically has upwards of 100 kids involved during a school year. Kahn has previously worked with Chicago and suburban schoolteachers in launching spoken word clubs at their schools. 

Concordia's Spoken Word Education Training Program launched in fall 2013. The four-course, 12-semester-hour program is a Concordia graduate program. Also partnering in the program is Young Chicago Authors, UMOJA Student Development Corporation, The Poetry Foundation and First Wave from the University of Wisconsin.

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