OPRF students, alums head to London for poetry slam

From the US to the UK

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By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

For nine years, Oak Park and River Forest High School each fall has welcomed young poets from London as part of a school exchange program.

This year for the first time, OPRF is sending its students overseas to the UK.

English Teacher Jessica Stovall wanted to mark the program's 10th year and its successful run by taking students to London. They have been fundraising to help pay for the trip and have raised nearly all of the $6,000 needed. In addition to two OPRF seniors, they will be accompanied by two alumni, students who were a part of the high school's Spoken Word program founded by teacher Peter Kahn.

"These kids are all products of Peter's program," said Stovall, who raised about $4,600 in three weeks. The remaining money came in over the weekend, and Stovall said OPRF teachers have given the most.

The trip coincides with a major poetry slam festival planned in London this summer. The Shake The Dust youth poetry event will take place in various parts of the country starting in June and wrapping in July with a grand slam finals. It's the largest-ever youth poetry slam event in Great Britain.

Stovall is familiar with the country, having studied there during her college years and she still has friends in the country. The OPRF students and alums have never gone to the UK — the two seniors haven't even been out of the United States, Stovall said.

While in London, the Americans will stay with host families. Stovall said a couple of local companies there will pay for food during their stay. Stovall, a four-year OPRF teacher, helped host the London poets during their visit to the states.

Kahn created OPRF's London Teenage Poetry Slam program to invite UK teen and young adult poets to visit OPRF each fall. The group also performs in the school's popular Spoken Word Showcase in November. Kahn, who visited London's poetry scene prior to coming to OPRF, will be returning to the UK on a semi-permanent basis later this year.

He will take a leave of absence and spend time in London schools creating Spoken Word programs similar to OPRF's. The high school's Spoken Word program includes a student club, with Kahn as its faculty advisor. It is also well established in the English curriculum. Stovall is excited about the opportunity Kahn has in London.

"He really has a good formula," Stovall said. "To have class-wide poetry slams and a full-time teaching doing Spoken Word poetry, it's a very unique program. Now he's going to try and put it in every school in London."

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