A student in Nicki Johnson’s sixth-grade social studies class at La Crescent Middle School read aloud a poem he had written just minutes before. It was about Michael Jordan and all the shots he missed over his career – ones he had the courage to take. Another read his about drug use and how it leads down a path to nowhere.
Throughout the week, students were given the tools they needed to express themselves through spoken word during a week-long artist in residency program featuring Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre, a critically-acclaimed hip hop artist, two-time National Poetry Slam champion, social justice activist and educator.
His visit was made possible through a Perpich Grant that Johnson and language arts teacher Logan Colby applied for, hoping to provide students a unique experience while teaching them skills they can use long after the residency is over.
Colby and fellow teacher Cyndy Reichgelt secured a Perpich Grant for the first time last year after the annual Renaissance Festival was dropped because of changes in state standards. Colby used the grant to bring in a local photographer to talk about visual imagery and how it relates to the literature students read in language arts classes.
But this year, they went in a different direction, hoping to find an activity that encompassed a larger portion of the student population. After a brainstorming session, LCMS staff decided an artist in residency would be a good option because there isn’t one at the school who works with the students, Colby said. After scouring websites of companies that manage residencies, they found COMPAS in the Twin Cities, and through it, Myhre.
“We found what Kyle was working in and it was a perfect fit for what we were trying to accomplish,” Colby said.
Not only was Myhre in the language arts classes, but he spent the entire week in social studies, which Johnson felt was a nice fit for what he offered.
“We found the idea of social change. I have a couple chapters where we look at movements of women’s rights and equal rights for minorities,” she said. “I just don’t feel it gets the buzz like it should with kids because it’s so long ago in their minds. … We’re trying to have them take that history and then push it into what their lives are like now – what change you’d like to see in your life or in our world right now.”
In that class, Myhre was able to go into more depth, using current social issues as the subject matter for leading students through the writing exercises. At the beginning of the week, the students created a list of issues they see in the world, and it included topics such as global warming, homelessness, politics, bullying and texting while driving.
They were then asked to write freely on the issue, jotting down their thoughts and impressions. Students then learned how to look at those issues not from their point of view, but from someone else’s in order to describe it differently, Johnson said.
“It’s going through this process of, what are different ways you can look at it, more for when they’re going to perform their spoken word,” she said. “Even though it’s social studies, it still definitely pulls in lots of language arts.”
While focusing on social issues in that class, Myhre’s sessions in language arts focused more on the elements of poetry. There, he provided a single lesson in each of the five sections where he gave an overview about spoken word, shared examples of his own work and led the students through a writing exercise so they could create – and perform, which is a part of spoken word – their own piece of work, Colby said.
There are numerous reasons why a program like this is beneficial for the students, the teachers said. Poetry lines up with a large portion of the content standards that are required, Colby said, because it touches on a number of different areas within literature.
But even more, he said classes, especially language arts, should trigger a desire in students to learn more about something they’re interested in. A residency program can do just that.
“We should set our kids afire. We should develop and feed some passion of theirs they can take forever, both as consumers of literature and producers, as well,” he said.
Middle school, a lot of times, is period in which students find their voices, Johnson said, and this is another way for them to do that – and to a greater degree because of what Myhre brings.
“Middle schoolers have things they want to change, whether it’s in the school or the community,” Johnson said. “So how can you really do something about it rather than just speaking the words? I feel like just giving them this voice and letting them explore and play around with it is very valuable.”
And it’s a new connection for students who may not have had the same connection to the teachers in that subject area.
“It’s a totally different passion that’s brought in,” she added.
As a spoken word poet, making connections to the curriculum is easy, Myhre said. With poetic elements, metaphor and imagery, it touches on a wide variety of areas in language arts. But it fits well with social studies, too, because within creating the words, students are asked to think critically about past and current issues and ideas.
But apart from those scholastic connections, his goal is to get students to think about the world, value their voice and form their own opinions.
“Spoken word is about poetry, but it’s also very much about validation, and as a young person, having that voice,” said Myhre, who’s been working with students for more than a decade, but doing residencies for only a couple years. “Spoken word is driven by young people, so the earlier we can get people involved, the better.”
A week’s time is a blessing and a curse, he said. It’s more than a one-day session, but not enough time to get too deep into the material. Still, he hopes to impart skills, like taking abstract ideas and making them concrete, which he said is a life skill. Learning the elements of a good performance is also critical.
Most important, though, is for students to see someone like himself and others doing it just to prove it’s possible.
“They watch me, and we also watch a lot of videos of other people from all different identities and backgrounds, doing spoken word just to kind of see that anyone can do it,” Myhre said. “It’s for everybody.”
Though accomplished in other areas, Myhre, who’s lived in Minneapolis for seven years but is originally from La Crosse, chose to focus his energy on teaching students his art form because as a spoken word artist, it’s ingrained in him to give back and share with the next generation what he’s become so passionate about.
“Not a lot of people do spoken word to get famous or for their egos; it’s about engaging with your community,” he said. “A huge part of that is working with the next generation.”
And that’s something teachers at the middle school are excited about. They’re hoping the week ignites something that can be sustained in the future.
“We’re trying to come up with information, ideas, strategies and a continuing dialogue so that next year and the year after, kind of like the Renaissance Fair, we can start to build something that’s really part of the middle school identity,” Colby said. “We’d like to find something new for the kids to anticipate when they come up to our school.”
Following more studies of spoken word in both classes, the teachers are working to organize a performance of student work on March 27, where they’ll be assigned times that evening to give their presentation. Others may get the chance to perform on stage in front of an audience.
“We’re going to lead them through exercises where they will show they could include metaphors, that they’ve practiced and tried it in different drafts and revisions,” Colby said. “But at the end of the day, the poem will belong to them. … We’re going to treat them like the poets they are.”
In a perfect world, every student Myhre works with would go on to engage in spoken word, but he knows that’s not reality for most people. Even so, he’s convinced the skills he shares are ones that can be used for a lifetime.
“I look at poetry as another form of media. It is art and it’s beautiful, but for me, it’s just another way to communicate.”