Literary Hub

Teaching High Schoolers the Ingenuity and Prowess of Poetry

In this monthly column for Lit Hub, I’ve been sharing the experiences of high school English teachers across the country—the joys, the struggles, what keeps us coming back to the classroom—trying to get to the heart of what Andre Dubus would write on his chalkboard at the first meeting of his classes: “Art is always affirmative, because it shows us that we can endure being mortal.” This column is an affirmation that teaching is eccentric, wild, and sometimes beautiful.

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An English teacher’s year is made after a great class period. When a room full of high school kids—the most skeptical audience in the universe—feels an authentic connection to a poem, story, essay, play, or even an idea, the result is magic. It’s one of the reasons we stay in this profession.

Even better is when kids read out of school—not for class, but on their own. I’ve practically levitated when students quoted back lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins to me, or described how they went from reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved to seeking out Sula. I want reading to become part of my students’ lives because I know how much it changed, and now sustains, mine.

Joel Mayo, an English teacher at Gray’s Creek High School in Hope Mills, North Carolina, is no stranger to that feeling. He knows firsthand how a love for literature can charge kids’ lives—and if that love can extend beyond the classroom, it can help kids discover themselves. The insular setting of the classroom can be a blessing—teachers can create an environment where words and stories matter—but our true goal should be to extend those joys outside: into homes, and into the world.

Mayo tells me, “We not only created the first youth slam team in our county but sparked a movement in our school.”

Mayo has strived to do that since he started teaching in 2012. He originally studied pre-law in college, but was drawn to his English composition classes, where the freedom of subject matter led him to fall in love with literature. He began teaching freshman English at Gray’s Creek. Although his first semester teaching was a real challenge, the rewards were powerful: “Being able to affect someone’s life so much, at least for a semester, makes every paycheck, every ounce of disrespect by politicians, every tear shed, and every hair pulled worth it. My students are worth it.”

Early in his career, Mayo got the impression that students often felt they “couldn’t really say what they wanted to say, and it was not appropriate to go against the norm.” Mayo, along with fellow freshman English teacher Nicole Rivers, decided to integrate slam and spoken word poetry into the classroom. The unit included Louder Than a Bomb, the 2010 documentary film about Chicago-based high school slam poetry teams.

“Our students reacted way better than we anticipated,” Mayo tells me. “Not only did our students participate and give us such profound spoken word pieces of their own, they came to me and demanded (nicely, of course) that we start our own slam team at our school. It is then that we not only created the first youth slam team in our county but sparked a movement in our school.”

The result was Gray’s Creek Poetic Pathos Slam Team. The team started with 8 members back in 2014, but now averages over 20 students each year. At first, it was difficult to find a venue to perform, but Mayo was able to connect with The Coffee Scene in Fayetteville, where the kids could livestream their performances. Next came a performance at the Southeastern Regional North Carolina Poetry Festival, organized by local spoken word artist and Army veteran El’Ja Bowens. They’ve since traveled to California and elsewhere, and have helped generate a thriving slam poetry competition with other schools in their home county.

“I want my students to find a purpose,” Mayo says of his goals for Poetic Pathos, “to have a place where they feel comfortable and accepted, to utilize their talents, and to feel like and recognize that they can make a difference.” The marriage of poetry and performance can do that for kids.

Moving between contemporary and classic poets reveals our complicated poetic lineage: that we are entering a varied tradition of verse.

The energy of the team reverberates back into the classroom. Over the years, Mayo has taught poems ranging from Kevin Coval, Nikki Giovanni and Sarah Kay, to poets like William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Langston Hughes. Recently he has shared the work of “poets like Jose Olivarez and fellow Guamanian poet Craig Santos Perez.” He includes poems “that students tend to relate to more or see as ‘easy’ to grasp, have students annotate and learn the strategies of poetry analysis that I came up with, and then have them apply those same strategies to the classics. They typically end up not only understanding the classics better, but enjoying them as well.”

I love that approach. Moving between contemporary and classic poets reveals our complicated poetic lineage: that we are entering a varied tradition of verse. Mayo says that he and Rivers originally intended their slam poetry unit to get kids “to think about poetry differently and see it as a way to not only express themselves, but to come together as a community and use their voice as a positive tool for change.” Kids now embrace the power of poetry to stir debate, and team “has gotten students to be more accepting and question the issues that they used to be afraid to talk about.”

Can a mere poem do this? It sure can. A poem can have almost boundless power, and when nurtured by a genuine, caring teacher like Mayo, kids can channel that power and art in miraculous ways.

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