"A unified poet alliance": The personal and social outcomes of youth spoken word poetry programming

Weinstein, S. (2010). "A unified poet alliance": The personal and social outcomes of youth spoken word poetry programming. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 11(2).

Abstract:

The researcher conducted an ethnographic study of youth spoken word primarily through participant observation of the programming offered by WordPlay in Baton Rouge. She identified the benefits of this art form for youth including the development of literacy skills, self-confidence, positive self identity, community building, therapeutic benefits, and respect for peers and adults. The researcher described the specific attributes to the program process for participants that lead to positive outcomes.

Key Findings:

  • The research shows clear psychological benefits for students that emerge from the creation and performance of poetry as well as the interpersonal work of collaborating with peers and adult mentors.
  • Students begin to see themselves as writers, developing literate identities.
  • Students receive reinforcement when sharing personal experience, giving them a strong sense of voice which strengthens confidence and personal identity.
  • Spoken word appeals to students from diverse backgrounds providing an equally supportive atmosphere for all types of learners and performers.
  • Spoken word curricula include a cultivation of a safe space for poetry creation which builds trust. This, along with the relationships students build with adult mentors, contributes to community building. Attending larger competitions shows participants that there is a wider, national community of spoken word artists, thus inspiring and teaching them how communities are developed and maintained.
  • Participation in spoken word programming like WordPlay requires responsibility, as it demands personal exploration, revision, and feedback and a commitment to consistent attendance at meetings and the planning of events.
  • As students begin to take themselves seriously through collective skill development they find peers and adults start taking them seriously and cultivate a culture of mutual respect.

Significance of the Findings:

Spoken word programs encourage the development of a whole person, rather than just an academic persona, by integrating skills from writing and performing to relationship and community building. The culture of the art form and structure through which it is taught engages at risk youth to give them skills to be successful in life.

Methodology:

The researcher, with a background as a spoken word teaching artist, collected qualitative data as a participant-observer, from the students and leaders she worked with in WordPlay in Baton Rouge. She observed five to ten in-school residency spoken word workshops over the course of three academic years. She was also an adult mentor for WordCrew, an out of school youth spoken word team. The researcher also conducted interviews of teaching artists, administrators, classroom teachers and teen poets who were part of spoken word programs in the U.S. and England where she also collected artifacts including zines, CDs and DVDs of performances. She attended the Brave New Voices national youth poetry slam annually as well.

Limitations of the Research:

The study is grounded in self-reporting from participants’ perceptions. It would benefit from the inclusion of evidence of specific aspects of literacy improvement and data from others besides participating teens, mentors and administrators. The inclusion of evaluative data directly related to spoken word programming in a community would strengthen the case for policy makers. It would also be of beneficial to indicate correlations between spoken word programming and developmental outcomes for youth.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • What direct impact does youth spoken word programming have on literacy skills?
  • What impact does participation in youth spoken word programming have on improving personal responsibility, self-confidence, and other youth development indicators?
  • What are the ripple effects of youth spoken word on the greater community, beyond the student?
  • Does participation in the youth spoken word programming affect student performance in other areas of academic achievement?
  • How does participation in this program affect participants’ relationships to their teachers, parents, etc?