Spoken word poets help OV students understand they are not alone


Photos by Jeanne Vollmer

by Cynthia Price


It was simple but effective: Members of The Diatribe spoken word poets team asked all the students attending an Orchard View assembly featuring them to close their eyes. Diatribe members then started calling out a number of stressful or painful circumstances and asked the students to raise one finger on their upraised hands if they are experiencing those circumstances.

“Then [we] have students look around the auditorium at how many fingers are raised to see how many others are going through situations similar to their own,” said Diatribe’s Rachel Gleason.

“Spoken Word” poetry is a genre which tends to be more like rap music, with hard-hitting words and subjects, and rhymes that often come at the end of different-length lines, thereby avoiding a singsong-ish sound.

In addition to the finger exercise, Diatribe performed poetry and spoke empoweringly to the students. The poets told their stories and talked about how writing and performing have helped them face the challenges they have encountered.

“We encourage them to be the positive change in the culture of their school and to use their voices to combat certain issues.” Gleason says.

The assembly closed with a Hip Hop performance by Lady Ace Boogie and DJ Dean Martian.

Gleason, a powerful poet who can be seen in the YouTube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=69zU67QjVhI, said that the origin of the group was an ArtPrize 2013 entry. Seven spoken word poets entered collaboratively in what Gleason said was the first ever blind and deaf-friendly ArtPrize exhibit.

“Teachers brought students to the exhibit and then invited members of The Diatribe to speak about being artists in their classrooms for career days,” Gleason explains. “From there things kind of snowballed and we began doing assemblies and spoken word workshops in schools across the state with the goal of empowering young people to share their stories. Three of us out of the original seven have stayed with this and have formed a nonprofit.” The three still involved, who put on the OV assembly, are Gleason, Marcel “Fable the Poet” Price and G Foster II.

Orchard View High School English teacher Andrew Vandenberg joined with art teacher Jean Pierre Erdelyi to bring the group in. Every year the two teachers take their students to ArtPrize, and in 2013 about 75 of the students attended Diatribe’s program. Vandenberg later wrote a grant to allow them to come to the school.

“This program gives our students a healthy outlet for some issues they face in their lives,” Vandenberg comments.

As moving as the assembly was, it is just the beginning of Diatribe’s work at Orchard View. The next step is a nine-week workshop with high schoolers and a three-week workshop with middle schoolers. Each of the participants was interviewed and carefully chosen.

“In the workshops we will watch videos of popular spoken word poets and dissect the poems and highlight techniques and favorite lines,” says Gleason, “and do exercises to improve poetic skill among the students. We finish each class with a writing prompt and time to free-write.” The students will also critique and edit their poems with the group, and learn performance dynamics.

The final step is a student showcase where the workshop attendees will perform in front of the other students at the schools.