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Monday, November 28, 2011

Students gain comfort performing, prepare for Poetry Slam! at Starbucks readings

Written by Joe Brophy
Elementary School Program Coordinator

The Starbucks is humming with an average amount of customers for a rainy fall afternoon.

"Excuse me everyone, I wanted to let you know that in about 5 minutes we'll be using this space for a poetry reading by the local elementary school."

Heads lift up from coffees, iPads, novels and conversations to glance at the manager, standing next to me in a corner of the store, as we begin to discuss how we'll momentarily rearrange the furniture to transform this coffee shop into a small (both in size and in stature of the poets) scale performance space.

A few minutes later, a bundled-up group of kids is guided through the front door and directed to their seats, where they'll receive some brief instruction before beginning their team's poetry reading.

This unique scene is what's been happening at Starbucks shops around the District this fall as DC SCORES poet-athletes prepare for the Poetry Slam! Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

Over the course of the program year, each DC SCORES school gets the chance for their kids to practice reading their poetry and receiving feedback from their peers at a Starbucks, a treat for them and for the local community. I'm lucky enough to have the great job of coordinating and running these workshops — a rare opportunity to see poetry from all members of the DC SCORES community.

From the most polished and poised fifth-grader to the novice and nervous third-grader, I see them all stand up in front of their peers in a new and different environment and read their poetry.

And, man, do they shine.

Their poetry ranges from the humorous to the serious, from the simple to the complex. It's not unusual for one child's poem to begin "I ... am a chicken" and the next to speak of losing a loved one, race, or what they want to be when they grow up.

Many students enjoy reading poems they wrote off a pattern in class: Today my name is ________. I remember ________. I forget ________. Fill in those blanks with topics as diverse as money, Obama, sibling relations and homework, and you have children expressing themselves in the most uninhibited and unrestricted way possible.

Though the students sometime can be fidgety, they never fail to impress me with the constructive criticism and positive feedback they give each other. "Your tone was good, but your body language distracted me." "I want to hear more! But I liked what you wrote about."

Giving structured feedback is sometimes challenging for the kids, though they follow each other’s examples often as much as mine and are always eager to be called on to tell their fellow poet what they thought.

Watching kids from all sorts of backgrounds and schools present their poetry, I can’t help but be inspired. Though some students read more confidently at first than others, everyone’s poetry shares their hopes, observations and fears in a way they aren’t able to during their normal academic day.

Once the kids all get the chance to read a poem, the staff brings out free hot chocolate (and sometimes even snacks, if the kids are lucky) to squeals of excitement. Volunteers are picked to read a second poem with the few minutes remaining — and often there are far more kids who wish to reread their poem or read a new one than there is time left.

The other children listen attentively as they carefully sip their drinks, and before you know it, their coach and I are helping them all gather their stuff and clean up.

After they all say “Thank you Starbucks!” in unison, their coach leads them out, bundled up against the cold, a little bit more ready and much more excited about the Poetry Slam!.

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