Stepping Out and Speaking Up

Stepping Out and Speaking Up

Potomac Elementary School 5th graders are finding their artistic voices through slam poetry.

Megan Le’s approach to the front of the classroom wasn’t good enough for Gayle Danley. With her head down and shoulders slumped, she did not portray the confidence necessary for the task at hand. Danley made her do it again. Again Le walked towards the front of the room, but this time with her head up and her shoulders back.

Now she was ready to tell the truth to her classmates, to convey the pain and the joy of her story.

Now she was ready to slam.

DANLEY IS A slam poet and is working with the fifth-graders at Potomac Elementary as part of the school’s ongoing artist-in-residence programs that take place two to three times per year, said Linda Goldberg, principal of Potomac Elementary School.

Goldberg first saw Danley at a teacher training conference last summer. Danley works for Young Audiences, a national nonprofit organization that works with schools throughout the country to expose students to the arts by working directly with artists of all disciplines. Danley performed some of her poetry to an audience of teachers and administrators that included Goldberg and some of her staff.

“She was fantastic,” said Goldberg. “The fifth-grade teachers came to me later and said that they thought that it would be perfect for the fifth-graders.” Goldberg agreed, and now Danley is showing the fifth-graders the ropes of slam poetry.

The residencies are part of the Montgomery County Public Schools curriculum for elementary schools that integrates the arts into all subject areas, said Goldberg. The students are working with Danley to complete poems of their own that they will perform in front of each other and their parents at the Potomac Elementary 5th Grade Museum on Wednesday, Feb. 7. The event is titled "Pop Into Poetry," and will feature slam poetry, tableau, dance and band performances by the school's fifth-graders.

Most fifth-grade students at Potomac Elementary have taken part in a play or a musical performance, but this experience will be different for them because they will perform something that has a personal significance to them, Goldberg said.

“That [it is] personal is the key,” said Goldberg. “Individually standing up with your own poem [when] it’s personal, that’s different.”

Slam poetry is a competitive form of poetry — poets read their poems before an audience and the audience assigns a numerical score to each performance, determining a winner, Danley said. It started in Chicago in the late 1980s, Danley said. Marc Smith was performing poetry at an open-mic that he frequented and in an effort to get a lackadaisical audience enthusiastic, he decided to involve the audience with his work.

“He said, ‘You know we should shake this up and score these poems,’” Danley said. “The audience got into it. … It started there and it just grew and now it’s all over the world.”

Danley was drawn to slam in 1994 when, while living in Atlanta, she saw a group of traveling slam poets perform at an open-mic.

At the time Danley was a substitute teacher and an amateur poet with a self-published collection of her work entitled “Naked: Poems That Uncover My Soul.” What she saw onstage that night was different from anything she had ever experienced before.

“I’d never seen anything like that — I didn’t know poetry could make you feel something so deep,” Danley said.

Danley came back the next night and performed some of her own poetry. Someone at that performance encouraged Danley to go to the national slam competition in Asheville, N.C. the next month.

Although she didn’t know anyone at the competition, she rented a car and drove to Asheville.

“I was raw and I was real and I brought it, and people still talk about it,” Danley said of her performance. Danley won the competition.

“Isn’t that crazy? That led to a lot of big things happening for me,” Danley said. She went on to win an international competition in Heidelberg, Germany in 1996 and was featured on the television show “60 Minutes” in a 1999 piece about slam poetry.

When Danley found Young Audiences, she was able to combine her passion for slam poetry with her desire to expose a younger generation to it — and make it a full-time job.

“I tried many different ways of working, and none of them worked for me. … I tried the real conservative 9-to-5 and I couldn’t make it work,” Danley said. Slam poetry opened up doors for her that she never imagined.

These days Danley travels to schools up and down the East Coast, teaching students the art of slam poetry. Most importantly, Danley said, she is helping the students to express their emotion by finding their artistic voice.

“It’s a chance to see poetry just explode in your face, like blending a bomb with words,” said Danley.

“Hold up your beautiful poems,” Danley said to the class. “I’m in a cutting mood today.”

Friday was Danley’s second day with Mara Goldstein’s period English class, and it was time to work the third step of what Danley calls “Gayle’s Five Steps to Slam.”

The residency began with an assembly for the students where Danley performed some of her work, so the students could see first-hand what they were about to get into. On Thursday, students all did Step 1 — write a story about a personal experience and to include all of the facts and emotions that they could remember about it. Now it was almost time to trim out excess words and sentences. But first came Step 2: Read it out loud.

The students took turns coming to the front of the room, reading their poems to the class, and then with Danley’s guidance, workshopping them with their peers.

“I loved all the tips [that Danley gives] them — how to just stand there because they have something important to say,” said Goldberg.

Le learned that lesson when it was her turn.

“It’s kind of scary at first, but then you get used to it,” said Le, who said that she loves poetry.

Danley wrote down the words of Le’s poem on the blackboard, and then began the process of trimming excess words with the goal of creating a succinct, powerful final product. Le stood and listened to Danley’s suggestions and those of her classmates, and when they all agreed on the best ways to improve her work, she read it aloud again.

“We’re staying up here,” Danley said to Le, “because once you get this, you got it.”