Spoken Word Poetry with International Students and Youth from Refugee Backgrounds (by Jennifer Burton)

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

Spoken word…really cultivates a space for active listening, right?! It creates a space for you to be heard…It’s an interactive thing, right? There is a constant energy exchange that is happening, right? So if you hear something that you like, you snap your fingers [signals to audience and snaps fingers] ‘can everybody snap their fingers? Beautiful, you all sound like sexy rain. That’s wonderful’ [audience laughs]. …‘Mmmmh’, so on the count of three can we get a collective ‘Mmmmh? 1, 2, 3…[gestures to audience, raises hands] “Mmmmh” [audience replied], Wonderful, you all are beautiful, right. So there is that constant exchange, right. There is that thing of the active listening that people are responding to you, right. That all of that energy that is going out into the audience is coming right back to you onto the stage.

The above-mentioned excerpt comes from a TedTalk by spoken word artist Pages Matam as he describes the culture of spoken word poetry to the audience. While presenting poetry in oral form is not a new phenomenon, poetry slams have become “arguably the most successful poetry movement of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries” (Gregory, 2008, p. 63). A slam is a poetry competition—what Taylor (2015) calls “doing word” (p. 126). 

“Slam Papi” Marc Smith hosted the first poetry slam at the Get Me High lounge in Chicago in 1986. The slam poetry movement grew out of “Monday Night Poetry Readings” when he hosted open mics and invited guests to perform their own poetry. The accessibility of poetry slams—where, regardless of talent, anyone can take the stage—have contributed to their widespread popularity. The recent spoken word performance by Amanda Gorman at American President Biden’s inauguration has brought this form of expression even further into the spotlight.  

As mentioned above, spoken word poetry comes to life in the interaction between the speaker and the listener. This embodied, engaged multimodal form of communication draws attention to the affective and social dimensions of language use. The pedagogic potential offered by spoken word poetry has critical import for language teaching and learning. It provides opportunities for students lived experiences to be situated in engaged and critical learning, and offers possibilities for them to excavate and examine the structures of power that influence and shape those lived experiences (Burton & Van Viegen, forthcoming).

In this post, I present research-informed classroom-based examples of two spoken word poetry projects: one in the context of an online English for Academic Purposes (EAP) course with international students and the other in a high school classroom with youth from refugee backgrounds.

Spoken Word Poetry Pedagogy

The spoken word poetry pedagogy was guided by several assumptions. In both learning contexts, students’ language practices were considered integrated and flexible, and used as a resource for meaning making and communication (Li Wei, 2018). Centering students’ lives and languages was of utmost importance in building on students’ existing knowledge constructed across diverse global locations and educational circumstances. Spoken word poetry provided these students with means to not only engage with but also to embody and language their thoughts, reflections, experiences and memories.

The spoken word poetry pedagogy was not prescriptive. It couldn’t be. Instead, the educators in these projects engaged students in embodied teaching and learning activities to familiarize them with the genre of spoken word, and invited students to play with language. We adapted, shifted, and changed directions based on the students’ receptiveness to our tasks. Whether working with youth or adults, building and fostering a supportive and encouraging community of engaged learners was essential. We encouraged everyone to share with the caveat that what students shared was of their choosing. Some shared their entire poems with the class, while others talked about their process.

The spoken word poetry project in the university setting was part of my dissertation project[1]. Engaging a researcher-practitioner relationship, I worked closely with an English language instructor to introduce spoken word poetry to international students. Most of the students in the class had never before heard of spoken word, nor had they ever written a poem. After completing seven weekly online classes (11 hours), the students concluded the project by performing their spoken word poems in a final showcase, an online poetry slam—a competition where students were both performers and judges, assigning scores on a scale of 0-10 based on the content, performance, and feeling of each poem. The intensity and energy in students’ sharing that night was palpable, their vulnerability visceral.

In the poem below, Diana, a young woman from Syria, articulates painful memories of being denied a visa to study in Germany despite having received a university scholarship. In spite of her hardship and endurance, Diana has gone on to pursue her graduate studies in Canada.

Collectively, the international students’ poems highlighted diverse experiences of discrimination, racism, loss, love, (be)longing, acceptance, grief, fear, hope and desire. They shed light on the complex and dynamic realities, identities, lives and languages of these English language learners, reminding others that they are not alone.

The stories shared by the youth from refugee backgrounds were equally inspiring. Situated in a high school class, Dr. Saskia Van Viegen invited me to lead a 5-day spoken word poetry workshop over a 2-week period for English Language Learners[2]. This workshop was part of a broader, multi-site case study SSHRC-funded[3] project examining the language and literacy practices of youth from refugee backgrounds. Engaging these youth in spoken word poetry, we invited students to use spoken word “to voice their perspectives and memories not only to be heard by others, but also to support their own process of negotiating the changing realities involved in resettlement and integration” (Burton & Van Viegen, forthcoming, p. 19). One of the aims of this project was to provide opportunities for students to push back against deficit discourses which often position their identities and linguistic practices in a negative light. During this project, the youth fostered peer collaboration and social relations, engaged their multimodal practices while co-constructing meaning, and increased their metalinguistic and emotional awareness (Burton & Van Viegen, forthcoming).

In both contexts, spoken word poetry provided possibilities for multilingual students to speak back to issues of injustice relevant to their lives. Such critical approaches to language teaching and learning are necessary in order to fostering more equitable space in classrooms more specifically and in society more broadly.

For those educators who are interested in exploring spoken word poetry with your students, please check out the tips and resources below, and don’t hesitate to connect in the comments or reach out by email jennifer.burton[at]mail[dot]utoronto[dot]ca

Take Action!

Tips for Educators Interested in Spoken Word Poetry

  1. You do not have to be a spoken word performer to invite spoken word poetry into your classroom. While there is no step-by-step procedure that translates into a successful spoken word poetry lesson, sharing examples that reflect your students’ language, culture and life experience is a good start. 
  2. Consider inviting a spoken word artist into your classroom to host a workshop.
  3. Try writing your own spoken word poetry alongside your students!
  4. Stay flexible, remain open and have fun!

More to Explore

[1] This project is supported by the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada, and has received ethics approval from the University of Toronto.  

[2] I am using the term English Language Learner as depicted by the Ontario Ministry, but I want to highlight that these learners have diverse multilingual experiences that are often not recognized in formal educational spaces.

[3] The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is a federal research funding agency in Canada.


Burton & Van Viegen (forthcoming). Spoken word poetry with youth from refugee backgrounds. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

Gregory, H. (2008). The quiet revolution of poetry slam: The sustainability of cultural capital in the light of changing artistic conventions. Ethnography and Education3(1), 63-80.

Li Wei (2018). Translanguaging as a practical theory of language. Applied linguistics, 39(1), 9-30. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amx039

Taylor, J. (2015). Slam poetry. In S. Dymoke, M. Barrs, A. Lambirth, & A. Wilson (Eds.), Making poetry happen: Transforming the poetry classroom (pp. 125–132). London: Bloomsbury.

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