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Nonprofit Uses Slam Poetry Improve Students’ Literacy

A Houston-based group is using spoken word poetry performance to help students improve their writing skills.

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Rayshawn Flowers
Rayshawn Flowers performs his poem at the Space City Slam.

 

Rayshawn Flowers is a little intimidated being the center of attention. The eighth grader at Key Middle School is usually not very talkative, but these days, he’s found a new mode of expression — slam poetry.

It’s a type of spoken word competition where poets perform original work before a panel of judges. Some take on a rhythmic delivery style. Others opt to share a narrative.

Flowers waits in a hallway, preparing to take the stage at the Space City Slam, an annual teen poetry competition. He got involved when Meta-Four Houston hosted a workshop at his school. The team of performers encourages teens to try their hand at poetry.

“So I went up there, I tried it, I won second place, and I decided I wanted to stay, and I’ll come to this one,” Flowers says.

His favorite subject is science, but Flowers says he’s gained a new appreciation for writing. He likes tapping into his deepest thoughts and channeling them in a creative way.

About a hundred people fill the auditorium of the MECA cultural center near downtown, waiting for the show to begin.

“Yeah it’s been kind of scary because sometimes I don’t know how people are going to think about what I have to say and how they’re going to react,” he says.

While there’s a competitive side to the slam, it’s also designed to get kids excited about writing. Meta-Four Houston is part of WITS, or Writers in the Schools. The nonprofit uses creative writing activities to improve students’ literacy.

For Flowers, that process has been transformative. He says he’s learned to open up more, and it seems to be working out well for him.

“Since I wrote my poem about love, it helped me,” he says. “The girl I had a crush on at school, it helped me talk to her a little bit. Yeah, I put her name at the end of it, and she liked it.”

Soon, it’s time for Flowers to perform his poem. The crowd appears captivated as he shares his tales of teenage love and heartbreak.

Flowers says he was nervous, but he gained comfort from seeing his mom, Ericia Flowers, in the audience. She hadn’t heard Rayshawn’s poem till now. And as Rayshawn learned, all that self-expression might raise some questions from your mom.

“Who is he talking about?” she says. “‘Cause he’s talking about love, so I’m like, who is she? Who is he in love with?”

Nonetheless, Flowers says she’s proud of her son. She likes that this experience has given him a newfound passion for writing, and that’s the whole idea behind this program.

Meta-Four Houston director Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean is a performer himself. He’s coached dozens of students over the years.

“Our goal is to build safe spaces for young people to be seen, heard and taken seriously, through the vehicle of poetry,” Bean says.

He says many participants have never written poetry before, and it can have a powerful impact.

“Feedback I’m received is, ‘this is something that’s changed my life,’” he says. “I’ve heard that several times. I’ve heard of where they’ve gained a deeper and greater appreciation for writing. It opens your mind to, ‘what else can broaden my horizons if poetry did that?’”

Bean will coach the winners of the competition as they go on to represent Houston in a national tournament. Rayshawn Flowers didn’t make the final cut this year, but he feels more confident after performing.

“It was pretty cool because it was nice having everyone listen to what I had to say,” Flowers says.

Until next year, he’ll continue practicing his prose.

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