Monday, April 11, 2022

Why Write? “Poetry Is the New Best Medicine”

By Sam Piha

Providing opportunities for youth to reflect on and express their thoughts and feelings are critical strategies for any afterschool program. These opportunities are essential to promoting youth voice, healthy youth development, social emotional skills and resiliency, especially for those who have experienced trauma. The integration of writing is a very powerful way to do this. Strategies and activities include poetry, spoken word and journaling. Previous LIAS blogs focused on poetry and journal writing

“Offering young people meaningful writing opportunities allows them to share their ideas and using their voice helps them communicate and feel agency.” – Afterschool Provider ED, California

Peter Kahn
Peter Kahn has taught English and spoken word poetry to thousands of students at Chicago's Oak Park and River Forest High School since 1994. We first became aware of Peter’s work while listening to NPR. We contacted Peter and he agreed to participate in a Speaker’s Forum entitled, Meaningful Writing in Afterschool: Poetry, Spoken Word and Journaling

Later we saw him featured on the PBS Newshour where he gave his Brief But Spectacular take on how spoken word poetry amplifies student voice. “I used to hate poetry. I hated it as a student. I hated it as a teacher”, he said. “I was inept at teaching it. And in the mid-’90s, I brought in a former student, Jonathan Vaughn, to help me out. And he came in. And he mentioned the idea of a poetry slam. And my students asked if we could do that. So, we went ahead and did a poetry slam. And the student with the lowest grade in my class ended up winning it. And everybody looked at the kid differently after that. And he looked at himself differently, more importantly.

Source: PBS

Inspired by the potential of spoken-word poetry to engage youth, Kahn created an afterschool spoken word club at his high school. And for over 20 years, the club has created space for students to engage in storytelling.

In collaboration with his current and former students, Kahn has released an anthology, Respect the Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School

Below is a poem by one of Kahn’s former student poets, Abby Govea, high school class of 2021.


I write because laughter is not the best medicine.
I used to spew jokes sporadically because I thought it was.
The more I puppeteered my smile
the further I was convinced
my anxiety would peel away like old skin.
Humor was a succulent treat my irrational nerves craved.

There were too many thoughts I wanted to disperse
that couldn’t be glazed in giggles.
They crammed in my brain like paper in Dad’s file cabinet
never to be seen or read aloud.
So I turned to the unexplored source
I knew comforts my brother.

Euphoria jerked through the grooves of my palms
watching my brother aggressively
write away his emotions and craft perfection.
I wanted to feel the same way.

Fingers clenched the pencil
as my hand synched with the rhythm
of my thoughts thudding against my skull.
Anxiety leaped into the creases of the paper
as confidence skimmed the doubt of writing’s benefits
and inscribed the cemented sentence:
It’s no joke that poetry is the new best medicine.

Excerpted from Respect The Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry From A Chicagoland High School. Copyright © 2022 by authors. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Workshop. All rights reserved.

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