The first time I announced to a high school class that we were starting a poetry unit I was met with groans and broken-voiced protestations.  I realized that no matter how moving or influential the poems I’d selected were, teaching elements like devices of sound and diction would be utterly painful for everyone involved.

Despite having some experience in the realm of spoken word poetry (okay, so I only  competed and placed in ONE local poetry slam back in Santa Cruz, CA), I figured this most engaging format was too pedestrian for school, and as a new teacher it was safest to stick to the canon.  Boy, was I wrong.

Here are seven awesome spoken word poems that can be used to teach specific literary elements and poetic devices.

Allusion, Refrain, Devices of Sound (Alliteration, Assonance)

To This Day – Shane Koyczan

This is perhaps the most popular spoken word poems shared with middle to high school students, and there is an amazing animated video to go along with it.  I’ve decided to share a video of the poet himself delivering a full version the piece, but you can find the shorter animated version here.

Excerpt to discuss in class:

I’m not the only kid who grew up this way, surrounded by people who used to say that rhyme about sticks and stones, as if broken bones hurt more than the names we got called, and we got called them all. So we grew up believing no one would ever fall in love with us, that we’d be lonely forever, that we’d never meet someone to make us feel like the sun was something they built for us in their toolshed. So broken heartstrings bled the blues, and we tried to empty ourselves so we’d feel nothing.

Full text of To This Day

Internal and End Rhyme, Diction

3 Ways of Speaking English – Jamila Lyiscott

Excerpt to discuss in class:

So when my Professor comes on the block and says, “Hello”
I stop him and say “Noooo …
You’re being inarticulate …
the proper way is to say ‘what’s good’”
Now you may think that’s too hood, that’s not cool
But I’m here to tell you that even our language has rules

Full text of 3 Ways to Speak English

Extended Metaphor, Personification

A Love Letter from a Toothbrush to a Bicycle Tire – Sarah Kaye

Excerpt to discuss in class:

They told me that I was meant for the cleaner life, that you would drag me through the mud. They said that you would tread all over me, that they could see right through you, that you were full of hot air, that I would always be chasing, always watching you disappear after sleeker models, that it would be a vicious cycle.

Full text of A Love Letter From a Toothbrush to a Bicycle Tire

Simile, Repetition, Ambiguity, Euphony

Until We Could – Richard Blanco

Note: “Until We Could” may not have been written as a traditional spoken word piece, but the following video from Freedom to Marry has arguably become its most far-reaching manifestation.

Excerpt to discuss in class:

                                 Yes, I counted your eyelashes,
read your dreams like butterflies flitting underneath
your eyelids, ready to flutter into the room.  Yes,
I praised you like a majestic creature my god forgot
to create, till that morning of you suddenly tamed
in my arms, first for me to see, name you mine.

Full text of Until We Could

Analogy, Devices of Sound (Assonance, Consonance, Internal Rhyme)

A Letter to a Playground Bully, From Andrea, Age 8 1/2 – Andrea Gibson

Excerpt to discuss in class:

my mother says most people have heartbeats
that are knocking on doors that will never open,
and I know my heart is a broken freezer chest
‘cause I can never keep anything frozen.

Full text of A Letter to a Playground Bully, From Andrea, Age 8 1/2

Rhythm, End Rhyme, Simile, Diction

If I Woz a Tap-Natch Poet – Linton Kwesi Johnson

Excerpt to discuss in class:

inna di meantime
wid mi riddim
wid mi rime
wid mi ruff base line
wid mi own sense a time

Full text of If I Woz a Tap-Natch Poet

Antithesis, Parallelism

Shrinking Women – Lily Myers

Excerpt to discuss in class:

you have been taught to grow out,
I have been taught to grow in.
You learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence, you used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much.
I learned to absorb.
I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself.

Full text of Shrinking Women


What are some of your favorite spoken word poems?  Share your recommendations here!