INDIANAPOLIS -- Trust, respect, friendship and Slam Poetry have found a home in a Belzer Middle School classroom in Lawrence Township. In a short few weeks, 25 students have been transformed into confident speakers of their truths.
Camea Davis is a Belzer language arts teacher and co-founder of Indy Pulse - a slam poetry organization dedicated to creating time and space for kids to express themselves. Slam poetry at Belzer started as a club, but the principal saw the impact it was having and asked Davis if she would teach it – so it has become an elective.
"Slam poetry is a derivative of traditional poetry but it’s in the vernacular of urban, young people. It’s a style of poetry where people can express themselves in their natural way of speaking and it’s very performative," Davis said. "Regular poetry is meant for the page. Slam Poetry is meant for the stage.”
To get ready for the stage, the kids work on performance skills. The class stands in a circle clapping and calling the name of a person across the circle.
“We’re clapping because when you perform it may be loud – so you have to put your voice across the circle. So what they’re learning is – how to work in a community because there is a rhythm and they have to keep the rhythm in unison," Davis said. "They’re learning performance stance – how do I look and stand in front of a group people. They’re learning voice – how to articulate because they have to say something across the circle. How do I project my voice? How do I say something?”
Davis prompts the poetry writing with questions like what color represents the feeling of your mother? If you were a monster, what would you be? And where do you feel safe?
“I’m always surprised about the honesty...Even today, one student - she’s writing a poem about how she was born a crack baby. And to say that in front of your peers, kids that can very easily make fun of you, and it’s such a vulnerable topic cause it says something about your family and where you live and all that," Davis said. "And I was just like 'wow' and she would just do it – and be confident about doing it. So I’m really excited and surprised and then proud of them for being able to write these stories.”
It's about building trust and the students get it. Davis is small in stature, but highly respected.
“She’s not like every other teacher because, you know, every other teacher is just rude and mean and give you assignments after assignments and stuff like that," eighth grader Antwone Haslett said. "But she’s like, she’ll be your teacher, but she’ll be your friend at the same time. So I think that’s pretty cool.”
DaZhane’ Jones says the Slam Poetry class is the highlight of her day.
“I feel happy ‘cause…as an example today, I wasn’t feeling so well and I was like upset." DaZhane' said. "But when I come here, all my fears and hurt goes away and I can be myself without no judgment.”
Davis says building that trusting culture is her number one priority.
“The first two weeks of school all we’re doing is sharing stories about our lives our families, our likes, our dislikes. And they really get to know each other,” she said.
One by one – Davis’ students step up to the microphone in a performance classroom filled with fellow students and family members. Nathan Terhune’s dystopian sounding poem talks of a man emerging and inspiring people to become poets.
For Nathan, in real life, Davis plays the role of the man in his poem.
“If Miss Davis stays here a while she could very well be inspiring a new generation of poets,” he said.
An Indy Pulse Slam Poetry competition will be held at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Thursday, Nov. 5.
This story is part of WFYI's American Graduate initiative. Tune in Saturday, October 3 to 90.1 FM, and WFYI One (20.1) for a day of education programming that explores efforts to raise the high-school graduation rate and improve student outcomes.