Students study literary arts in many forms throughout their educational careers, from novels to poetry and short stories to plays. But after working with middle and high school girls in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) lessons, Venneasha Davis and Dr. Temple Lovelace had an idea about how to make the content more inclusive and culturally responsive. They incorporated a different literary arts form: spoken word.
Davis and Lovelace introduced spoken word into their Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. classroom sessions on science topics, and also used spoken word to talk about self-esteem and empowerment. They encouraged students to create pieces of spoken word rooted in both their own experiences and in science.
The Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. program includes students with and without disabilities, and Lovelace says that spoken word is a great equalizer for the participants. “Any time you open arts and academic content to intersect, kids are able to pull from different experiences and kinds of comprehension,” Lovelace says, continuing, “[A student] can be strong in putting spoken word together, but not in science concepts. It levels the playing field and allows students to feel more included.
When starting a spoken word session with the Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. students, the educators set the stage for creation with a foundational idea, like a quote or song of the day, or a trio of facts about the relevant academic content. Lovelace says using a prompt helps so one student does not have more knowledge about the topic than a peer. The educators also allow students to use their phones and tablets to quickly look up information on a topic.
After discussing the foundational idea, students free write about it, then analyze their free writing before creating a spoken word poem. They also sometimes write as a group, depending on the students and time available. The educators explain everything in three ways—verbally, in writing, and with guided notes—to ensure all learners understand the instructions. Lovelace and Davis also provide examples for every part of the literary process, as well as a template to help students get started.
Spoken word is just one of the art forms Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. incorporates into its sessions. Students have also used digital storytelling, photography, dance, filmmaking, visual art, and audio production as tools for science learning. Regardless of the art form being used, Lovelace and Davis always approach the lessons with respect and understanding for the differences the children bring to the classroom.
“Because of my background as a special educator, I always approach learning differences not from a deficit basis, but as understanding who each individual young person is. Then I walk myself and the teaching artists through the content and how to differentiate our instruction, “Lovelace says. She also emphasizes the importance of being ready to differentiate on your feet, while you are in the classroom.
According to Lovelace, incorporating spoken word and other arts components into project-based, small group learning allows students to demonstrate character strengths along with academic strengths. “If I am a good collaborator, communicator, listener, those skills are just as important as mastering software applications,” she says, continuing, “By bringing arts into the school space, we allow everyone to shine.”