The Writing Light Shines Bright: Kemnay Academy's Poetry Slam Project

At the start of a cold and gloomy winter term, a glowing light could be found flickering in our school library. I had recently taken over the running of the school’s Writers Group, admittedly with little experience of guiding writers. The group, made up of 5 girls between S1–S3 who meet each Tuesday lunchtime in the library, had previously been compiling an anthology of their creative works and were looking for some new inspiration and a common theme. Spurred by Jackie Kay’s Authors Live event, combined with my fascination with slam poetry, we decided to hold our own poetry slam, performing poems the pupils had written themselves.

As part of the School Champions programme, we were visited by slam poetry champion MiKo Berry. Beforehand, we watched a few of his performances on YouTube, which allowed pupils to get an idea of how slam poetry works. During a fantastic workshop, MiKo gave pupils advice on writing poetry, thinking about things they feel passionate about and putting those thoughts into words, as well as recommending how best to slam, and giving a few performances of his own work. During an enthusiastic discussion, he tuned in to the pupils’ emotions, helping them create their own ideas for writing and performing. The stage was set for our own poetry slam.   

In preparation for our slam, to be held during Book Week Scotland, pupils created publicity posters for the event, made their own tickets, compiled a guest list of the teachers and friends they wished to be in the audience, and arranged for pupil bouncers to be on door, collecting tickets and giving BWS stickers to audience members. It is often difficult to get the pupils in our school engaged in participating in library activities at lunchtime, so this was a perfect opportunity to do just that. Our writers decided they wanted the slam to be a competition, with library staff judging the winner. This gave them even more determination and heightened the excitement.

On the day of the slam, our nervous writers performed their work fantastically well, each receiving a notepad and pen for their efforts, and slam champion Kim took home a beautiful anthology of read-aloud poems after writing and performing her poem “Body Image Issues”:

“Take a look in the mirror.
What do you see?
I see my past, present and future
and if I don’t work I can’t be free.

Be free of the image
that’s stuck in my head.
Be terrified of the weight
that’s left the image in red.

So take a look in the mirror.
What do you see?
See a person who will never,
be what others see in me.”

Reflecting on the project, Kim said, 'It was amazing. It gave me an insight into something new and gave me more confidence in doing something different.' Baleigh also commented that although the group hadn’t done much poetry before, MiKo was very encouraging during his visit and didn’t talk down to them, something which the pupils found important. Katie was inspired by his confidence: 'He knew exactly what he wanted to say.'

Our poetry slam event continued to inspire our young writers after the event itself, as they used their poems as a basis for a short story. Still in search of a little more influence and direction, we visited Aberdeen’s Tollbooth Museum, taking note of sights, sounds and experiences of the past to link with pupils’ poems and stories, giving them a new angle. They are currently continuing with their slam-inspired stories and their anthology is taking shape. We now hope to celebrate their writing achievements at the end of the school year with an exhibition of their work for fellow pupils, staff and families in the school library. The writing light certainly shines brightly in our library now. 

You can watch Jackie Kay's Authors Live broadcast here and download learning resources which explore Jackie Kay's poems 'Gap Year' and 'Divorce' alongside work by Scottish slam poets Miko Berry and Jenny Lindsay.

If you'd like to bring in a writer or poet to help with a project, check out our Live Literature programme to see how you can apply for funding.

Change your pupils' perceptions of poetry with these 8 brilliant slam poetry performances available to watch on youtube, including Miko Berry's 'This is Your Day'.

Take a look at this guide to staging a poetry slam in your school, written by performance poet Anita Govan.

Jennifer Horan

Jennifer Horan is Network Librarian at Kemnay Academy in Aberdeenshire