Peter Kahn helps disrupt the canon with spoken word poetry project

The longtime Chicago educator relocated to Columbus in August, partnering with ESC of Central Ohio for a yearlong spoken word poetry project, which will host its capstone event on Saturday, May 13.
Students perform spoken word poetry
Students perform spoken word poetryCourtesy Peter Kahn

Peter Kahn started his teaching career in Chicago in 1994, initially taking a more traditional approach to his English courses at Oak Park High School.

In those early days, Kahn struggled with poetry – “It was my least favorite thing to teach,” he said – so four or five years into his tenure, he invited a former student, Jonathan Vaughn, to lead a lesson and share some of his own poetry. 

“And when he came in, he brought up the idea of slam poetry, and my students were like, ‘Can we try that?’” said Kahn, who relocated to Columbus in August to be closer to family, including his aging parents. “And the kid with the lowest grade in any of my sophomore classes won the slam, which sent my mind into overdrive. It was like, ‘How can I build off this?’”

The next year, Kahn said he had a similar experience with another student, Dan “Sully” Sullivan, who was struggling with poor grades to a point he had even considered dropping out of school, which initiated a meeting between Kahn, school counselors and Sullivan’s father. “And long story short, we made an agreement around poetry, and now he has a double master’s degree from Indiana University, and he has another book coming out next year on Haymarket Press,” Kahn said of Sullivan, a recipient of the 2002 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award who has featured on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” and NPR, among other outlets. Sullivan also served as one of four editors on the poetry anthology Respect the Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School, working alongside Kahn, Franny Choi and Columbus poet, cultural critic and beleaguered Minnesota Timberwolves fan Hanif Abdurraqib.

In 1999, Kahn built on these early experiments, launching an after-school slam poetry club. The elective quickly grew in popularity, attracting students who were able to see themselves more vividly in the spoken-word form, which Kahn described as being deeply rooted in hip-hop, to a point where rap is sometimes said to be an acronym for “rhythm and poetry.”

“And then you're utilizing contemporary poetry and contemporary voices from a range of backgrounds, so that kids can see themselves not only in the poetry but in the bio of the poet, as well,” Kahn said. “You know, dead white people is the canon. So how do you disrupt the canon? … I’ve got nothing against Shakespeare; he’s incredibly talented, and I still teach him. But we have to move beyond Shakespeare if we want to engage kids and get them to value their own voices.”

Since returning to Columbus (Kahn earned his master’s degree in English Education from Ohio State), Kahn has worked in conjunction with ESC of Central Ohio to develop a spoken word poetry project currently held at four schools: Centennial High School, Fort Hayes Arts and Academics High School, Grandview Heights High School and Linden-McKinley STEM Academy. On Saturday, May 13, these schools will join at CCAD’s Canzani Auditorium for the “Schooled on Poetry” celebration, which features student readings, as well as a trio of heavy-hitting guests: Harvard University professor Tracy K. Smith, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former National Poet Laureate; Chicago-based poet and educator Asia Calcagno; and Abdurraqib, a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and National Book Award finalist. The event serves as a capstone for the year-long poetry initiative, which Kahn hopes to expand to more schools in the future, having long been witness to the deep impact poetry can have on impressionable youths.

Recently, Kahn appeared on a podcast alongside two former students – both now in their early 30s – for a conversation in which the two relayed the experience of being introduced to poetry, and how it unlocked something new within them. “And one went from being a shy kid to a stand-up comedian and actor, and the other is now a rapper and a youth worker,” Kahn said. “And I could tell you 100 different stories about how impactful this has been, first in Chicago and now Columbus.”

And the benefits extend far beyond academics, with Kahn relaying how students blossomed through the simple act of opening up on the page. “It’s a form of expressive writing, and there’s so much research about how expressive writing can help both mentally and physically, and even raise test scores," Kahn said. "And this is doubly effective with spoken word poetry, because not only are they writing, but they’re sharing it publicly. ... They’re building confidence in their writing, and growing more comfortable speaking up in class, and then it expands from there.”

The experience has been equally beneficial to Kahn, who said his sense of empathy has been nurtured and deepened by the stories his students have shared over the past couple of decades, in addition to making the classroom a more fertile space for learning. 

“One of the things I like to do at the end of a poetry slam ... is to say, ‘Raise your hand if you learned something new about a classmate today. Raise your hand if you heard something you could relate to today. Now, raise your hand if you think you could be a better friend to somebody based on what you heard today,’” Kahn said. “And for the first two, almost everybody raises their hand. The last one, at least half tend to raise their hands. So, I do think it builds that sense of classroom empathy. Kids often feel like they’re the only ones going through something. And if someone shares about the impact of divorce, or seeing someone shot, or losing a grandfather to cancer … you can see their eyes light up. Now they know they’re not going through this existence, this experience, alone.”

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