Shingleton Gymnasium at Shenandoah University hosted a unique kind of competition during Martin Luther King, Jr. Week events in January: a poetry slam for area intermediate and middle school students, co-sponsored by Shenandoah’s School of Education and Leadership (SOEL).
Acclaimed children’s author, Coretta Scott King Award-winning illustrator, and slam poet Charles R. Smith Jr. and Shenandoah’s men’s and women’s basketball teams served as judges for the event. They also read their own poetry and work written by others.
Approximately 150 students from three area schools – 50 each from Daniel Morgan Intermediate School (Winchester, Virginia), Frederick County Middle School (Frederick County, Virginia), and Johnson-Williams Middle School (Berryville, Virginia) – attended the slam, with several poets from each school performing, and one student being crowned the “grand slam” winner. The “grand slam” winner received a gift certificate from Winchester Book Gallery, along with an autographed copy of Smith’s book, “28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World,” which each competitor received. Each team also received a copy of Smith’s “Twelve Rounds to Glory,” for their school.
The grand slam winner was Caroline Brewer from Johnson-Williams Middle School, and the second-place winners were also Johnson-Williams Middle School students – Roselyne Kutai and Margaret Lehr – who performed together, said Shenandoah Professor of Education, Director of the Children’s Literature Program and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Huff, Ed.D.
Poetry & Basketball
Women’s basketball Head Coach Melissa Smeltzer-Kraft said Dr. Huff made the connection between the teams, Smith (many of whose works focus on basketball and who was chosen to compete in season nine of “American Ninja Warrior”) and the poetry event as the academic advisor to junior women’s basketball player Jordan Sondrol. “I think this was the first experience with a poetry slam for many of us, and we enjoyed it very much! Any time we can get our current students out of their comfort zone, and get local students on our campus, it’s a great day,” Smeltzer-Kraft said.
Huff said she couldn’t have asked for greater involvement from Smeltzer-Kraft and men’s basketball Head Coach Adam Walsh. “The Shenandoah basketball players fully participated in the event,” Huff added. “Jason Tate and Jordan Sondrol served as the MCs for the event, some players shared their original poetry while others served as the judges, and some sat in the stands with the students to lead the cheers for each poet. At the conclusion of the event Coach Walsh read one of his favorite poems written by a close friend.”
Unique Event Ends An Amazing Week
The poetry slam culminated a week of Shenandoah-sponsored visits by Smith to area schools. During week, he spoke at seven area schools before a combined total of more than 3,000 students, Huff said. “Charles shared tips on performing poetry and public speaking and reminded the students that even though coming to the poetry slam may have been the first time that they had stepped foot on a college campus, he wanted them to know that lots of exciting events are held at colleges and he wanted them to take a look around and visualize themselves as college students,” Huff said.
I hope the students left Shenandoah thinking that if college is a place you can meet and get advice from award-winning authors who are also American Ninja Warriors and be cheered on by basketball players and coaches who also love poetry, then going to college may be something they want to consider.
– Shenandoah Professor of Education, Director of the Children’s Literature Program and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Huff, Ed.D.
“The pairing of the young poets with the athletes made for a unique event, and showed how much fun poetry could be,” Smith said in his Feb. 4 online newsletter, which showed photos of him during his visits, including one of him climbing a rope in a gym after being challenged to do so by students. After that visit, “The students left energized and inspired and I left motivated to create more books,” he wrote in the newsletter. “Ultimately, that’s why I do visits; to see, firsthand, the reaction of students and teachers to my work. Visits remind me of who I’m writing for and why.” His presentations also focused “on connecting the Mind, the Body and the Spirit to achieve success,” he noted in the newsletter.
A Winning Day For All
“This event was meaningful because of the eclectic range of scholars and adults who participated,” said Frederick County Middle School Principal Jerry Putt. “We had college athletes, middle school students, coaches, and professionals (authors) all participate. It sends the message that literacy comes and all forms and can be accessed by all.”
The event appeared to impress the young people who participated, Putt said. “Our scholars’ response was very positive. They were grateful for the opportunity. We did not collect any quantitative data but our anecdotal data was very positive. When middle schoolers return and are still talking about the event at lunch time, something worked well.”
Johnson-Williams Middle School Principal Evan Robb said his school enjoyed the opportunity to celebrate literacy, connect with other schools and forge connections with Shenandoah. The event showed the Johnson-Williams sixth graders who attended what it’s like to be in a college environment, where a person can be anything, including an athlete whose favorite form of self-expression is poetry.
Robb said he appreciated that the event provided a different outlet for competition, which usually occurs, for middle school students, through athletics or band/choral events. He was also impressed by how all the students cheered and supported one another. “I would say every student, including Shenandoah basketball players, who read poetry, was a winner that day.”
A Hope For Further Collaboration
And, Robb noted Huff’s creativity and innovation in putting together an event in which Johnson-Williams students were “excited and proud,” to participate. He said he would love to bring students to a similar event next year and he hopes the school can further collaborate with Shenandoah in other equally creative and different ways.
The Poetry Slam and Smith’s local school visits were supported by the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation.