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GUEST COMMENTARY: Slam poetry teams inspire students and coaches
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GUEST COMMENTARY: Slam poetry teams inspire students and coaches

I believe in the power of words.

Words have gotten me through all kinds of tough situations. When I face a sad day, writing is sometimes the best way for me to find happiness. After I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 35 I started blogging about my life with cancer and that helped me. Words are also how I express love, whether it be in an email or text to someone I care about.

I like poetry because it’s the ultimate way to use words to express emotion. When someone reads a poem to you they invite you into their soul and share what moves them. And when it’s a teenager, it’s particularly special because they don’t let you in so easily.

This past school year I coached for the first time a slam poetry team on the south side of Chicago for the Louder than a Bomb competition. Started in 2001 in Chicago, Louder than a Bomb is the world’s largest youth poetry festival involving five weeks of events during which high school, middle school and community teams compete slam-style in poetry bouts.

Being the slam poetry coach was so inspiring. The seventh- and eighth-graders on my team never shared their writing publicly before. But they had been following Chicago poets on YouTube for years, so they understood what the experience could look and feel like.

And they went for it with their poetry. Each reading could have involved a mic drop. Their poems described such topics as bullying, suicide, depression, how people treat them based on the color of their skin, their parents, racism, gender inequality and how the world views teens.

They trusted me with their feelings as we worked on their writing and the delivery of their poems. We didn’t win, but a note from a student thanking me for pushing her outside her comfort zone and creating this opportunity to share her love of writing showed that this was a worthwhile, life-changing experience for us all.

I promised when I started this column that I would highlight unsung heroes. I’d like you to meet 41-year-old English teacher Dave Hossler, an LTAB slam poetry coach for the past eight years at Merrillville High School.

During his first year as a teacher, the school’s administrator searched for a teacher to put a slam poetry team together, and Hossler was the only one who raised his hand. With his history of performing, whether it be in plays, improv, stand-up comedy, jazz band or putting bands together, it made sense for him to take this on.

He started with a one-off poetry performance at the school in 2010 and was encouraged to create a team. He has a long commute from Chicago to Merrillville every day, but coaching the Permanent Ink Slam Poets' Club fuels him during those early morning drives.

“I work with a lot of great kids who are dedicated artists, and it’s great to see them grow as artists,” he said. “Quite a few kids who wouldn’t join anything else found out about our team and knew this was one for them. We have many students on our team who would otherwise be considered outsiders.”

Hossler says they sometimes put students on the team because the experience would be good for them. If they get up and perform a few poems in front of people, it will create even the spark of confidence. He describes a sophomore on the team, an outsider who at first was too shy to share a poem publicly. He now teaches a writing workshop with ease.

The beauty of LTAB is that it’s not really about the contest but more about giving the students a platform to share their writing and get more comfortable in their own skin.

Hossler dedicates an extra 15 or 16 hours week around competition time to the team and has an assistant coach, Paul Trembacki (a Times sportswriter).

“LTAB has honestly changed my life,” he said. “The first competition I took the kids to I was practically in tears. So many kids are pouring out their souls and it can be emotionally exhausting. But the experience has such a positive effect on all sorts of kids.”

To learn more about Louder than a Bomb, visit https://youngchicagoauthors.org/louder-than-a-bomb.

Olivia Clarke grew up in Northwest Indiana and is a writer who works in public relations. Her website, Humor Beats Cancer, can be found at www.humorbeatscancer.com. She can be reached at o_clarke@hotmail.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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