Ralston Middle School students were racking up high scores in the school’s upper gym on Feb. 13, but they weren’t playing basketball.
Their competition involved folded paper held in shaking hands, words spoken into a microphone and point tallies announced via markerboards hoisted above judges’ heads.
Ralston seventh-graders participated in the school’s third annual poetry slam this month, racking up scores that often ended in decimal points, as four of their peers rated each poem performed on a scale of one to ten– and every .1 in between.
“The point is not the points,” English teacher Charlie Petrosik said to the students watching from the bleachers. “The point is the poetry.”
Petrosik said students were allowed to boo the judges if they felt a poem wasn’t rated high enough.
“Don’t take it personally,” he told the four judges in the first block slam. “Stick to your guns!”
English teacher Shelley Sheets said all four English classes present watched a common set of videos to prepare them for the slam, both in terms of their performance and how they would be judged. Each class had its own preliminary slam for four classroom judges to determine who would represent that class at the first-block Feb. 13 slam. Twenty-one total poets stepped up at the first-block slam to throw down some fighting words. Topics ranged from love poems and odes to family and friends to examinations of racism and death of loved ones.
At the end of the slam, four poems emerged victorious, written by five poets. Gina Petersen, Matthias Walters and Damicah Burton all performed solo, with Ashley Carroll and Paige Hill performing as a team. All five students represented Sheets’ class.
Petersen and Walters both credited Sheets with helping them to overcome their nerves.
“I was sitting in my seat shaking before I went up,” Petersen said. “It helped having the support of Mrs. Sheets. I’d name her teacher of the year.”
Walters said he felt more confident.
“I do think I talked too fast,” he said. “It was cool we were all from Mrs. Sheets class. She’s the best teacher.”
Burton said he was “very confident,” but he’d been in the writing game longer than his peers. While he said he’d written for a long time, Petersen said she’d never written poetry outside of class before.
Whether they were relatively new to poetry or old hats, all five students said they intended to keep writing long after the slam.
The annual poetry slam was added to the seventh-grade curriculum three years ago as an end cap for the four English teachers’ big poetry unit. Ginny Mossman, another seventh-grade English teacher, brought the idea with her from her former district.
Sheets, Petrosik, Mossman and Jeff Lacey all feel that the slam adds something special to their program.
“It’s a good venue for students to let things out, even if they usually never say a word in class,” Petrosik said. “It’s been a good experience.”
Sheets said she had noticed the same thing.
“Students let out stuff that they wouldn’t normally talk about,” she said. “Even if they’re scared going into it, they’re glad after the fact that they did it.”
Mossman also felt it was a bonding experience.
“It’s nerve-wracking at first, but they’re all in it together,” she said. “The teachers all share our poetry, too. Everyone is cheering each other on and taking it seriously.”
Sheets offered a shoutout to a new member of the school’s slam family this year, Maribel Navarette, who came into Sheets’ and Petrosik’s classes as a guest speaker.
“It really got my students to step the level up,” she said. Navarette would have talked to Lacey’s and Mossman’s classes, but a district-wide snow day got in the way.
In addition to the first-block slams, other slams went on throughout the day when the four teachers’ schedules aligned.
“It’s good to have an event that brings all the classes and teams together,” Lacey said.
Of the four teaching their students how to slam, Lacey was the only one who had participated in one himself.
“It’s a different kind of poetry,” he said. “You have to think hard about it and write bigger, longer poems.”
Sheets said she addressed those differences with her students.
“We talked about how, with slam poetry, it’s part about the level of writing and part about the performance of it,” she said.
Regardless of scores, Mossman said the event was a way to celebrate the students’ success.
“It’s a good way to celebrate academics, not just athletics,” she said.