By Laura Louis and Benjamin Smith

Students sit next to each other for 60 minutes a day 180 days a year, yet they don’t actually know each other. They can text each other at a rate of 50 words per minute, but they don’t know anything about their classmates that isn’t posted somewhere. They are inundated with social information, but they are emotionally distanced from one another.

Through the art of spoken word poetry, Southern Word connects students to each other, to their teachers, and to their education. For the past five years, guest poets have partnered with Hume Fogg’s sophomore English teachers for a two-week unit that teaches the writing, speaking, and listening skills that create the foundation for effective communication.

Ironically, this investment seems “out-of-the-box” because the current Tennessee End of Course test for English that determines students’ grades and our school improvement score does not assess writing, speaking, or listening. Yet, these are the skills that equip us for success in social, educational, and professional settings.

The implementation of Common Core standards offers the opportunity to expose the inadequacies in our present systems and remedy them. We need to teach and measure what is valuable and necessary rather than teach what we know how to easily assess.

This includes acknowledgement of the non-cognitive development that is critical for us as individuals and a society. In his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Power of Character, Paul Tough highlights how KIPP Academy has struggled with improving college graduation rates despite strong student test scores. Along with a host of other education professionals, they are seeking solutions by developing character strengths such as grit, self-control, and social intelligence.

Southern Word’s residencies illuminate these emerging best practices. Students learn empathy through this shared story-telling experience. Learning about yourself and others within the context of your school and community builds emotional intelligence and creates an environment where students feel connected and their voices are validated. They feel invested in their education and are willing to take chances within the classroom.

In one spoken word workshop, Sasha wrote a piece about the experience of being adopted. She was too shy to read her piece out loud. Little did she know that Alyssa was writing about being adopted in the seat directly behind her.  She was also hesitant to read. How often are we sitting next to someone who shares our interests and experience, but we are unable to recognize it because we are too quiet, too loud, too ideological, too deaf, or too disconnected? The things we need to talk about most are the things we talk about least. So, we live alone with our struggles and they distract us from our goals.

Our present national conversations around Common Core and other challenging issues often model writing, speaking, listening, and character weakness for our youth. Too often, leaders show up to charged discussions with talking points, out-of-context data, exaggerated trepidation, and misinformation ready to deafly steer questions and conversation towards what they want to espouse. We look for and elevate differences, allowing these differences to dissolve our shared interest and experience.

We have witnessed the shift in classroom culture as identities are affirmed, the silent choose to speak, the gregarious become vulnerable, disabling secrets are diffused, and youth are offered a real language to describe the perilous world in which they come of age. We hope the Common Core conversation and implementation will give us a chance to continue to improve how we speak, listen, and connect with each other.


Benjamin Smith is founder and executive director of Southern Word which conducts writer residencies with comprehensive, magnet, charter, urban, and rural schools in 5 Tennessee counties. He has worked in various youth development organizations and educational enrichment programs including the YMCA, Conservations Corps, and Summerbridge.  He has also planned sizable events and managed Dockers licensed businesses for Levi Strauss & Co. He is a teaching artist and singer-songwriter who has played in country, jazz, rock and americana bands.