The roads WE do take

Spoken Word and the YRDSB

Illustration of a hand slam dunking a microphone in to basketball net

A number of roads have converged to bring spoken word to the York Region District School Board (YRDSB). From the pioneering efforts of Markville Secondary School English Head Lara Bozabalian (District 16, York Region) to the YRDSB Regional Slam Poetry Competition with internationally acclaimed spoken word artist Dwayne Morgan, we find ourselves in an incredible place where educators in York Region have a variety of opportunities to engage students in the world of spoken word.

Our journey begins with Lara

Twelve years ago, after witnessing—and competing in—Toronto’s powerful spoken word community, Lara Bozabalian decided to host an afternoon of spoken word in her high school library.

“What began as a graduation party for my Writer’s Craft class erupted into a three-hour festival of student voices,” she explains. “Tears, relief, victory and passion were shared through the creative efforts of Grade 12 students, all cheered on by their peers and mentors.”

The power of that moment was captured by a student who proclaimed upon leaving, “I’ve never felt so heard before!”

And with that, the Be Heard Festival was born.

The following year, Lara extended an invitation to high schools across the YRDSB, and the response was enthusiastic. Since then thousands of students have come through the festival and been mentored by internationally celebrated poets.

Lara is unequivocal about the positive impact the event has had on students. “What I have witnessed, time and again, is the birth of unity—students who arrive from different backgrounds and energy levels, choose to stand, shout, snap, and cheer for their peers, because of the galvanizing force of poetry. I see them leave, every year, faces lit and eager for the next event, any chance to string their words into stories, and to share those stories with the world beyond themselves, because they are certain of the value of their stories, and their place in this incredible community.”

Our journey continues with Dwayne

The Be Heard Festival is still going strong, but events leading to another element of Spoken Word at YRDSB were already taking shape a few years before Lara hosted that first spoken word session in her school library.

Sometime in1998, an email found its way into the inbox of Dwayne Morgan. It was about a poetry slam happening in Philadelphia. Dwayne, a spoken word artist who had been working to encourage and promote the endeavours of African Canadian and urban-influenced artists, wasn’t yet familiar with the world of poetry slams.

“I had never heard of the term before, and I wasn’t sure what it was,” Dwayne says. “So I borrowed my mother’s van, packed up a few friends, and took a road trip to find out. I was totally amazed by what I witnessed, and somehow, I even ended up in the event. I knew that Toronto needed something like this, so upon my return, I started Ontario’s first poetry slam series.”

For the unfamiliar, a poetry slam is a competition where poets are given three minutes on stage to share their original work, and are then assigned scores by five random judges selected from the audience. Slam originated in Chicago as a way to make poetry more accessible and engaging, and to get the audience more involved.

After winning the Canadian National Poetry Slam in 2013, Dwayne was determined to ensure that more young people had access to the art of spoken word, and he came up with the idea of a poetry slam league. He encountered several hurdles and setbacks in his efforts to launch a league through the Toronto District School Board, but Cecil Roach, Superintendent of Education, Equity and Community Services at the YRDSB, decided to take a chance on the idea. A team was put together to coordinate the plan, and twenty-two schools signed up for the inaugural year.

“As this was new to most everyone, we provided PD for teachers on what spoken word was and how it worked,” Dwayne explains. “The next step was to introduce the idea to the students, and figure out all of the logistics. The team worked tirelessly and in the end, we were completely blown away by the stories the kids shared. Teachers had found a new way to engage students who often found themselves on the margins. With what we witnessed that first year we knew that we were on to something.”

Cecil Roach was similarly enthused. After the inaugural competition he proclaimed, “Last night’s Poetry Slam finals were spectacularly successful, and an exemplary portrayal of what our students are capable of producing when given the opportunity to truly use their voices. The poems were of incredibly high quality and had the packed room seesawing between tears and laughter. It would be hard to find more engaged students than the ones who had their teachers, administrators, and parents sobbing.”

Five years after Dwayne Morgan first hatched the idea, there are now 50 elementary and secondary schools participating in the YRDSB Poetry Slam League. Morgan has also established a new league with the Halton District School Board.

Serendipity ensues

I had first experienced slam poetry in Toronto, and I was so impacted by the performances that I knew we needed to bring this to our students. Little did I know that some of the artists I had been watching perform had probably been mentored by Dwayne in the early days. For all I know, one of them might even have been Lara. And because I was attached to the Inclusive Schools and Community Services Department when Dwayne approached the YRDSB, I have been fortunate enough to work on this initiative with him from the beginning.

Spoken word is a form of storytelling, but it is so much more. The basis of all spoken word is the written story—what is being said, why is it being said, and by whom. Spoken word draws inspiration from hip hop and other forms of music, using rhythm to create melodies. Spoken word performances also draw on the traditions of theatre, and provide a wealth of opportunities to enrich the experience of students. Spoken word supports literacy. It enables us to achieve a greater degree of student engagement, and because the students are telling their own stories, it leads to a more culturally responsive pedagogy that promotes social justice, socio-emotional well-being, and positive mental health. It’s an activity well suited for meeting the needs of all learners, particularly those who have been marginalized and silenced.

Katie Krever, a York Region elementary teacher, says that spoken word has evolved into “one of the most integral staples” of her literacy program. “My Grade 7 and 8 students have learned about imagery, figurative language, tone, voice and point of view. And while I can confidently ‘check off’ these components of the curriculum, I can say with greater pride, that the lessons grew far beyond this Ontario document.”

“Good stories don’t need to be found online or in a textbook,” says Katie. “We have classes full of students who are already authors.”

Engagement, student voice, well-being and a sense of community are common themes that we hear when talking to staff and students about spoken word. Forming positive relationships with peers bolsters a student’s confidence, sense of connectedness and overall well-being. We see the spoken word initiative as closely linked to our board’s work to enhance student well-being by providing safe places for student expression, a sense of inclusion and community, and opportunities for students to discover their often hidden talents, voices and even their sense of who they are.

Sahar Hoveyda, a Grade 10 student at Bayview Hill Secondary, says, “In Grade 7/8 I was introduced to spoken word and I mean it when I say that it changed my life. Not only did it allow me to express myself, it guided me in finding myself.”

Based on these experiences, we’ve embedded spoken word into the work of the YRDSB’s Inclusive Schools and Community Services Department in an effort to provide greater opportunity for authentic student voice. Student voice can truly liberate students to be their authentic selves and share their truths. It is sometimes terrifying, often inspiring, and always powerful.

“As educators we encourage students to use their voice,” says Lorraine Ghobrial (District 16, York Region), English Head at Vaughan Secondary School. “We tell them that their voice matters and that their perspective is valued. For the student who is inspired by this, who sees this as a call to action, it can be very empowering but it is not always easy to find a platform from which to speak. Spoken word has given students that platform. My experience watching students dedicate themselves to finding their voice and having the courage to step up and share their truth has been one of the greatest thrills of my life.”

Spoken word has also proven to be an inspiration for social justice and change—many students perform pieces that challenge the status quo and push back against systemic forms of oppression. “For me, it was the first time YRDSB truly meaningfully engaged student voice by creating space for students to express themselves through spoken word,” says Jathusha Mahenthirarajan, who graduated from YRDSB in 2017.

Spoken word has engaged many of our students who were otherwise not engaged in school, as well as those who had not previously expressed an interest in writing or performing. For some, the experience of “being the other”—feeling marginalized by their social identity—kept them silent. As Jathusha explains, “For myself, and many marginalized students, it gave us the stage to voice our concerns and talk about our lived experiences like never before. And for the first time, I felt heard as a South Asian Tamil Woman.”

Spoken word has given students who are struggling with their own challenges—mental health, social identity, oppression etc. a unique opportunity to share their struggles with others, sometimes for the very first time. “From stories of triumph and victory to loss, tragedy, or identity,” says Katie Krever, “my students finally had a place to share and reflect upon words that needed to be heard.”

For many students, finding like-minded and accepting peers gave them a new community of friends—friendship and acceptance being critical pieces of healthy youth development. “My closest friends were made from slam and one of my best memories was making it to finals the two years I competed with my team,” says Nora Alganabi, who also graduated from YRDSB in 2017. Students from different schools who met and got to know one another at the festival or the different levels of competition, formed new friendships and often performed together at other board and non-board events.

Our students have expressed that spoken word has really helped them identify a direction and shaped their future choices. As Nora says, “I think it’s important that every individual practice an art form—something that can widen the scope of your imagination, and challenge social norms.”

Daniel Bielak, another YRDSB graduate, says, “Poetry and creativity continue to influence me today, as I now desire to work in an innovation lab, consulting on human-centered problem-solving for large companies and organizations.”

The value of spoken word has not been lost on parents, either. Sylvia Loiszli, the parent of a student at Westmount CI shares how spoken word had been a positive experience for both her and her daughter. “I have to thank my daughter, Esther, as her passion for writing spoken-word poetry made me remember what a great influence poetry can have on one’s thinking and feelings. She was introduced first to spoken word poetry in elementary school by her teacher who made her love this unique way of expressing her feelings. As a parent, I’m looking forward to future slam poetry competitions and listening to the powerful messages the students have to share.”

Our roads converge

It took some time for our roads to converge and for spoken word to assume the important role in now plays at YRDSB. But those roads did converge, and new ones are now emerging. Next year we will introduce Leadership Training opportunities for Grade 10 and 11 students, preparing them with the skills to train and mentor younger students interested in spoken word.

What continues to stand out for many of us is the incredible community that has been created for everyone involved. Between the Slam Poetry League and the Be Heard Festival, students and educators in York Region now have multiple opportunities to engage in the world of spoken word. At the end of any festival or level of competition, students who come together as strangers leave with a strong bond, new friendships and mutual respect. And it all happens in a few short hours. It’s really hard to top that!

If you’ve been inspired by what you’ve read here and you want to learn more, you can contact Yvonne Kelly at or Dwayne Morgan at for
more information.

About Yvonne Kelly
Yvonne Kelly, District 16, York Region, is the Community and Partnership Developer with the Inclusive Schools and Community Services Department at the York Region District School Board.

1 Comment on The roads WE do take

  1. Liz Jefferson // June 8, 2018 at 4:09 pm // Reply

    Excellent article — it’s wonderful to hear examples of people using writing as an empowering tool to be heard and hear other voices too. Would like to try similar activities with ESL students.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.