Thirty-two excited yet anxious eighth-graders waited in the school cafeteria, where rows of lunch tables were packed with classmates, teachers and parents. Soon they would grab a mike and perform some soul-searching, original poetry.
The winner at Slam 'n' Jam would take home a stuffed dog.
But stuffed animals and award ribbons didn't excite the eighth-graders at Folly Quarter Middle School. Their energy came from poetry workshops conducted by local slam poet Gayle Danley in every eighth-grade English class over two weeks.
"Who will win the slam poetry hound dog?" Danley asked the giggling crowd Friday. "The person who not only reads their slam poem but allows the audience inside their words."
During the workshops, students were asked to write a poem about a memorable day in their lives. Their work spanned eighth-grade life from broken elbows, hockey victories, new siblings and tonsillitis to weightier issues such as divorce, cancer and death.
Five English teachers served as judges, displaying scores of up to 10 points after each poem. Students cheered the 10s and booed anything lower than a nine.
"The point isn't the points," Danley reminded the audience. "The point is the poetry."
Danley has a gift that many adults can only dream of around eighth-graders -- the gift to make them listen.
"If you don't fall in love with what you have written, nobody will," she told one class during a workshop.
Danley urged the students to look for sugar, spice, sizzle -- anything that could make their words come alive as they read their poems aloud. It wasn't good enough when 13-year-old Oyinade Ademiluyi told her classmates that her eyes opened "wide" when she realized her mother had gotten her a dog for Christmas. She needed to punch it up.
"Wide as . . . ?" Danley prompted her.
"Wide as the open sea!" Oyinade responded.
Danley moved to the next lesson. Now she wanted Oyinade to give her mother's voice personality and to look up as she read her poem aloud.
"This is slam," she told the class. "You don't have to be stiff. You don't have to recite. You can become."
The students get rowdy when Danley is teaching -- though to her that is a good thing. They call out suggestions on word choice, sentence structure and performance techniques. Maybe a certain phrase jumps out. Maybe a section falls flat. Maybe the poem needs another simile.
"A lot of teachers teach poetry as if that's the end as opposed to a means to an end," said Bill McCauley, a resource teacher for Folly Quarter's gifted and talented program who organized the workshops and Friday's Slam 'n' Jam session. "Poetry was never meant to be read in silence."
According to Poetry Slam International, a nonprofit group that oversees national competitions, the genre was born at a club in Chicago in the mid-1980s. It has since gained widespread attention with its dual emphasis on lyrical verses and animated performance. The 1998 film "Slam" was set in Washington. The popular HBO series "Def Poetry," hosted by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, is in its fifth season.
Danley has taught slam poetry in schools across the country for more than a decade. She performed at Folly Quarter when it opened in 2003. The school's workshop didn't come together until last year, when Kim Bowman, a parent who heads the school's PTA cultural arts committee, asked Danley to spend a week teaching eighth-graders about slam. Danley returned this year for the two-week workshops.
Folly Quarter students also follow a more traditional poetry curriculum, studying works by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare. They learn about rhyme schemes, metaphors, alliteration and iambic pentameter.
McCauley said he clearly remembers being bored with poetry in the eighth grade and hopes slam will help students appreciate poetry much sooner than he did.
"They get a different view of the power of language," he said about slam poetry.
Danley's class is anything but boring. Her strong voice commands the students' attention as she encourages them to come up with creative similes and metaphors. Instead of addressing the students by name, she simply calls them "gorgeous," "beautiful" and "handsome."
"It's kind of like rehab job," Danley said. "Most people think that poetry is very inaccessible and very dull. Slam's beautiful because it comes in, and it turns those ideas upside down. Kids get real excited about their role in poetry."
During Slam 'n' Jam, Danley shared a key lesson: "Slam poets . . . had an idea, parents, that poetry didn't have to put people to sleep."
Nobody was sleeping in the Folly Quarter cafeteria, even as the Slam 'n' Jam ran an hour longer than scheduled. The first- and second-place poets, Christa Peay and Danielle Zack, reduced the audience to tears. In the middle of her poem about the death of her older brother, Christa dropped to her knees, half-poetry, half-prayer, "I will always miss you."
"They make a lot of, I think, inner progress," Danley said later. "Maybe it's not always measurable. Maybe they don't become better writers, but they become better feelers."