The Spiritual Power of SPOKEN WORD in the Classroom

slide0003_image0101“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.”

Prince Hamlet to the actors




Ancient priests and prophetesses crafted ritual text and architecture to project the human voice powerfully into sublime space. Spoken Word became the world’s most sacred sound effect.



So public schools have echoed spiritual practices for purposes of secular literacy instruction.

The generation that went to school with my mother-in-law in New York City, circa 1925, participated in the Golden Age of Elocution and Oral Recitation .


snapshot-2009-05-09-20-59-11Grandma could recite a poem she learned in grade school at the drop of a hat. Not only did she recall the words fluently, but she exactly expressed all the gestures and emotions embodied from her teacher’s example eighty years ago.

As if performing again with her class at PS 16, the Old Lady gets suddenly serious. She assumes an attitude of reverence. Her eyes sparkle and she declaims:

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)

Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace

And saw, within the moonlight in his room, making it rich, and like a lily in bloom

An Angel writing in a book of gold.


In the 1960’s, my generation saw the last Elocution advocates still extant in public school classrooms. At college parties, given a few beers, our buddy Stan could recite long tracts from Patrick Henry’s Liberty or Death speech, The Gettysburg Address, The Declaration of Independence, O Captain! My Captain! and of course, Hiawatha.

That’s because Stan had Mrs. Rosenberg in fourth grade.

Such master teachers used the words of great poets and authors to pepper their students’ own developing voices with spirit.

Directing her young chorus to vocalize such emotions as wonder, reverence, gratitude, nobility, empathy, pride, patriotism, awe, pity, the American school teacher empowered young people to give voice to what dwells in their souls.

How did we let such a spiritual approach to Language Arts instruction expire from the curriculum? First, the public lost interest in the inner development of our children. Then, dulled by the minutiae of analytical reading methods, our teachers no longer see the relevance of finding, feeling, expressing and modeling noble poetic emotion in their own voices.

Today’s teachers aren’t taught to recite poetry any more. No one advocates for robust emotional self-expression as a standard for English Language Arts instruction. Assessments favor those who will learn cold definitions and step-by-step explanations. “This is THIS and that is THAT.”

So when that corny Mrs. Rosenberg finally retired, the sound of your teacher’s voice expressing the deep sentiments, high ideals, and grand emotions of Literature became silent.

bonesThe spirit gone, only the bones of English language learning remained— words, words, words to be memorized by “rote.”

Students learn by heart when their teachers craft  instruction aligning the incidental subject matter to material very deep in the psyche.

To become a master of the teaching craft, you must risk playing with children’s emotions, their imaginations, their rhythms.  You learn to use repetitions, visualizations, archetypes and even species memory.



Coincidentally, just when the body of Spoken Word got stiff in the classroom, its poetic spirit hit the streets alive and kickin’ in the Bronx.


now what you hear is not a test–i’m rappin to the beat
and me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet
see i am wonder mike and i like to say hello
to the black, to the white, the red, and the brown, the purple and yellow
but first i gotta bang bang the boogie to the boogie
say up jump the boogie to the bang bang boogie
let’s rock, you dont stop
rock the riddle that will make your body rock.

Sugar Hill Gang
Rapper’s Delight

In the mid 1970’s, budget cuts were taking away arts and sports programs from New York City kids.  Students had less gym, little art, less music. These cuts suppressed artistic and physical self-expression in young people throughout the City.


However, in the South Bronx at that time, a raw, youthful artistic energy started breaking out into new urban art forms. Graffiti across trains, over public spaces became the canvas for a generation of visual artists with no art classes. Break Dancing became its own Music and Gym. Rap still predominates as its Spoken Word.





Poetry is the highest artistic form of hop-hop. The poet speaks from his or her heart. This love, when expressed through spoken word, should always be welcomed and cherished.
Russell Simmons

Thirty years after the riddle was rocked in the South Bronx, Lorna Ward came to the New York City schools as a Literacy consultant from Australia. She was impressed by how much fun it was teaching Bronx kids poetry. Unlike her students in Melbourne, our kids were open and receptive to all of it. She saw that they were writing their own rhymes constantly.

Students in the South Bronx today will enthusiastically perform anything that Mrs. Rosenberg would have relished.

Outside of school, our students are growing up in an opulent language culture which is liberally inclusive of all poetic style. Our impressionable language learners are intimately familiar with beats of words over long strings of clever rhymes. They are taking pride in verbal self-expression, can recite complex rhythmic chants.

Rap, Slam Poetry and Spoken Word are alive in our streets, malls, televisions and cafes.

Corny old Mrs. Rosenberg would be in her glory.








Offered to you in the spirit of Grandma Joanna and Mrs. Rosenberg, here are some poems I have been teaching children for the past thirty years.

Children take to these poems because each one has a clear, coherently vocalized emotional attitude.

As you read each of these selections, don’t be concerned by what the poem “means.” First, identify the coherent emotional attitude being expressed behind the words. Then, find that attitude within yourself— your stubborn pride, your sense of awe, your wholehearted patriotism, your gentle, loving kindness, your robust good will, your personal melancholy and longing.

Embody each emotional attitude clearly in your voice and posture.

Express yourself demonstratively so that your students can imitate you.

Find it in yourself, feel it, express it, and then teach it.

Dare to be corny about your emotions.


INVICTUS by William Ernest Henley



Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable  soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll—
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


THE TYGER by William Blake


Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart,
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?


THE NEW COLOSSUS by Emma Lazarus


Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


DREAM KEEPER by Langston Hughes

dream-catcher-wedding-whiteBring me all your dreams, you Dreamers.
Bring me all your heart melodies,
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud cloth
Away, from the too rough fingers of the World.




I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;

Those of mechanics— each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;

The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat— the deck-hand singing on the steamboat deck;

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench— the hatter singing as he stands;

The wood-cutter’s song— the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother— or of the young wife at work— or of the girl sewing or washing;

Each singing what belongs to him or her, and to none else;

The day what belongs to the day— at night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly.

Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

SONNET 29 by William Shakespeare


When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I, all alone, beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate—
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possesed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope:
With what I most enjoy contented least.

Yet, in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply, I think on thee. Then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at Heaven’s gate.
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.



8 Responses to “The Spiritual Power of SPOKEN WORD in the Classroom”

  1. Susan says:

    I love the online materials. Would prefer to have you in the classroom, but this is material a close second.

  2. Peter Maniscalco says:

    I like this a great deal because I can FEEL its energy. It’s not just an intellectual discussion of feeling. By golly, I sense you’ve got it!

    To know things by heart is one key. The heart as the seat of emotion and love sees differently from the intellect.

    We need to integrate into education the wisdom of the heart. We have allowed the smart, rationally-directed people to control everything and we have learned that most smart people are not wise people – they deny the life of the heart. The most tragic recent representative of this type is Robert McNamara. This smart, smart man with all his charts and analysis led us on the darkest journey of the human soul – the assault on the human heart, feeling, and love. We cannot support this activity and remain human.

    With love as our light and with tenacity of will, let us learn again what it means to be human and offer this insight to our students.

  3. Joan says:

    Howard Katzoff’s thoughtful evaluation of some truths about education in 2009 is a sad reminder that the values and knowledge that helped shape us into generous, kind, caring, creative, resourceful and insightful Americans used to be taught in our public schools. Creating American citizens to embody those difficult-(if not impossible)-to-test descriptors were as important as teaching students to do “reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.” Incorporating song, movement, drama, dance and poetry teaches children that they don’t need the newest gadget, computer game or cell phone to be happy: their own happiness can be self-created through the activities that Howard advocates within his blog.

    This will be my 28th? 29th? year teaching (mostly) middle school students. I love going to work every day, and am proud to be a teacher. From the time I began teaching until now, there’s a dramatic decline in the number of students who take joy in reading or challenging themselves to be the best they can be. Instead, many students rely on shoddy or glitzy means to find fulfillment, and it’s mostly from external sources. As students focus on the extrinsic, it seems that their internal wells of self-confidence, self-reliance and self-determination are at an all-time low. Too many are not curious: they just want to “get the job done.” They gauge their worth on classroom, state and standardized test scores. These measures don’t accurately reflect the person behind the number, just like the “teacher tests” can’t predict which teachers will be the most effective.

    Our society expects students to graduate from our schools as literate, successful and contributing citizens – and rightly so. There needs to be a middle ground between testing and the arts. I am confident that we teachers can deliver. Certainly taxpayers want to be assured that they’re getting their money’s worth in public schools. Test scores are one way to show progress, but so are community service projects, where students learn, grow and contribute. Incorporating movement, drama, song, poetry and dance into lessons serves to enliven curriculum while teaching basics. There’s so much that is taught through the better-than-ever selection of young adult literature that’s drawing students BACK to reading for fun. I agree with Fred Spinowitz: things are improving. And as Ron says above, we ARE changing the system – but one classroom at a time.

  4. Ross Burkhardt says:

    Great poems all — I remember (to this day) learning to recite “Abou ben Adhem” in 6th grade. Other poems that kids can revel in – “Disobedience” by A.A. Milne, “Excelsior” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll.

    My mother was able to recite poetry, and from here I learned the value and thrill of it. We need to teach young people recitation, and through it public speaking, literature appreciation, elocution, and text comprehension. And there is no better way to teach recitation than for the teacher to recite to and with the kids. We need to model such behavior with panache.

    Thanks for this reminder and urgent, timely plea.

  5. Jim Carroll says:

    Great page, Howard – thanks for the ideas and the affirmation.

    Oral expression in the classroom has always been one of my favorite activities, from working with Jacob’s Pillow to put “Jabberwocky” into motion, to asking students to present their favorite song lyrics, poetry helps to break down the fear of public presentations. And as a way to have fun with language, nothing beats the “poet game.”

    It’s amazing how many students who have given up on school find release in the beauty of words. Sharing poetry as a means of inculcating a sense of empowerment raises teachers and students to new magnificence. I was recently impressed by the work that Lisken Van Pelt Dus did with her students as part of the Poetry Out Loud project – the kids really embodied the spirit of the pieces they recited. When it comes to poetry in the classroom, it’s all good.

  6. Greg McCaslin says:

    I don’t remember much about my English teacher, Sister Jane Miriam, but I do remember some of the wonderful lines she made us commit to memory. Among them is Macbeth’s terrible soliloquy, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow Creeps in this patty pace….”

  7. Vanessa Brown says:

    These poems, when spoken, have such an awakening effect! Thank you very much for sharing.

  8. LaRita says:

    Howard, I found this discussion very educational as it relates to learning by heart rather than rote. It was a great segue into understanding the continuation of the spoken word, through its survival of cut backs and dismissed of programs. I also thought you provided a very interesting view on how rap artists, graffitti, and the breakdancing culture emerged as the “unconquerable” expression of young spirit taking back their power. Very informative. I enjoyed your use of image archetypes to impact messages of the spoken word/poems. It was really good to connect the visual.