On a Saturday afternoon, in a small events room at the St. Johns Library, the only sound was the percussion of pens against the table through single sheets of paper—a gentle, tiny thunder, like rain on a tin roof.

The writers were 11 teens, working silently and intently during a one-hour slam poetry workshop led by local hip-hop artist and educator Jacque Dixon.

Dixon’s experience in a classroom and with teenagers was clear in her management of the room. At the workshop’s outset, she sat at the table with the five teens. When six more participants shuffled in a few minutes late, filling the seats around the table, Dixon stood and roamed the floor as she gave instructions.

Dixon started the workshop off with a word-association warm up. “I’ll say a word, and anyone feel free to say the first thing that comes into their head,” Dixon said. “Okay: ‘Portland.’”

After a few beats of silence, two teens started to speak at the same moment. They looked at each other and both fell silent.

“Y’all are too polite!” Dixon said. “Keep going!”

After a couple of out-loud rounds, Dixon passed around pens and sheets of lined paper, moving the word-association exercise to paper. “Ink,” Dixon said to start the next round, and everyone picked up their pens.

When the teens had done a few lists, with Dixon encouraging them to increase their number of associated words each time, saying, “Don’t think, just write,” she introduced a new activity. She passed out sheets of paper with three columns and had students brainstorm in three categories: things of value, myths, and things you want to change in the world. When participants shared items from their brainstorms, things they wanted to change varied from LGBTQ representation in media, to the color of their bedroom walls, to racism.

The great thing about slam poetry, Dixon said, is that it could be sociopolitical or personal. She encouraged each individual to write about something they deeply cared about—something that mattered to them.

The workshop was followed by an open mic, during which several workshop participants read their writing aloud. Readers shared poems about refugees, abuse, and mental illness.

Toward the middle of the open mic, a petite blonde teen made her way to the front of the room when her name was called from the sign-up sheet. Holding her sheet of lined paper, she smiled at the audience. “Why I love Justin Bieber,” she began.

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WITS Slam Poetry Class at St. John’s Library