Dr. Haslam’s Campaign for Poetry Slam

Bailey Van Wagoner, Business Manager, Managing Editor, Web Editor

On May 2nd at the JATC South Campus, Copper Hills’ Dr. Steve Haslam put on a Gala for the Utah High School Poetry Slam Initiative. Educators, students, and poets came together to learn about and advocate Slam Poetry in the hopes of introducing it to every high school in Utah.

Dr. Steve Haslam teaches various language arts classes at Copper Hills. His students study words day in and day out, and some of them have learned not just to understand words but also to love them. They began to use his lessons to write about their emotions and found a passion for language. Haslam saw that his students needed a platform to express their words, so he encouraged them to join Poetry Slam club. The need for Poetry Slam, Haslam realized, reached so much further than his classroom.

“I know in Utah we have an epidemic, and that epidemic is suicide… I’m not saying that Poetry Slam is the ultimate answer, but Poetry Slam gives students the opportunity to tell people…what it is that they’re feeling,” Haslam said, “I’ve literally watched Poetry Slam save students’ lives, so if we have an opportunity to do that in English classrooms…I don’t know why every principal in the state isn’t jumping at the opportunity to get Poetry Slam into their schools.”

Halsam decided to create the Utah High School Poetry Slam Initiative (UHSPSI). Through this organization, he has worked tirelessly to promote Poetry Slam in high schools. He hopes that with enough support, the UHSPSI can get the attention of the Utah High School Activity Association (UHSAA) which sponsors athletic and fine arts activities in all Utah high schools.

As of now, multiple high schools participate in Poetry Slam, but there aren’t nearly enough to meet the UHSAA’s requirements. To remedy this lack of involvement, Haslam put on the UHSPSI Invitational Gala and Presentation to promote Poetry Slam to high schools across Utah.

Over the course of two hours, poets, students, administrators, and educators alike described the impact that Poetry Slam has in schools.

Haslam first turned the time over to Jose Soto and RJ Walker, local poets and educators. For those in the audience unfamiliar with Slam, they explained that it has its roots in the earliest verbal storytelling. Since then, it has developed into a spoken word poem that lasts a short three minutes and ten seconds and yet has the ability to change students’ lives.

“If you want to teach a student how to speak in public, give them a microphone. What is [Poetry Slam] if not giving students a bunch of microphones and letting them sort their feelings out…in healthy and productive environments,” Soto, a Copper Hills alum said.

Former Copper Hills Principal, Todd Quarnberg, while unable to attend, shared his impression of Poetry Slam (via Herriman High School teacher and UHSPSI board member Sally Wilde) as a principal to appeal to the UHSAA executives. “Imagine the risk a student must take in bearing their soul, personal feelings, emotions, and fears. When a student has spent countless hours…preparing for this moment, they are ready to peel away the outer layers of their soul and expose it to the world. It is a beautiful sight.”

Later in the evening, Sierra DeMulder, a two-time national poetry champion and the keynote speaker at the Gala, described how poetry is beneficial not only for students’ ability to use language but also for their emotional well-being. “Spoken word in the classroom doesn’t just change your test scores, it saves lives.”

DeMulder then invited the educators in the audience to “think about the first time you were told (or maybe never told) as a young person to speak up. Who welcomed your voice? What adults told you [that] you were worth listening to? You can do that. You can bring that to your schools.”

In the end, it was Kim Searle, Principal of Sunset Ridge Middle School, who summarized the goal of the Gala perfectly when she said, “It is my hope that as we leave here tonight, we can go back and advocate in our schools. But more importantly, that we can create allies with the Utah High School Activities Association. We can talk to them about the benefits of Slam Poetry in our schools. And we can also talk to them about our understanding of their fear and how we can approach that fear and yet have our kids come out with the best opportunities to be the best people they can be.”

From here, the UHSPSI will continue to advocate Poetry Slam across Utah schools in order to sanction it as a statewide club. This is only possible if 30 member schools have active participation in their own Poetry Slam clubs, so education and awareness are more important than anything for UHSPSI.

This work started and will continue at Copper Hills with their very own Poetry Slam team. Chelsea Guevara, Senior and President of Poetry Slam, is very excited for other high schools to adopt the club and the ways in which it can help students. Guevara said, “…for me, it’s about representation. I feel like doing Slam gives me that. I feel like it could give a lot of other people that same opportunity who haven’t had their story shared yet and who need to have that kind of outlet….I think that putting [Poetry Slam] in every high school is really an important thing because I think that a lot of people will connect with others that maybe they would have no connection with at all. That’s what happened for me.”