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Spoken language brings power, influence

As soon as children are born they start to cry. In the first year of a life, they will coo and babble, stringing sounds together to form words that relate to their environment, according to Kidshealth.org, a nonprofit children’s health system. By 15 months, toddlers should be able to respond to one-step directions and begin using simple nouns to communicate.

The older the child is, the more complex his or her speech becomes. As children age, they understand how to use their words to express their wants, needs and emotions. During adolescents, HealthyFamilies BC, British Columbia’s health-promotion plan, said young people search for identity, seek independence and responsibility and develop new ways of communicating. Teeagers might exhibit “strong feelings and intense emotions” and an increased sensitivity to other’s feelings, HealthyFamilies BC stated, while at the same time they could become more self-conscious or have a decreased sense of self-esteem.

Physical, social and emotional changes can thrust teenagers into unexpected, yet sometimes exhilarating situations. Following a traumatic event at the start of her sophomore year, junior Logan Banker became involved in slam poetry as a healthy way to cope with and work through her emotions. Though she was initially reticent to join, she said the experience was better than she originally believed it would be. Banker said she thought poetry was “kind of stupid” before her friend junior Maddie Renner suggested she give it a shot.

“I think what really ended [up] getting me into [slam poetry] is because I saw that you can make it something if you want it to be,” Banker said, “and it’s not just something for pretentious human beings.”

Because slam poetry is verbal and visual, Banker said, body language and diction are crucial parts of conveying her message to the audience. The main distinction she sees between oral and written poetry is in the author’s ability to portray his or her tone. Banker said she uses her poems as a way to share her experiences and opinions with her audience in a constructive way.

“A lot of my poems, if they’re about things that have happened to me or that I have perceived, I usually have some message or some call to action left with them, and I feel like when I do that I am, in a sense, contributing to improvements of society, you know,” Banker said. “Even if [my words] only gets to people in my club or the people who show up to our competitions, which right now isn’t that many because the first one was last year, [I still feel like I am leaving a positive mark with my work].”

Banker said she does not use a specific process when writing poetry, but she does pay attention to the way people around her phrase their ideas and will draw inspiration from the world around her as well as her own life experiences.

“A lot of times I’ll just be sitting in class and I’ll get an idea, I’ll get like a line or two, like a certain thing that I want to use. So I’ll jot it down on a sticky note so I don’t forget, and then I’ll just write a whole thing, as much as I can, later,” Banker said. “And when I look back I’ll edit it, but I don’t usually have anyone else look at it. I’ll just perform it for the club, and it’s fun.”

While poetry may simply be a hobby for some people, Dr. Donna Strickland, associate professor of English and former Director of Composition at the University of Missouri—Columbia, included the literary style as part of her master’s degree in creative writing. She holds a PhD in rhetoric and composition, which she said is the “study of communication and the teaching of writing,” has written academic articles and authored an academic book. Now, however, Dr. Strickland, who teaches a course called Mindful Writing, uses expressive writing and personal journaling as a way to reflect on her thoughts and emotions.

“In this class we bring the qualities of intention and attention to our writing in order to avoid writing with discomfort and lack of focus,” Dr. Strickland said. “We develop intention and attention through formal mindfulness practices, such as breath-awareness meditation.”

Dr. Strickland recommends one writes and reflects on his or her words and ideas before verbalizing them. This process allows the speaker to better understand the possible impact of his or her words. Writing can be both a personal experience and a way to share one’s passions with others.

Slam poetry has historically been linked with activism, Banker said, and many poems she writes will have a call to action embedded in them. She said slam poetry is like stepping into a character. How authors speak, the specific metaphors they use and what gestures they make while performing convey their tone and purpose to the audience. Though Banker has listened to her fair share of “cute poems about friendship,” she said she sees more poems at the high school level centered around topics such as police brutality, how to deal with sexual assault victims and the discrimination people in the LGBTQ community face.

“I’ve heard a lot of poems about school shootings last year, and I feel like that’s the hardest part. Just being able to get up there and being like, ‘Yeah, this is my opinion.’ You know, just owning the way you feel, because I’m not very used to that,” Banker said. “I’m used to not talking about how I feel because there’s a lot of different opinions around me and not a whole lot of people who agree with me. And so poetry has also been my way of owning my own thoughts.”

Baker said slam poetry, like other styles of writing, has a variety of different approaches and methodologies. She said writing about her own life and emotions is easiest for her, so she tends to focus on personal experiences when crafting her poems.

“A lot of times I’ll try and think of creative ways or metaphors to put [the emotions] that I feel [into words] with a different spin, because sometimes it’s hard to say those things straight out,” Banker said. “And so poetry is a way you can change [your diction], but you’re still getting the same emotion, but you’re not saying the same words.”

As an educator herself, Dr. Strickland noticed the more standardized tests students must take, the more they become confined to a set of arbitrary rules. Rather than understanding the creativity and subjectiveness that accompanies many forms of writing, students appear more inclined to view literary composition as something formulaic rather than as a free-flowing affair. Dr. Strickland said rhetoric and reflection are the two key components of influential writing, so the “art of communicating well” requires trial, error and adaptation, not a set of finite rules.

“This way of thinking can be at odds with how good writing actually works, which is as an informed and intelligent response to a [situation],” Dr. Strickland said. “It isn’t that writing is a free-for-all, but it has to be flexible in order to be responsive and effective.”

Full-time author Antony John, writer of the Elemental series, Five Flavors of Dumb and Thou Shalt Not Road Trip, said words are his “bread and butter.” He loves thinking about how words can shape one’s understanding of a moment, event or story, and he said the responses to his books are generally positive.

“My proudest letters are those from readers who’ve said that a book, or more likely, a character, has spoken to them in some way,” John said. “The thought that this reader and I are connected through a fictional character is a powerful thing.”

Verbalizing ideas is not a necessity limited to poets and writers. Teenagers often encounter this challenge, too. Junior Jessica Payne said people raised in the Black community often feel the need to avoid speaking African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or ebonics. They are most comfortable using this vernacular around their Black friends and family rather than when they are in predominantly White institutions, which is where the practice of code switching comes into play. For people of color, she said “code switching” refers to alternating between one form to the same language to another. Payne said she, and many other Black people, code switch from AAVE to “standard” or “proper” English so as to make communication with people who are unfamiliar with ebonics easier.

“I feel like code switching is a necessity, and it’s also a lot of work because you have to balance the way you talk at home versus the way you talk in school or work or any other professional setting,” Payne said. “I feel like the reason we have to code switch is because you can never be Black enough for Black people, but you can never be White enough for White people, so you find yourself in between trying to balance that.”

When she is at school or in a professional setting, Payne will code switch to what she said White America defines as standard or proper English. When she was younger, Payne said her teachers would correct her in class if she used words like “ain’t” or “finna.” She also learned not to drop her Gs and Ls, something often done when using ebonics, when she speaks. She was taught to say “going to” instead of “gon,” “going” instead of “goin’” and “all right” instead of “aight” when she is around people who are not Black.

“If you’re at home or, like, with your own people I guess, around Black people, and you use ‘standard English’, they’re probably going to say something like, ‘Oh, why you talkin’ White?’ So it’s like you’re taught to code switch from early on. Although I really do hate when people say, like, ‘Why are you talking White?’ because they make it seem like proper English is only limited to White people, and its not,” Payne said. “And also, I guess, it depends on your definition of proper, ‘cause, like, who said African American Vernacular English isn’t right? So it’s kind of about this thing that, like, only White is right.”

By not using AAVE, Payne said the burden of effective communication falls upon non-White people when in predominantly White settings. She is conscious of not slipping up and using ebonics at school. To reduce how often people in the Black community have to “translate” from AAVE to “standard or proper English,” Payne said, they rely on code switching. While code switching is less than ideal, she said it is a survival skill most Black people have to learn in order to communicate with people who do not generally use ebonics. While at school Payne feels as if she is unable to be her true self, but around her Black family and friends she does not. Switching back and forth between her two personas leaves her feeling “two faced.”

Payne said AAVE stems from a time when African-Americans were not given equality or equity within the American education system, especially slaves. Because of this she believes Black people found their own ways to pronounce certain words and created their own cultural customs that were passed down from generation to generation. In Payne’s experience, as in Banker’s, words have power. How, why and in what context they are used determines how an audience receives them.

As a White person, Dr. Strickland said she is conscious of how the language she uses could be influenced by implicit or unconscious bias. She asks herself questions about the assumptions she makes, the inclusivity and exclusivity of her writing and how she can learn more about people from other backgrounds so as to reflect on how her social position affects her thoughts and phrasing. She said speaking and writing about injustices generates awareness of their impacts and promotes activism toward addressing them.

“Words have tremendous emotional weight, both in terms of the sound of words and the meaning conveyed. The Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison, in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, said that ‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’ What we say and how we say it affects those who hear us, as well as ourselves,” Dr. Strickland said. “Are we using language that moves things forward and uplifts or that stops things up and brings people down? I believe Toni Morrison is saying how we use language has both ethical and political consequences.”

Empowerment is a common theme in Banker’s poetry, and she tries to leave her audience with the message that the topic of her poem does not control a person’s life, even if sometimes in her real life she lets that happen to her. Banker acknowledges her poems can be sad, but she hopes sharing her experiences with an audience will help them better understand the topics she talks about.

“I still feel like I’m getting something out there that people can think about,” Banker said, “and I challenge people to see something that they probably wouldn’t normally see or think about in their normal life.”

Books, poems and other forms of literature both transform and reflect the world. Through his work, John hopes to encourage his readers to “see the world through someone else’s eyes.” John said the reason he writes is to imagine what life would be like for people who are different than he. Just as one’s personality evolves during high school and into his or her adult years, John said, so does his or her literary voice.

“Just as we spend our teen years exploring different aspects of our personalities so, too should we explore different voices,” John said. “It will only help to make us into more empathic human beings.”

What do you think is the power of words? Let us know in the comments below.

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