A celebration of the spoken word


Age range: Good for 14-20 year olds

Estimated Time: Give yourself some time! These videos take about 45 minutes to complete.

Key Technology: Teachers can stream and project this video on a screen linked to a suitable sound system, or have individual students watch on computers with headphones.


Follow thirteen spoken word poets as they come together as part of the Kennedy Center’s An American Playlist and Verse. These video segments present their onstage performances, as well as interviews and clips that offer insights, background, and visions for the future.

With ferocity, compassion, and humor, these performers address pressing issues of our time with intensity unique to the spoken word style. Some explore deeply personal subjects including body image, identity, grief, and love. Others lament and glare at the pain of ingrained injustice and prejudice, raising their generation’s alarm at Islamophobia, climate change, sexism, racism, and poverty. The poets are at turns musical and lyrical, and always evocative and provocative. The show finishes with a driving live rendition of The Roots’ “The Next Movement.”

The resources available here offer a framework to help teachers and students engage with individual performers and performances, as well as the event as a whole. Critical thinking questions guide exploration of themes and encourage viewers to dig deeper into the performances as well as the topical content. They also suggest ways viewers can use these performers as models and inspirations to put their own feelings, thoughts, and opinions into rhythm and rhyme.

SlamKC can be a springboard for turning students’ deep thoughts and emotions into words and performance.

Think About

Viewing Strategy

Before you start, think of what you already know about spoken word as a form of expression. Keep this in mind as you watch and listen.

Find out what the dreams of the featured performers are and how they hope to achieve them.

List the different styles and techniques employed by the performers. Keep another list of the topics and themes in their performances.

How do the different performers use sensory detail—descriptions of taste, scent, touch, sound, and sight—in their pieces? How do they try to get a laugh or shock the audience?

What are their words about?

  • Note the different topics the young performers explore. What are common themes they touch on?

What do you see and hear?

  • In The Dream video, which performers’ dreams are personal? Which dreams involve their communities or the wider world?
  • While watching each of the performers, think about their purpose. Who are they trying to reach with their topics and performances? What are they trying to tell their audience? In your analysis, how effective are they in delivering their message to that audience?
  • Watch and listen for moments during the performances that surprise you or grab your attention. Can you identify or describe why those moments especially pulled you in?
  • Performers of every sort often take on a "persona"—a kind of character that becomes part of their performance. They may move differently or use stylized speech in order to communicate with more than just words. Analyze the personas the different spoken word poets assume in their acts. What are they trying to communicate with their body language and vocal style?

What do you have to say?

  • One performer says, “The dream is to absolutely be yourself, and not only get away with it, but inspire other people to do that as well.” What would it mean for you to be absolutely yourself? How might you inspire others to follow that lead?
  • Which themes in the spoken word pieces relate to you most personally? If you took part in a poetry slam, what topics or current issues would you be most interested in exploring in your performance?
  • How is spoken word different from listening to a story or song, or watching a movie? What makes it unique from other forms of performance art?


Think about the different performers and performances. If you were scheduling the show, what order would you put them in? Why?

Learn More

Dig Deeper!

Learn more about Brave New Voices, the group of which several of the poets are members. Find out more about the issues that are important to the young poets involved and how you could make a difference in the world.

For The Educator

More resources for your students:

  • Read this article in which one of the student performers is interviewed.
  • An American Playlist is a testament to the importance of arts education. Have students write a letter to the editor or an elected official discussing the importance of the arts in schools and how the arts have personally influenced and benefited them and their friends.
  • Have your students learn more about The Roots at: www.theroots.com


This video series explores the performances of many young poets at the Kennedy Center’s An American Playlist, part of the Center’s Arts in Crisis program. Students performed original spoken word pieces in front of an audience while working with Questlove and Black Thought of The Roots, as well as other performers and artists.

Viewers should focus on:

  • The topics and themes addressed by the poets
  • The performers’ styles of delivery and how their styles influenced the performances
  • The intended audience of each poem

Instructional Strategies

These videos lend themselves to large-group or individual listening and to both individual and group research.

Before presenting the video clips, share the following quote from Garth Ross, Director of Performing Arts for Everyone:

"We talk about the economy, and we talk about manufacturing and trade, but we never talk about our cities and our culture," said Ross. "Culture is a compass showing us the way forward. We hope evenings like this can show the strength of our culture and show us the way forward."

Have students respond in an essay about what they believe to be the “challenges of the day” and how they think that the arts are a means through which Americans can address them.

Ask students, alone or in teams, to create playlists of actual songs that address some of the issues raised by the spoken word poets in their performances (e.g.: the environment, racism, feminism, etc.)

Encourage your students!

  1. “The dream is to…”: Beginning with that phrase, ask students to compose a spoken word piece of three stanzas or more.
  2. In one video clip, Steve Sapp, actor, playwright, and co-founder of UNIVERSES, a New York City poetic musical theater ensemble, shares this about the show’s spoken word poets and their performances: “I think for an event like this, you really want the kids to think about variety. Because right now they’re all in angst ... and they’re really going to a dark place. But you really want them to think about what is the event about. What they are trying to say, what do they want to get across, how do they work as an ensemble. So if a person has a dark poem, how do I come after that, and give a different tone, a different beat, a different color?” Ask students to explain Sapp’s comments. Ask them about the importance of variety in the arts and performance.
  3. All forms of art rely on the interplay of contrasts—light vs. shadow, mellow vs. loud, soft vs. hard, sweet vs. bitter, slow vs. fast, calm vs. frightening, etc. For example, a song can get pretty boring very quickly without changes of dynamics, rhythm, or keys. Demonstrate this concept using images, music, film clips, and other art forms that emphasize such contrasts. In discussion, ask students to share their own examples of effective use of contrasts.
  4. In poetry and other forms of writing, contrast is often developed in the tension between the soothing and tense, the comedic and dramatic. Ask students to think of a topic or theme for a two-to-three stanza spoken word piece. Write two pieces on the same topic, one presenting it with righteous anger or bitterness, the other with compassion or humor. Ask students to share and compare the two approaches. Discuss the impressions each leaves.



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers


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