Peter Kahn On Teaching, Poetry, And The Power Of The Spoken Word

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When most of us think back to our K-12 education, we can’t recall every single class we had or every teacher we encountered. The ones we remember are the educators who left a lasting impression on our lives. For thousands of students, that teacher is Peter Kahn.

A former Chicago social worker, Kahn has been an English teacher since 1994 and a spoken word educator since 2003. He founded Oak Park and River Forest High School’s Spoken Word Club shortly thereafter, and it has since grown into the largest school-based club of its kind in the world, with an alumni base that includes the likes of National Youth Poet Laureates, professional comedians, and even NBA champions.

He’s been featured on PBS NewsHour, NPR Morning Edition, and CBS Chicago, and his 2020 poetry collection, “Little Kings,” has poems featured in The Guardian and “The Forward Book of Poetry.”

I had the pleasure of talking with Kahn about his career in education, spoken word poetry, memorable moments, and his passion for public speaking.

The Oak Park Model: Peter Kahn’s approach to teaching poetry

In his early days as an English teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Chicago, Kahn hated teaching poetry at first. In his own words:

“I used to hate poetry. I hated it as a student. I hated it as a teacher. I was inept at teaching it,” he said. “In the mid-’90s, I brought in a former student, Jonathan Vaughn, to help me out. He mentioned the idea of a poetry slam.”

Kahn with some of his poetry students

The poetry slam involved allowing students to perform spoken word poetry before a panel of judges, with the highest score winning. When the student who had the lowest grade in the class at the time won the competition, a lightbulb went off in Kahn’s head. He decided to redesign the entire poetry unit to be based on developing the student voice through spoken word poetry.

Kahn and his fellow English teachers accomplished this by focusing the curriculum on contemporary poets — particularly featuring writers of color and musical artists, and then shifting the focus toward getting the kids to write and share their own poetry. By the end of the week-long unit, the students would get up in front of the class and share one of the poems they wrote during the week.

The power of the spoken word

It’s in those moments, when students are in front of the class sharing their works of poetry, that Kahn sees students develop their sense of voice “quickly and profoundly.” He explained that oftentimes there is resistance from students when the poetry unit comes around because of how often it’s not taught the right way. At the end of this five-day unit, the Oak Park Model, the results speak for themselves.

“When students get up there, it develops empathy and self-esteem in the room,” Kahn said. “They realize that what they have to say is important and meaningful.”

Kahn and Oak Park Model alumnus Iman Shumpert with poetry students in London

Those students also get the chance to belong to something through the Oak Park and River Forest High School Spoken Word Club, which Kahn founded in 1999 — and which is still going strong today.

Having taught thousands of students throughout his career, he has no doubts about how valuable spoken word poetry can be to students who are struggling. One high-profile example is NBA star, Zion Williamson. Kahn is in contact with Williamson’s former creative writing teacher, who told him that Williamson now writes poetry when he’s going through challenging times.

The long list of Oak Park Model alums that Kahn has taught firsthand includes the likes of NBA champion, Iman Shumpert; former Scholastic Arts National Youth Poet Laureate, Natalie Richardson; National Youth Poet Laureate, Kara Jackson; and comedian, Langston Kerman. Kahn’s book, “Respect the Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School,” which he co-edited, features a vast collection of his students’ work.

Transformative experiences and chance encounters

In the summer of 2003, Kahn was working with schools in the borough of Hackney in East London — the lowest-performing district in England at the time — and decided to take a sabbatical to stay an extra year to create a teen poetry slam. He hired poetry coaches to help him work with students from the borough, honing their writing skills and teaching them to create spoken word poetry.

Kahn with Oak Park Model alumnus Langston Kerman

At the end of the year, he and some colleagues hosted the London Teenage Poetry Slam at the Bloomsbury Theatre at the University of London.

“By the end of it, I had tears just streaming down my face — because I knew I was leaving London to come back to Chicago — and because of my pride in these young people who, in many instances, were from three boroughs that were pretty much forgotten by society and avoided by society.

They got up there and did remarkable stuff and had such powerful words and performances. I think I cried on stage like three different times. It was the most beautiful thing. All the young people — you could just see that it was a life-changing experience for them.”

More than a decade later, at a pub in Hackney, Kahn had a chance encounter with a woman who was talking about how “years ago, my daughter worked with someone from Chicago — this poetry slam that changed her life.” He got to speak to the woman’s daughter and hear how the poetry slam he co-founded was a “transformative experience” for her.

A ripple effect

Part of the beauty of spoken word poetry, Kahn explained, is creating something that never existed before. Through the Oak Park Model, he has gotten to share this phenomenon with thousands of students.

“There’s this ripple effect that I see when I look at past participants and where they are now,” Kahn said. “Seeing what the alumni have accomplished brings me a great deal of pride and joy.”

Kahn at the Poetry Foundation

He continues to power that ripple effect in the world of keynote speaking, having been a guest lecturer at Oxford University, Northwestern University, UNC Charlotte, and the University of Wisconsin as well as a keynote speaker at the National Council of Teachers of English. He’s also presented at the Poetry Foundation.

When it comes down to it, Kahn loves guiding students, other educators, and audiences of all kinds through the process of self-discovery, finding their voice, and motivation. That’s what education is all about.

“I like helping people see their mission in life and how to achieve that mission,” he said. For more information on booking Peter Kahn, visit his profile on AAE’s site. Respect the Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School is available now.

Evan Owens: Evan is a communications specialist for AAE. He enjoys writing about the latest trends of the entertainment industry and creating engaging, useful content for event planners. In his free time, he likes playing basketball, staying fit, and spending time with his wife, son, and their two dogs.
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