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Central Standard

Why This English Teacher Is Ditching Class For The KC Wordshop

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Courtesy Paul Richardson
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Paul Richardson

At the Gem Theater on Saturday night, the Louder Than A Bomb competition brought the top four spoken-word poetry teams from metro high schools up against one another for the last time this school year.

On Monday, after a win from the returning champs at Paseo High School, Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann spoke with Paul Richardson, a soon-to-be-former English teacher from Washington High School who is responsible for bringing Louder Than A Bomb to Kansas City. They talked about the culture of spoken-word competitions and explored why Richardson is leaving his position as a high school educator.

Below is a shortened and edited version of their conversation.

But first, here’s Saturday night’s winner: Alton Herron.

AltonHerron.mp3

Kaufmann: What was that finger-snapping we heard in the background?

Richardson: It’s kind of a tradition in slam poetry community — people snap their fingers in support of a nice line of poetry, or if a poet is nervous and forgets a line. You’ll hear snaps, and it’s the audience being supportive, saying, “Take your time, we’re with you.”

Kaufmann: That’s really sweet, especially since it’s a competition.

Richardson: The point not the points, the point is the poetry. That’s our motto. The judging is arbitrary, there is no science in ascribing points to adolescent poetry. Winning is important — it’s an ego thing, it’s human nature to want to win. But when they announce a winner, it’s like the air gets let out of the room: We care, but why do we have to muck this up with who won?

Kaufmann: Why do we? The idea of poetry being competitive is kind of foreign to me.

Richardson: The founders of Louder Than A Bomb in Chicago know that too. (If we didn’t set it up as a competition) we would have a three-hour poetry reading where kids come up one at a time and we clap and snap. The competition is a trick to get people that much more excited about it and bring in the public. The intensity is palpable.

Kaufmann: Tell us about these four teams.

Richardson: Paseo won for second year in a row. They really embody the spirit of it. I’ve seen them throughout the year — they show up for lots of stuff. Raytown High shows up with a bus full of audience members everywhere they go – it’s amazing to watch. They’ve all got the same sweatshirts, they have chants. Shawnee Mission South are newcomers, really powerful young ladies that just blew me away. Lawrence Free State: They’ve been traveling all the way from Lawrence, making that long trip to every event.

Kaufmann: What inspired you to start doing this?

Richardson: Selfishly, it’s really just entertaining. As I listen to adolescents, I recall myself as an adolescent. If I would have had some outlet like this, it would have changed my life. My parents got divorced when I was in 8th grade – the world crumbled in, and I didn’t know how to treat that. I was a terrible high school student. I remember very little: crafts and jewelry class, partying on the weekends. This is in the Louder Than A Bomb philosophy: We’re missing rites of passage in Western Culture, so when you go through an ordeal, if your home life or community isn’t there you’ll grab onto something. The consequences of that could be dangerous. (Louder Than A Bomb) is a community. You watch these kids pour their heart out and be welcomed by the crowd – that’s their initiation.

Kaufmann: Considering your high school experience, why did you become a high school teacher?

Richardson: I decided in 7th grade, watching my geography teacher: I would like to do that. I didn’t start college until I was 23 years old. I did my student teaching at Washington High School, and begged to be hired there at the end of that year.

Kaufmann: Why?

Richardson: I felt a kinship to those kids. I was 30 years old at the time, and I don’t think I was transformed from my adolescence yet.

Kaufmann: What prompted you to leave teaching and work full time for KC Wordshop?

Richardson: I believe the state of education is obsolete. We need to do a better job. There’s a standard of excellence that ought to be in place, but we’re nowhere near that in our culture. But while I speak about this, I also work underneath it, so I don’t honor my word.

Kaufmann: You’re part of the problem.

Richardson: Yes, exactly. Education shouldn’t be preparation for life, it should be life itself. At Washington, at the start of the day, kids come in when it’s dark and cold out. The first thing they do is walk through metal detectors, taking their belts off. It’s not a gesture of, “Welcome to your education.” I understand the argument behind that and don’t want to get into it. But from there, we have seven hours of disjointed instruction where you sit and listen to one teacher for 45 minutes, a really loud bell rings, you listen to another teacher talk about something completely different. Seven times a day. Life is never going to be like that again.

And a diploma doesn’t promise anything anymore – a bachelor’s degree doesn’t promise you anything anymore. If they’re going to be spending their time in an institution called education, and we value it and cherish it, why not let adolescents direct their own curriculum – take field trips, partner with a business for three weeks to decide if it’s what you want to do. An adolescent is responsible enough. English and social studies, math and science could be combined and taught together for an hour each morning. Then why not give them freedom to roam?

Kaufmann: So you see slam poetry as model for an alternative? Tell us about KC Wordshop.

Richardson: It’s at 20th and Baltimore. It’s still growing. KC Wordshop is taking an outlet like writing for stage performance or poetry, and applying that to any sort of way that a young person wants to write for a showcase. We want to write for film festivals, theater festivals, write to publish work, write to make a music festival. Kids are writing for a productive purpose.

I don’t want us to think of the Wordshop as a community center, but it lets kids from these segregated metropolitan areas intermingle, collaborate with writers in apprenticeships, all sharing stories. Otherwise we’re operating on stereotypes – we meet other kids on basketball courts and fields and bump elbows and shake hands, but we don’t really know them.

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A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.