Abigail teaches with spoken word poetry because she believes it’s important for students to be “on stage.” Unlike (competitive) “slam” poetry, Abigail’s students begin by creating a “found” poem. They create a “manifesto” similar to the popular “This I Believe” series, and present this non-fictional, autobiographical work to their peers.
Some of the poems the students in her 8th grade class write and then perform in class or at Open Mic events might require a parental advisory warning.
Swetz hasn't tried to hide the adult nature of what some of her 8th grade students produce. She posts the stuff on her YouTube channel.
After the MacIver News Service began investigating, contacting Swetz, her principal Tony Dugas, and MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham on February 21, she made the YouTube videos private. That was probably a good idea.
From Bill Osmulski, MacIver News Service:
In the school library at O'Keeffe Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, an eighth-grader is presenting her homework assignment to the class.Osmulski writes:
"When people started calling us 'lesbians' that kind of sank her. Just a little more weight on top of her shoulders. It scared me that some nights I wouldn't be there to hold her," the girl recited.
A boy later presents his poem, "And in bed we abbreviate our intentions in weighty osculations, and my tears over you will be libations creating tiny pools of salty devastation atop your soft spot."
Another girl asks rhetorically, "Why is it when I have sex I'm a slut, but when he does it, he's a god?"
"He was addictive like heroin or cocaine. The type where each time he kissed me, I injected them into my bloodstream," another poem reads.
MacIver News Service began investigating this classroom activity after receiving a tip from a Madison resident concerned that the material was inappropriate for children in 8th grade. Students in 8th grade are typically around 13 years old.
Ms. Swetz often takes the mic at these events to share her own poetic works with her students. She's recited "Love Lines," about having to go out of state to get married to her same-sex partner. She's recited "1600" about police killing African Americans, hate crimes, and the president being a bigot.
In one of her poems, she explains how she determines what to teach in class.
"Some days I look out over my students and I close my lesson plan and I shut my door and I open my eyes to the lessons they really need to learn, no matter what some dead old white guy legislators in Washington deem worthy of my curriculum," Swetz said.
Swetz decides "the lessons they really need to learn." She doesn't care what "some dead old white guy legislators in Washington deem worthy" to be taught in the classroom. Swetz knows best.
Some of the kids might be very uncomfortable with all this. I'm sure some really eat it up.
Is this really 8th grade English?
I'm not saying it's a bad thing for 8th graders to express themselves through spoken word poetry, but some sexually graphic stuff or drug references are questionable for the 8th grade classroom.
These children supposedly aren't even allowed into an R-rated movie without an adult, "under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian."
No problem. They're writing their own adult material.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article by Erin Richards, highlighting the young teen poets and an interview with Swetz.
As an education reporter, I'm often trying to interview students about their thoughts or feelings on an issue.
For various reasons, this can be a struggle.
But opening up was exactly what brought together about 20 teen poets from the Milwaukee metro area and Madison on Saturday, as they competed in the Wisconsin Teen Poetry Slam State Finals at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts' Vogel Hall.
From the stage came spoken word poetry about everything from grappling with sexuality to racial divides, white privilege, abuse and lost loves. Raw honesty was a general undercurrent. For first-time listeners, their struggles could be difficult to hear.
"I think a lot of adults pooh-pooh teenage feelings," said Abigail Swetz, an eighth-grade teacher at O'Keeffe Middle School in Madison, who brought more than 80 students to the event this year.
"(Adults) think they don't really feel true love, or that their depression is just a fad. I think these kids will stand up and show you that these things are very real to them."