Urban Futures Salford Manchester. Research in the City

Speak out, speak up, speak easy

Wordsmith is a community based organisation delivering performance poetry projects to schools in Greater Manchester.

Based on a belief that the Arts can be creatively transformative as well as educational and entertaining, Wordsmith takes its inspiration from slam poetry; we have adapted this competitive format for schools in order to facilitate growth, empowerment, equality of opportunity and freedom of self-expression.

This has resulted in regular inter-school poetry projects, incorporating schools across Manchester, culminating with a multi Arts showcase, a profile on our website and publication in a downloadable Ethology. The best team becomes Wordsmith Poets in Residence.

In 2013 Loreto High won and got the opportunity to engage with international artists and activists via a master class from Chicago’s first wave graduate Dominique Chesterland, as well as a Q&A with Grammy nominated Def Jam poet, Liza Garza, before sharing the stage with her at an event at The Instituto Cervantes in central Manchester. We also run in-school poetry projects and offer poets-in-residence.

Now in its fifth year, Wordsmith has established relationships with adventurous Manchester schools and Academies and inspired over 2000 students from Years 5 to 11 by igniting their passion for writing, performance and citizenship.

One of the beauties of Wordsmith events lies in the raw talent and rough-cut performances of showcased young orators: when experienced, you get that chill up the spine heralding these must-see performers of a near future.

Wordsmith 2013 cemented itself at the vanguard of a spoken word revolution, potently capable in assisting in the transformation of young lives. Testimonies have come in thick and fast, from teachers and pupils alike:

"The Wordsmith Awards were extremely beneficial to the pupils who took part. The project involved many hard to reach pupils and really spurred them into independent thinking and planning for their pieces... they were really enthusiastic" - teacher, Loreto High School

"There has been a noticeable impact on the attainment of the students involved: three are now above their target grades since completing the project; two have completed a reading age test and this has gone up by two years since completing the project - their vocabulary has greatly improved" - teacher, Whalley Range Girls School

"Wordsmith has opened fantastic opportunities and has been an amazing experience for me. It has introduced me to poetry like never before. Before Wordsmith came along, I had never written my own poetry, however now it has become a hobby! It has also, surprisingly, opened my eyes to see the beauty behind poetry itself and has made me come out of my shell and be a more confident person! I now have a huge interest in poetry and I will continue in the future…all thanks to Wordsmith" - pupil

I personally realised the value of spoken word when I experienced the re-connection of my empirical self – my data; age, name, colour, family, environment, formal education, what I have been told about the world, what has been inferred by events and others actions about the world and about me – and my inner self; the predominantly quiet reflector and witness of the events of my life, the deeper intuitional, emotional and mental respondent to these events. 

Spoken Word allowed me to rekindle, to re-realize that this aspect of my being, though not materially tangible, is real. It made me realize that it as much utility to my well-being as I deem it.  Spoken Word did this by allowing me to take formal language and mould it to conform to my essential being - and in this way explore it. I explain this because it is my conviction - and I have seen this conviction, to a greater or lesser degree, validated in the lives of others whilst engaging them with Spoken Word as the primary tool. 

I have used and seen the benefits of Spoken Word with people of all ages, from a wide variety of backgrounds. However my increasing opportunities for contact with young people both in and out of the educational mainstream eventually switched on a light of recognition that change can be most expediently achieved in the young. 

14 years ago, after having been involved in music through DJing and promoting events for the previous thirteen years, I was inspired to create a collective called ‘speakeasy’ as a portal for black underground musical and lyrical creativity in Manchester. Our format was a live band skilled in and hungry for the art of jamming, a DJ, national and international guest poets and a supportive nurturing open mic section. Over its 12 year lifespan, speakeasy carved its place in Manchester’s rich arts events history and sparked my nascent love of the Spoken Word - to flourish into me as I am now. 

6 years ago, Guy Perry, Head of English at Xaverian 6th form, came to me with the idea of creating an interschool slam. Slam poetry is a part of the deliciously dynamic vanguard of performance poetry in the USA. Championed by Rick Rubin’s Def Jam label and taking its lead from MC’s battling, the original format would have poets performing for three minutes if the crowd allowed them to stay on that long. This format has been refined over the years and is now popular globally with the USA hosting national slams yearly. 

At the time Guy came to me with this idea, I was working as a full time a mentor at Burnage High school. This is a school with a reputation and palpable environment of fear, aggression, anger and despair, mixed with some of the wonderful facets of school life.  This is not a whole sale condemnation of the Head or his staff, rather recognition of the battle they were engaged in.

I am happy to say that the Head, Mr Ian Fenn, and his team have transformed the school atmosphere and ethos, the young people’s levels of aspiration and attainment, and indeed the building itself as part of the building new schools program. I am not claiming that the project we started there – The Poetry Factor – played a significant role in this transformation, however I feel it fair to say that it has served as a valuable contributing factor. 

Ian Fenn has been a tireless advocate of the project, supporting it by ensuring that the whole school was on board to allow the young people ample time to take part, and by canvassing other head teachers wherever possible.  By year 3 we had decided to change the name of the project to Wordsmith and I was no longer working at Burnage Media Arts Academy, as it had been renamed. 

On the day of the showcase I was stunned when the Burnage team arrived.  Amongst the team was a young man whom I had spent a lot of time and energy mentoring; he was disadvantaged by tourette’s syndrome, very physically developed for his age, always getting into fights. The word within school corridors was that he was being used by a team of boys who were running some sort of racket in the school as an enforcer to frighten others. Like many of the things within school we never got to the absolute truth of this rumour. 

When this young man took to the stage my heart sang, jaw dropped and belly fire permanently stoked; stoked to evangelically deliver spoken word to as many young ones as possible as a means to counter, to mitigate, some of the effects of school life generally; the school lives of those who are, for a myriad of reasons, detached or even divorced from the educational process, to mitigate the effects of those who cannot get the time and attention they need at home or at school and to further enthuse those already well ensconced within the realms of academic life, serving as a counterbalance to logical rigour by letting loose creative right hemisphere activity. 

One of the regular experiences I encounter is teachers expressing their amazement, not only at their students’ courage and zest to perform but also their knowledge of global events and the insight and compassion they can express on these matters. The magic of this is in how spoken word can reconnect folks with their self-defined core, rather than some teaching method we have that is better than teachers. 

The problem for the vast majority of skilful passionate committed teachers is the system, and not just the tinkering of a continuous stream of politicians with ulterior motives. The very core of the system, at its heart, has an inherent – rarely surmountable tension between pupil and teacher. We come in as poets or funky street people and are immediately not seen as teachers, allowing us access to young minds in a whole different way. This of course applies to all arts and alternative provision; however, for me, the nature of spoken word further facilitates this process. 

So Spoken Word; performance poetry serves as an effective tool to allow folks to comfortably explore external events and circumstances and internal thoughts and feelings relating to those events and circumstances, as well as thoughts feelings and beliefs relating to one’s personal dynamics. It does this in a way that is non-threatening and conversely empowering, because you feel as if you are the source of the parameters defined to explore the given subject. 

This is further buttressed by a thick layer of pure funky fun, the fun of rhyming, of engaging with a modern day phenomenon that has captured a significant portion of a generation or twos imagination; rhyming, spitting lyrics, merking, rapping, self-expression. I have come to view self-expression as a vital human right on par with food, or shelter, that when engaged brings, in many cases, immediate change in states of mind and being.

This intelligent, intuitive improvement to well-being is, for me, a foundational asset to facilitating compassionate, creative, dynamic reflective citizens, on some levels rounded in thought and keen to engage in society at large. 

I do not wish to overstate the value of this type of activity; we cannot change people’s lives wholesale. However I am convinced that it can be a powerful part of a package to uplift, empower and change.

Nor am I just blowing Wordsmith Jazzy Trumpet here; this type of activity has found its valuable niche both nationally and internationally creating a network which already benefits from sharing practise and collaborating on events. I see part of Wordsmith’s development as positioning the organisation to be able to facilitate growth in connectivity in order to exploit the benefits I have outlined to a wider range of funders, educational establishments and students, create larger and more adventurous future projects. 

In 2012 as part of the cultural Olympiad, Arts Council UK awarded £500, 000 to be administered by Apples and Snakes to create a national slam which saw the UK split into nine regions. Each region recruited 5 schools who prepared over eight weeks for a regional slam. The winners then came to London for a 3 day festival of Spoken and Word and Arts which culminated in a national slam finale. 

One avenue I have been exploring as a means to broaden participation and areas in which spoken word can be of utility is creating a social media platform, where people can create short slam poems on specific topics relating to social cohesion, connecting communities on a local and or global scale. The working title for this platform is Spittah.

The core idea is that Spittah generates topics on a daily basis; people signed up can create slam poems or spits using no more than 360 characters.  Members can either spit for free or pay a nominal fee that would be pooled with a percentage given to the poem/spit judged the best by a panel. The remainder would be donated to the cause, issue or topic that was the subject of the challenge.  Deciding how the monies raised are used would also be a part of the network’s conversation. 

All spits/poems created would be stored and accessible by the composer with opportunities through a Spittah forum to develop pieces created in the heat of the moment. 
Spittah will quarterly publish Anthologies of the best of these works both in their original and developed form. 

Spittah aims to be  a social network that offers opportunity for the exploration of local and global issues that is based on solution seeking and freedom of self-expression. A social media platform that fills the gap of banality associated to a lesser or greater degree by current offerings, with a broad based compassionate arts based flexible ethos. 

I keen to engage with developers, innovators etc. with whom this outline resonates, so get in touch..


Find Out More

The aims of the Wordsmith project are as follows:

- to develop confidence and enthusiasm for writing, reading and poetry, thereby improving attainment of higher grades in GCSE subjects especially English

- to unlock the creative and linguistic potential in young people who may not have recognised academic gifts

- to engage, encourage and inspire young people from all backgrounds disadvantaged to gifted and talented

- to raise the profile of creative writing and performance in schools


Wordsmith: check out our website, follow us on Twitter

Chris Jam: check out my soundcloud, follow me on Twitter


Background Information

Chris has been working closely with a research team at the University of Salford Manchester and University of Birmingham in connection with their AHRC Connecting Communities in the Cultural Urban Economy project. He has participated as a diary-keeper on their project and is producing a poetic transect at the Connected Communities Festival in Cardiff in July 2014.

Printed here, the article also forms part of the Alternative series of articles for rethinking urban sustainability catalysed by the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform for Mistra Urban Futures.

Visit the main Platform site