The Daily Gamecock

New Columbia high school program combines poetry, debate to help students with self-expression

<p>Jennifer Bartell Boykin, Poet Laureate of Columbia, speaks at an open mic and banned books readout sponsored by Allen University at All Good Books in Columbia on Feb. 8, 2023. Boykin is one of two people who oversees the Poetry Battle Royale program.</p>
Jennifer Bartell Boykin, Poet Laureate of Columbia, speaks at an open mic and banned books readout sponsored by Allen University at All Good Books in Columbia on Feb. 8, 2023. Boykin is one of two people who oversees the Poetry Battle Royale program.

Local poets are working to teach Columbia high schoolers how to debate opinions and express emotions through poetry with a new program at Richland Library Sandhills.

Poetry Battle Royale, let by Poet Laureate of Columbia Jennifer Bartell Boykin and poet Candace Wiley, meets twice a month to teach students how to process thoughts, create arguments and communicate those arguments through poetic language.

Bartell Boykin and Wiley created the program to help students articulate their thoughts in ways people would want to listen.

Wiley is the executive director of The Watering Hole — a group dedicated to creating spaces for poets of color in the South. One of her goals in creating the program was to develop powerful writers of the future, she said.

She said she wants to focus on creating writers of the future that will become part of a more diverse curriculum and change it for the better instead of asking the government to remove existing curricula driven by white, dead, male writers.

“We don't need to remove Shakespeare. We're going to build something over here," Wiley said. "It's about balance." 

The pair said they also aim to create emotionally mature and expressive students of the present. Teaching teens poetry gives students a way to cope with and understand whatever life throws at them, Bartell Boykin said.

“A lot of people think that just because our young people are young they have these great lives and everything's easy, and that's just not the truth for the majority of our kids,” Bartell Boykin said. “They have these really heavy issues and lives that they live, and poetry helps them explore that interior life that a lot of people kind of disregard or pretend doesn't exist.”


But the program was always supposed to go beyond poetry and would help students articulture their thoughts in a sounds manner, they said. That's where debate came in.

The pair reached out to Marc Davis, the owner and head coach of Ethos Debate — a company that provides debate camps, classes and coaching, to develop lesson plans that could teach students the art of debate.

Davis has been teaching debate for over a decade and offers camps, curriculum and coaching to debate students through Ethos Debate.

He has never seen poetry and debate combined, he said. But the challenge of helping create a program where teens could learn about both made him want to get involved.

"I find it very exciting," Davis said. "Any poem or literature or writing, in some senses, is advancing an argument." 

Debate has the power to shape young people into strong thinkers and saw the program as a good way to facilitate this growth, he said.

“(Being) willing and able to analyze your own ideas your own thoughts, compare them, debate them in your own mind is extremely valuable,” Davis said.

As students become more analytical and learn about elements of sound arguments, they will also become more understanding of others’ perspectives and arguments, Davis said.

Outside of self-analysis, the program is also aimed at developing critical thinking skills to help students analyze the world around them, Wiley said.

The hope is that students will be able to distinguish fact from opinion when consuming television, advertisements and media as they learn to do so with their own arguments, she said.

Wiley said she wants to develop students who have the knowledge and skillset to make meaningful differences in their communities.

“You send out an army of articulate, critical, empathetic thinkers who will go out into the world and make it a better place,” Wiley said.

Attendance has so far been lower than expected, but the two have moved the location in hopes of growing the program. They want the program to be a space that welcomes all students, regardless of skillset, Wiley and Bartell Boykin said.

"As long as they are a high school student and they really love poetry and want to learn more and come with an open mind, we will welcome them with open arms," Bartell Boykin said.


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