How to Build a School Poetry Night

Students need an audience for their voices to be truly actualized
5 teachers like this strategy

About This Strategy

Performing in front of peers is a popular and powerful way to engage members of the school and community. Performance opportunities beckons to many students who might not feel their talents or thoughts are worthy of contribution to the school environment. This strategy lays out the process for creating a well-attended and inspirational showcase of student voices.

Implementation Steps

  1. Initiate a conversation with administrators and then with students about the importance of student voices in our world today. Explain that you hope to start a school poetry night and are looking for students who either write poetry or are interested in being part of making the event happen. 

  2. Feature student voices in your class each Friday, as time permits. Consider using the "Open Mic Friday" strategy in the Betterlesson lab.

  3. Create a poster announcing the auditions and the time and place for the show.

    • Try to secure a space like the auditorium or cafeteria prior to making the poster.   

  4. Post a sign-up sheet outside of your classroom door and next to one of your posters. 

    • Include a pencil on a string taped to the wall (if possible). 

      • As students walk by, it is likely they will check back to see who else has already signed up, and the dangling pencil makes it more likely inspiration might be acted upon. 

      • Leave the sign-up sheet up for a week or so prior to the audition.  Be sure to take it down each day and type up the names for your own record. This reduces the chance that names might be removed from the list and that the list could be damaged in some way.  Post the new list with the typed names each time you put it back out and include more spaces for additional students to join. 

  5. Select three student judges.  In the future, these will be students who have performed in the show and have experience.  For this first round of judges, select students who you have seen show dedication to other writers as well as their own writing 

    • Develop a rubric and scoring guide with this team of students.  Provide some samples and ask for between 5 and 8 components on which the poems will be judged. 

  6. Discuss the process of judging with your team and answer any questions. Instruct the team of judges to write on the forms you provide which contain the rubric they built together.

    • One important conversation to have prior to the judging process is about “school appropriate” language. Given that the goal for the show is to invite the community, it is important that the students understand that there are other venues where they could also share their pieces without any modifications, and that you are simply asking them to consider the nature of doing a show at school. Garnering the support of families and faculty works better when students are able to speak on powerful issues and topics within a few considerations.

    • It helps if these judges also capture the titles and student names for each audition, as later the work becomes making a program for the audience.  

  7. Prepare the space in which you plan to have the show for an audition. 

    • A microphone and access to a stereo with which to play music is key.  Some acts might require multiple microphones or other special items. By holding the audition in the same space as the show, it is easier to see which students have the volume and courage they will need for the big night. 

  8. Hold the audition and ask students to come “performance-ready” or “as if the show were tonight.” This communicates that practicing is something you should not wait to do and triggers the desire for students to schedule their own practice sessions to get ready. Encourage such collaboration and practice. Offer a session after school for the students who are chosen to come back and practice. 

  9. Lead the audition process, and help the audience understand the importance of respecting each other. This is best done right before you begin the audition. Norming on respectful and supportive audience behavior will be a practice that might take some additional time and attention. It is essential to advocate for each performer, so that the audience knows it is the goal to hear and respect each participant. 

    • Follow the order of sign-up for the audition so that students know ahead of time when they will be performing.  Try not to take anyone who has not signed up prior to the event, as the people who might not have signed up are the same who might show up only to poke fun at those who are taking it more seriously. Allow only the students who are auditioning to attend the audition, thereby creating a special memory for them which will encourage them to come back again. 

  10. Thank students for attending the audition and let them know that there will be a list up by the place they signed up in a day or so.  

  11. Meet with your three judges the next day of school to score and discuss the turnout and talent they most enjoyed.  

    • Tabulate the total points awarded to each student from each judge, and compile an average score which includes all four scores (teacher and 3 students.) 

    • List students by top to low score and determine the top 20 scores.  

    • Consider there may be other acts such as singing or dance or collaborations of various art forms which might offer some variety to the show. 

  12. Post the top twenty names outside your classroom in the same place students signed up. Be ready to encourage those who were not selected to try again for the next show. 

    • Offering a winter and spring show works best, as students often find out about the show in the winter and think about preparing a piece with which to audition for the spring. 

  13. Ask the team of judges to prepare the “run,” which is the order of performers for the show.  Consider the topics that might work well together or be redundant if performed in sequence. Use acts of music or dance to break up the poetry; that way each student has their own moment. 

  14. Advertise the show on the morning announcements or another school-wide way to communicate upcoming events. Encourage community members and parents to attend by posting the event on social media.  

  15. Hold a short practice for the performers to try out the microphone and stand on stage.  Do not over practice as the “rawness” of the moment is often more special to the audience over anything that seems robotic or non-emotive. 

  16. Select two student hosts for the evening.  Discuss the ways of encouraging the crowd to have a great time while respecting each other’s children. Be ready to help these student leaders throughout, but try not to take away their moment as well. 

  17. Have a wonderful show. Stay nearby your students backstage as they will need your guidance and support. Also, this ensures that you can speak to the hosts for the evening and recommend certain comments about respect or any other audience related moments.  It is not a good idea to break curtain and come out as the “enforcer,” but instead to coach the hosts about how to ask for the continued attention and love we want to feel from the audience.  One role the supervising teacher can take on is to advise  audience members to sign up for OPEN MIC at intermission and then play the part of the host for the community performers who might turn out.  (Be sure that this is only an option for alumni or audience members who do not currently attend the school. That way those who signed up and went through the process do not feel overshadowed. This will also communicate to current students that they will have to learn about the process to get into the show and how to attend auditions next time). 

EL Modification

Oral fluency and listening are essential partners in language growth and development. Students will feel more included in the learning environment when it is a safe and experimental experience. 


  • Students can collaborate with each other, choose to perform in a native language and invoke elements of their own culture as deemed appropriate and impactful. 

Special Education Modification

Students will benefit from the inclusion in a creative environment.  Expression through poetry lends itself to small and condensed language geared toward discovery of the self and the relationship with words. 


  • Students may work in parallel with other students.  Intentional pairing and mentorship can create powerful bonds and the chance to learn from each other, empathize and grow new relationships. 

Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Considerations

Student voices are there whether we hear them or not. Providing a platform with which to help the community participate in validating the hearts and minds of the next generation of scholars is a must.  


  • Students should be asked to bring the truth they know into the classroom, with the hope that such discussion and attention to ideas deemed important will assist in positive growth and self discovery. 

Suggested Reading: Youth Culture Power: A #HipHopEd Guide to Building Teacher-Student Relationships and Increasing Student Engagement (Hip-Hop Education) .

Questions to Consider

  • Have you attended a poetry night in your community?  

  • What local events could you attend to glean the vibe and structure?

  • Will you perform and lead the way to encourage others to embrace vulnerability?

Teacher Tips

  • Play videos of poets in class that you think will make students wish to mimic them. 

  • Encourage the sharing of these videos between students and validate their choices by showing such selections for class-wide discussion. (Be sure to collect student suggestions a day ahead so that you can view it privately.) I often asked for these selections as classwork and had students recommend powerful writing to each other. 

  • Include a DJ or live musician as accompaniment during the poetry night show.  This will help the students feel like loosening up and keep the audience hype. 

  • Participate in the show and write a piece about something that comes from your heart. 

    • Be sure to be intentional in the way you avoid making this moment about you. Remember that the goal of the event is to make the students the stars.