“I’m coming back every year!” an elated fifth-grader exclaimed to his parents.
Will Tallackson, who wants to be known by his rapper name Willie D, was initially nervous to present a rap in front of a room full of friends, family and community members on the performance night of SlamCamp 2019 at the Michigan City Public Library.
But he knew he could do it with the support of his fourth-grade teacher sitting in the audience, cheering him on. After he rapped his original “The Beatdown” about standing up to bullies, the crowd clapped and cheered as he smiled wide.
First place was something he wasn’t expecting from the event, funded in part by a grant from Indiana Humanities. But once he was declared the winner, Willie D asked if he could address the audience.
He spoke excitedly into the microphone: “Wow. It’s surreal. . . . The person I want to thank who’s in the audience tonight is my fourth-grade teacher. She always pushes me when I’m having ups and downs. I just want to say thank you—I wouldn’t be a star without your help.”
Tears welled up in the eyes of many audience members as he spoke.
Willie D, of Trail Creek, Ind., had been working on “The Beatdown” for a couple of months, and SlamCamp prepared him for performing his work in front of an audience.
The weeklong camp focuses on engaging middle schoolers in poetry and a combination of literary activities, ending with a performance night for the kids to present their favorite pieces of work they have created at camp.
Bethany Lee, the camp co-director and associate professor of English at Purdue University Northwest, creates the curriculum for the camp every year. The programming is a blend of group and individual writing activities, art projects and fun games that keep the kids thinking critically while they stay busy.
At the beginning of the week, the children are put into groups and asked to decide on a team name, like the “Slam Champz.” This develops a sense of camaraderie among team members and newfound friends as the week progresses.
At the end of the last day of camp, the kids are rewarded with a game of blindfolded dodgeball. A partner gives the blindfolded player directions on where to throw the ball, deepening their friendly communication skills.
“Our founding principle is to stop summer skills loss through creative expression,” Lee said. This year the children expanded their minds by visiting the Lubeznik Center for the Arts, reading from Charles Darwin’s journals with a biology professor, and spending time in the makers’ space in the library printing on the 3D printer.
Another goal of the camp is to introduce the kids to humanities concepts in a fun way and at a level they can understand. In one exercise the group discussed whether time travel is possible and then wrote a letter to their future selves.
Whether they’re a kid like Willie D who comes to camp with something already in the works or someone who has no clue what poetry is, by the end of the week they have something original to present at performance night.
And just like Willie D, they all leave the stage as SlamCamp superstars.
Watch our video of the performance night to see the poetry in action.