Teaching Artist Spotlight: Roscoe Burnems

Guest post from University of Richmond student Kat Mitchell, who has spent this semester with Partners in the Arts (PIA) through an independent study and internship. She caught up with teaching artist Roscoe Burnems in March.

In early 2021, Roscoe Burnems was announced as Richmond’s first-ever poet laureate. Roscoe has been an integral part of Partners in the Arts for many years, contributing his expertise, talent, and passions for spoken word poetry and student-centered education. His involvement with Partners in the Arts has been an impactful and exciting collaboration!

Roscoe Burnems during the taping “Traumedy: A Poetry and Comedy Special” in 2019

Roscoe connected with Partners in the Arts in 2017, through a mutual friend of director Rob McAdams. Since then, he has led workshops, contributed to in-school projects, and learned side-by-side with both teacher cohorts of the Arts Integrated Learning Certificate (AILC). When working with teachers, Roscoe shows how to integrate poetry into lesson plans across the curriculum, including math. For example, the use of a Haiku poem (a three-line poem of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, then 5 syllables) can be used to explain and demonstrate understanding of various math concepts, including counting and order of operations. Additionally, spoken word poetry can be effective in English/Language Arts, for sounding out syllables and working on sentence structure. Roscoe has shown educators across Richmond how flexible poetry can be in the classroom.

Roscoe has also worked with teachers to integrate poetry into their teaching through history and literature. When I spoke with Roscoe, he emphasized how poetry helps to tell a story or narrative, which can be fictional, but also factual. Throughout history, poets have been the storytellers and sharers of information. Therefore, creating poems to explain what students are learning in history class is an excellent way to integrate arts into the classroom. Additionally, this connects students to the histories of people and cultures both in their communities and around the world. This allows students to develop their creativity and critical thinking skills when combining two different subjects, history and poetry.

PIA teaching artists Roscoe Burnems and Phil Hilliker, pictured during an Arts Integrated Learning Certificate workshop in February 2020.

I had the opportunity to watch recordings of Roscoe’s work with members of the AILC cohorts during the summer of 2020. When working with teachers and teaching how to include spoken word poetry into the classroom, he touches on several elements of spoken word. After taking in a video of Roscoe performing, educators discussed the body language, word choice, tone of voice, and rhythm in the performance. Each of these aspects emphasizes a different topic in the poem. For example, Roscoe states that the change in tone demonstrates how you can move from one era to another (if discussing history) or the body language can convey the emotion of a stanza. 

Bringing poems to life through spoken word is an impactful way of integrating arts into the curriculum. This process allows for student agency and student voice to come through in a new way. It asks students to draw from what they have learned in the classroom and add their own perspectives. Through intentional alignment, spoken word poetry deepens standards-based learning as the students are demonstrating their understanding of the material through a unique art form, poetry. 

To learn more about Roscoe and his work with PIA and in the community, please see the links below:

Kat Mitchell is a senior at the University of Richmond, studying leadership and education & society. She is passionate about equity in education and advancing knowledge of the world around us. Check back throughout the month of April to read more from Kat’s conversations with members of the Partners in the Arts community!

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