Madison Middle Schoolers Explore Very Adult Themes in Class (Warning: Explicit Material)

MacIver News Service | February 28, 2017

By Bill Osmulski

[Madison, Wisc…] In the school library at O’Keeffe Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, an eighth-grader is presenting her homework assignment to the class.

“When people started calling us ‘lesbians’ that kind of sank her. Just a little more weight on top of her shoulders. It scared me that some nights I wouldn’t be there to hold her,” the girl recited.

A boy later presents his poem, “And in bed we abbreviate our intentions in weighty osculations, and my tears over you will be libations creating tiny pools of salty devastation atop your soft spot.”

Another girl asks rhetorically, “Why is it when I have sex I’m a slut, but when he does it, he’s a god?”

“He was addictive like heroin or cocaine. The type where each time he kissed me, I injected them into my bloodstream,” another poem reads.

MacIver News Service began investigating this classroom activity after receiving a tip from a Madison resident concerned that the material was inappropriate for children in 8th grade. Students in 8th grade are typically around 13 years old.

MNS first downloaded and examined classroom videos Ms. Swetz had posted on YouTube. Then on Tuesday, February 21st MNS contacted Ms. Swetz, her principal Tony Dugas, and MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham. Cheatham and Swetz both acknowledged receipt of the email, but never responded to MNS’ questions. Ms. Swetz then turned her videos to private on YouTube.

MacIver was still able to learn a great deal about the spoken word section from previously downloaded videos, MMSD’s YouTube channel, a video from the UW School of Education, and a Journal Sentinel Article.

Ms. Swetz’s spoken word section traces back to her days as a student teacher. Later, as a teacher at O’Keeffe Middle School, she taught spoken word and held three days of open mic in class. In 2012, she received a $5,000 grant from the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools and expanded Open Mic to after school hours and to off-site locations. She has even been able to take students on field trips to Milwaukee for the Teen Poetry Slam State Finals.

Not all the videos of student poems on her channel are explicit, but it is a recurring theme. Some videos reference drug use, homosexuality, sexual relationships, and rape. MMSD would not comment if the district has any policies about explicit material and presentations. MNS also wanted to know if parents had objections, could they opt their children out of the class?

It’s possible that not all O’Keeffe Middle School parents would be surprised by this material. Some of the videos are of Open Mic Nights in the school library and there are clearly adults present.

This explicit material certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to other media outlets. In 2015, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Erin Richards was a judge at the State Slam Finals and interviewed Ms. Swetz.

“Most of the poems were negative or sad; they were about really dark issues or pain. That’s why the girl’s poem about the vibrator was so refreshing – it was humorous. Is it uncool to write with humor?” Richards asked, seemingly unfazed.

Ms. Swetz often takes the mic at these events to share her own poetic works with her students. She’s recited “Love Lines,” about having to go out of state to get married to her same-sex partner. She’s recited “1600” about police killing African Americans, hate crimes, and the president being a bigot.

In one of her poems, she explains how she determines what to teach in class.

“Some days I look out over my students and I close my lesson plan and I shut my door and I open my eyes to the lessons they really need to learn, no matter what some dead old white guy legislators in Washington deem worthy of my curriculum,” Swetz said.