Filling big shoes, Levin returns to Spoken Word

Spoken Word Director Adam Levin unloaded a cart of three microwave-sized boxes of Pepperidge Farm® Goldfish variety packs onto a long gray table in the center of the Spoken Word room in preparation for the Sept. 1 new members’ meeting. 

The room, nestled into the middle hallway of the third floor, remedies its lack of windows with student work–paintings, photos, posters and CDs–which plaster every space of every wall. 

Levin pointed out that some of the CDs lining the back wall were recordings of some of his “terrible high school poetry,” which the few other people in the room vehemently denied.

Levin took over Spoken Word following Peter Kahn’s retirement, which  left some big metaphorical shoes to fill. He was, and is, a beloved peer to teachers, and major mentor to many students–one of which was Levin. 

Stating he always had a passion for hip hop and rap, Levin was drawn to Spoken Word his freshman year at Oak Park and River Forest High School and by graduation participated in twelve showcases. “I think I was the first to achieve that. Pre-COVID, we always did three showcases a year, which we’re returning to this year for the first time since the pandemic began, so I’m looking forward to that again,” Levin said.

Kahn fostered a space that sparked ambition for students like Levin. 

Levin explained, “to be around that energy was infectious and addictive… I changed how I approached school. I remember I got ‘study table’ for a D I had in a science or a math class. I was like, ‘this is clearly an impetus for me to do more.’” 

After getting a full ride to University of Wisconsin-Madison, moving his studies to Panama, and graduating with a degree in Latin studies, he returned to OPRF to be a teacher’s assisstant under Kahn from 2015 to 2019, before returning to OPRF to run the Spoken Word pogram full time this year.

Levin refers to his position as a “pie in the sky–we never thought there would be anyone else running this program apart from Mr. Kahn.” 

Upon Kahn informing him he was on the track to retirement, Levin worked to make managing the program himself possible. He got certified to teach secondary level English, and taught at other Chicagoland schools before returning to OPRF this year. He added, “I knew I wanted a job like this from the time I was 17, and to have this exact job is something I’m really grateful for; I’m very fortunate.”

He said he felt fortunate to see his students experience the same “impetus” he did, and likened the satisfaction of teaching to “snaking a shower drain.” He laughed, then explained, “you know you have something that’s stuck in there, and you feel like you’re not making any progress until you’ve done the job. I think that, for me, being able to see that happen instantly in a student because of what I’m able to teach them is what keeps me passionate and engaged in this work.” 

The Tuesday after the open new members’ meeting, Spoken Word had a closed, committed members only meeting in one of the lecture halls. The hall was almost full, and everyone was buzzing with excitement. But, when the chattering got too loud over Levin’s addresses, a student leaning against the front wall interjected: “respect the mic!” and everybody fell silent again. During the prescribed eight minutes of silent writing time, some members were willing to give their thoughts on the program and its new director.

Senior Elliott Whitmore was sad to see Kahn leave the year prior, but said“Mr. Levin incorporates the idea of rap and hip hop into it. I mean they are, like, intertwined, but Mr. Levin makes Spoken Word more flexible and accepting.”

Freshman Sabrina Rahman is new to Spoken Word this year, but not to slam poetry itself: “I was in Spoken Word in middle school, and back then I found that it helped me express myself when I just didn’t feel comfortable in normal ways of speaking, I guess. Mr. Levin is very supportive of really whatever community you’re from. I’m really happy that he’s my teacher because he’s really, really welcoming, and I feel very lucky.”

Senior Louise Calkins admired how Levin dove into the hard work of showcases and competition preparation, especially Louder Than a Bomb, a nationwide Olympic-style slam poetry competition. “This is my third year doing Spoken Word,” she said. “Mr. Levin has learned under Mr. Kahn, so he’s carrying the legacy of Spoken Word at OPRF and what that means but he’s also so personable that he’s bringing his finesse to it! He’s doing a really good job at carrying the traditions of [Spoken Word], but also making it something that’s their own,” said Calkins.