To help the kids train, Nina Williams, 33, an English and creative writing teacher at Kenwood and the team's coach, recruited three alumni coaches: Slayton Goodman, Imani Gordon and Ashaki Howard.

65 days until Epic Sound's first bout

The Thursday before winter break, Epic Sound's small slam team, also including sophomores Sara Opsenica and Lyric Johnson and freshman Iain Irwin, gathered after school. The team members greeted each other with jokes and hugs. Some were friends before joining the team, but they had grown closer since slam team rehearsals started in early November.

They connected through poetry.

"I've always had a passion for writing and poetry," Harvey said. "I live poetry, I'm always reciting things I've heard and writing down words that interest me. I just love words."

The team members moved desks into a circle and began discussing possible topics for the required group poem, which is collaboratively written by the team and performed by four students. One student suggested something on mass murders and mental health, while another brought up colorism in the African-American community. One student threw out the idea of doing a piece on beauty supply stores and why women feel the need to buy products to make themselves more beautiful, and someone else said the group should write about people who jump to religion in times of trouble without having created a relationship with that faith.

The form forces students to make poetry, normally a solitary enterprise, a group activity.

"You have to dissolve your ego," Coval said, discussing the keys to writing a group piece. "You have to be willing to collaborate, listen to other people, listen to stuff you like, listen to stuff you don't like."

44 days to go

Over the break, the team decided to focus its group piece on abortion. The main character in the piece will be a pregnant teen, and the group wants to explore whether it is better not to be born than to be born into an unjust world. The topic came from Ferrell, whose father got him thinking about "the right to live."

"The pro-choice, pro-life debate has been in the media for forever ..." Harvey said. "We settled on that because we found some good metaphors and good analogies."

Every team member brought in at least one poem to contribute to the group piece. As the team circled up and read through each person's piece, Williams counseled them to think about what they want the greater meaning of this poem to be.

"What is the theme that you guys want your listeners to walk away with?" she asked. "What is the universal theme of this poem that touches the audience in some way?"

39 days to go

In addition to the group piece, four individual team members participate in the competition. During the past month of rehearsals, team members brought in drafts of individual pieces, recited them and received edits.

Each student's poem is completely different. Nwoye is writing from the point of view of a veteran about coping after returning from war. Ferrell's piece looks at the difference between animals and humans, focusing on violence. Opsenica's poem, "The Emotional Effects of Cancer," is autobiographical. She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma three days into her freshman year.

The piece centers on the side effects of chemotherapy. "When I (was diagnosed with) cancer, I didn't feel bad," she said. "Once they started hitting me with chemo it killed everything. It just destroyed my mind, my body, (I) just constantly felt horrible. ... I wanted to write that chemo helps you, but the whole time, it's poison really; you're poisoning yourself in the hope that you'll get better."

Sara, whose black mop of hair has grown in since she stopped intensive chemo about 10 months ago and who lost her mother when she was 8, said that poetry is like a form of therapy for her.

"(Poetry) is a way to keep my sanity," she said. "It's almost better than a therapist because you can write and your keyboard won't talk back to you. No one's going to judge me, whatever I write I don't have to show it to anybody. I can hit the delete button."

At the bout