On power found in poetry

Eight hundred students sit silently in an auditorium as she approaches a spotlight that is focused on the empty microphone at center stage. “The Windhover,” she says, “by Gerard Manley Hopkins.” For the next minute or two, she bounces through the alliteration, striking the right notes in the right places, playing the lines with appropriate tone, adding a crescendo where there must be one and putting a fine point on the ending. Then, eight hundred students applaud while four teachers sit in the front row and circle numbers on scoresheets. Their opinion, she knows, is what matters most of all.

Such is Poetry Out Loud. How’s that for a nice dramatic intro? Hey, I’m still pumped from yesterday because a good two months’ worth of work came to fruition as we held our fifth annual Poetry Out Loud championship. It’s a competition that I look forward to every year because it is, at its core, based on a basic idea–that you can learn to love and appreciate the written word through memorization and recitation. I’ll give a little background here just in case the word “memorize” made the hairs on your student-centered, guide-on-the-side, innovative-educator neck stand on end. Poetry Out Loud is a national competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Students who participate choose poems from the program’s online database (or a copy of the Poetry Out Loud anthology) and are tasked with memorizing and then reciting them. The performances are then judged not only on accuracy but physical presence, voice and articulation, the difficulty of the poem being recited, dramatic appropriateness, understanding of the chosen poem, and the overall performance.

Ultimately, there are winners chosen from each state and they compete for a grand prize of $20,000 in Washington, D.C. in April. But way before that, in schools like mine, competition begins in classrooms with students sitting at computer lab stations trying to find the poem that suits them best. Now I’d be lying if I said that this is met with 100% buy-in from all of the teachers in my department as well as every student, but that’s to be expected when anything of this nature is concerned. Poetry doesn’t exactly set every student’s world on fire and the idea of speaking in front of a group of people might send chills right up his or her spine. But the program is an option for teachers and while those of us who participate do make it an assignment, we try to make it as easy as possible–I, for instance, allow the students in my general-level classes read their poems instead of having to memorize them (although my advanced students memorize). Still, if it’s something that not everyone wants to do, why do it?

Well, there are a couple of reasons, the obvious being that I find that this is a great way to practice speaking and expression as well as build vocabulary and literacy. Plus, it’s a great introductory exercise for public speaking because while there are some long poems that can take more than three minutes, most take about a minute or so to recite. Plus, there are hundreds of poems to choose from so it’s very likely that my students might each find something that speaks to him or her (although I will readily admit that many choose poems because they’re short). Of course, our time spent with these poems is when I also get the chance to discuss the nuance of language–mood, tone, metaphor, etc.–and how important it is to know what you’re reading. I compare it to when I played the piano–during my senior year of college, I had to learn Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata for a recital. My teacher taught me that knowing the notes cold wasn’t enough; I had to know how the piece felt. She had me go and find a recording and listen to it. I did, and also looked up footage of musicians playing the piano and watched how they played (and granted, this is after I had been playing piano for well over a decade). Then I turned my attention to Beethoven and began shaping my performance.

My grade was an A-. When my students prep for Poetry Out Loud, we look at the poems in the same way. What’s their subject? Tone? Theme? How is it written? How does the poet use language? I also take the time to point out that poets are economical (well, most of them. I had to slog through Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” in college … that’s not economical at all). Then we see performances from other students and break down how each “sells” his or her poem to the audience. Finally, we all practice and perform. I serve as primary judge, but each member of the class has a peer review sheet that is factored into the participants’ score as well. The highest scoring student in the class competes with other students in his or her grade and then the top two from each grade wind up at the assembly that opened this post.

This, by the way, is where I am constantly amazed. I am the emcee for the assembly, and while the finalists read their poems, I sit off to the side and get to just watch and listen. This year, I was visibly excited at how well all of them performed. I saw the results of hard work and passion for what was there, and I also saw a student body that was supportive of their peers in a way that I don’t think anyone would expect from a day of poetry. Now, I have the honor of helping to coach our two school winners in the regional competition and beyond.

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