The Most Nerve-Wracking Three Minutes of Your Life

A student recites at the Minnesota Poetry Out Loud state finals in 2009.  Photo by Nic McPhee, used under cc license.

A student recites at the Minnesota Poetry Out Loud state finals in 2009. Photo by Nic McPhee, used under cc license.

After attendance has been taken, the class goes silent and I begin. “At the Vietnam Memorial by George Bilgere.”

The first few lines go smoothly. I don’t substitute written for printed like I was doing last night and I roll through the phrase I was stumbling over like a pro. Then, toward the end of the first stanza, I flub a word. It’s a minor flub and I correct myself quickly, but i look down and notice my hands are shaking.

I do my best to ignore that and nail my favorite line: “He owned the hallways, a cool blonde at his side.” (There’s so much admiration and machismo in that phrase, how could you not love that line?) After that, I’m more or less home free, and although i wind up making some word substitutions that would have eviscerated by the accuracy judge if I were eligible for competition, I finish semi-confidently.

It is not my best performance. In fact, as I take my seat in the back of the room, I’m still trembling a little bit. But the nerves go away as I watch and evaluate my 24 students on how well they are reciting their own poems.

I don’t recite a poem from memory or to show off or as a way of making some sort of self-righteous point about doing what your students do; I do it because Poetry Out Loud wasn’t around when I was in high school and I’ve watched so many students recite these last seven years that I wish I could be competing because it looks like fun. It can be gut-wrenching nervous fun, but fun nonetheless.

There is a part of me that approaches Poetry Out Loud each year with trepidation. So many students recite their poems so reluctantly, I wonder if I am nothing more than the oppressive villain of so many blog posts and tweets, forcing students to do what I want instead of letting them write the lesson plans and map the curriculum. And it’s public speaking, which is one of the most terror-inducing activities for anyone who is even the slightest bit introverted. That includes me, by the way–I get very nervous in front of large groups, especially if I don’t feel very prepared. And as I demonstrated to my class, even when I do feel prepared, I still feel a bit nervous.

Knowing this, and knowing the fears of my students, I try to work with them in overcoming their fears by focusing not on the act of speaking, but on finding confidence in their material. Sure, I take them through some basic notes on body language and voice but I also spend time on two things that have little or nothing to do with public speaking: getting to know your poem and finding your poetry joy.

Now, I swiped the phrase “finding your ________ joy” from Rob Kelly and The Irredemable Shagg who host the Fire and Water podcast, a comic book podcast that talks about Aquaman and Firestorm. T hey obviously discuss this in terms of comic books and super heroes, but as we were searching the Poetry Out Loud website for our poems, I found myself turning to the class and saying, “Okay, I know when choosing your poem you’re going to recite you’re going to do one of three things: choose the first one you see, choose one that’s alphabetically at the top fo the list, or pick one that’s short. My advice is to forget that and find one that you like or that’s about what you like. Find your joy.” Poetry can be very personal and like a favorite song, it can hit on just the right emotion at just the right moment. Furthermore, working on getting to know that poem helps students become more invested in what they are doing, which can be looking at the deeper meaning or even realizing that they don’t like their initial choice and want something else. We then move into focusing on how it’s performed and that how that helps memorize your lines. Knowing the nuances of delivery–the feelings, the gestures, the inflection, the whole performance–will get you closer to getting it all down.

I guess you could say that the memorization and recitation of poetry isn’t really necessary in high school anymore. After all, students will rarely, if ever, read poetry outside of a classroom, poetry is not really part of the 21st Century workplace, and the skill of memorization has been replaced by Google. Furthermore, the still of presentation can be taught–sorry, developed or nurtured–in a more authentic way for a more authentic audience. But literature is not about 21st Century Skills and authentic audiences and nowhere is that more evident than in poetry. Poetry illuminates facets of human nature in a way that is simultaneously succinct and complex, a characteristic that makes it incredibly powerful. Our emotions, our psychology, and how we relate and interact with the world around us are just as important as any money-making, edtech-featuring, standards-based engaging activity.


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