Poetry Out Loud

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.

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.