Poetry Out Loud: Beginning

This year I’m bringing Poetry Out Loud to Rebecca School! If you’re not familiar with the program:

Poetry Out Loud is a national arts education program that encourages the study of great poetry by offering free educational materials and a dynamic recitation competition to high schools across the country. This program helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about literary history and contemporary life.
— https://www.poetryoutloud.org/about-poetry-out-loud/

This program has been around for awhile and is something I did when I was in high school under the guidance of a Creative Writing teacher.

While the recording sounds impossibly angsty to me now, the competition exposed me to a much wider range of poetry and made me treat reading and presentations more professionally than I had before. Previously I had only done some open mics and performed with friends’ bands, but this was on a whole other level and opened my eyes to what I could do with poetry.

While this is a national competition and organized through the Poetry Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, there are different organizations who help coordinate at the state level. For example, here in New York it’s run out of the Teachers and Writers Collaborative while, as the video notes, in North Carolina where I went to high school it was facilitated by the North Carolina Arts Council.

I reached out over the summer to Teachers & Writers to explain the dynamic of the school and student population. My main concern was that as a therapeutic day school there aren’t formal grades so I wanted to make sure high school aged students could still participate even if they didn’t have a specific 9th, 10th, Junior, Senior, etc classification. The staff were quick to reply and assured me that the high school age was the qualification and that the poets I work with would be eligible so I got underway planning for the year!

Though, to be totally honest, there wasn’t a ton of planning I could do. I expect I’ll have to do some adapting, both to the curriculum and competition, but I’m taking the challenges as they come!

Since this is a kind of pilot year I’m working with two poets, the minimum for a participating school, and will be joined by one of their social workers who is familiar with my workshops and teaching. The poets I chose are ones who I’ve taught before and who I know also participate in a lot of arts programming both during and outside of school. They’re familiar with presenting in front of people and having to learn parts, lines, songs, etc.

We’re still in the very beginning stages, but one thing I did was borrow from person centered transition planning, where-in students talk about their own plans, needs, and post-21 goals, by having the poets describe how best they might be able to learn and memorize the poems.

I conducted it as an informal interview, asking how they managed to learn best in other arts programs they were a part of, what kind of practicing they did, how they like to learn in class, and other details to piece together the best ways I can support their memorization and recitation practice as well as develop tools with them to advocate for how they’d like to practice at home or when they have classroom time.

Poetry Out Loud materials laid out on top of one another. All in red, black, yellow, and blue colors. The materials include an anthology of poems, CD entitled “Learning Recitation", a letter, and an event poster.

Poetry Out Loud materials laid out on top of one another. All in red, black, yellow, and blue colors. The materials include an anthology of poems, CD entitled “Learning Recitation", a letter, and an event poster.

The next big challenge will be the actual poem selection. While we’ve surfed around the Poetry Out Loud website a bit, with the book and teaching materials actually here it’ll be time to focus! I’m tempted to intervene and am trying my best to fight that desire. There are a lot, a lot of pieces to choose from and part of me feels that narrowing the field could help the poets make a more informed choice.

However, I want them to have the same thrill of discovery as I did! When you read a poem that unexpectedly hits you and connects to you… there’s no feeling like it. I hadn’t heard of Richard F. Hugo, let alone the poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” before I participated in this contest, but when I read it in the anthology, it immediately reminded me of my hometown of Pittsfield, MA and Hugo’s details of the town and landscape have stayed with me to this day.

My plan is to let each of them take time to leaf through the book and see what happens! Even if, at first, poems are chosen without much consideration we’ll print and read them together, discuss them, research the writer a bit, and return to the book for another round of choosing if need be. I believe that with time and support they’ll each be able to make selections that resonate with them. And to me, that’s what this program is all about.

While I might have the urge to thin out the selection and keep things on a tighter schedule, in doing so I might cut a poem that’s going to truly sing to one of the two poets. The challenge for me now will be to adapt the overall program schedule and timeline in our school, not the the poetry itself! Though hopefully getting on early start on picking will help move things along!