National Writing Project

Poetry Out Loud Makes Noise in NWP Classrooms

By: Art Peterson
Date: May 22, 2009

Summary: Poetry Out Loud, a program that encourages students to learn about poetry through memorization and performance, holds a competition that has inspired NWP teachers and their students.


Not long ago a committed teacher wishing to enrich her poetry unit might play a weathered Spoken Arts LP of T. S. Eliot reading—seemingly underwater—"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Recordings of authors' reading were limited, and often uninspiring to young students.

Things have changed—and the styles of reading and performing poetry have changed as well. In fact, reciting poetry has become cool.

Take Poetry Out Loud , a program that encourages students to learn about great poets through memorization and performance. Created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation and administered in partnership with state arts agencies, Poetry Out Loud is a national poetry recitation and performance competition for high school students.

Now in its fourth year, Poetry Out Loud uses a pyramid structure that begins at the classroom level. Winners advance to the schoolwide competition, then to the state competition, and ultimately to the finals in Washington, DC.

In 2008 over 200,000 students participated from all states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories.

There are prizes at all levels, and the winner of the national competition receives a $20,000 college scholarship. But the competition is only a framework for what Poetry Out Loud intends. As National Public Radio host Scott Simon said of the Washington, DC event, "It's about returning poetry to the campfire."

When students start reciting their poems, the positive vibe becomes contagious.

The idea of the "campfire" goes beyond campgrounds, though. Slam poetry and hip-hop music testify to a resurgence of poetry as a spoken art. Poetry Out Loud builds on this momentum as its video highlighting best performances attests .

NWP Teachers and the Art of Recitation

Teacher-consultants with the Maine Writing Project bear witness to the excitement the program generates for students.

"It doesn't all happen at once for every student," admits Seth Mitchell, who teaches at Lisbon High School in Lisbon, Maine. "As you might expect, the dramatic students led the way, while some others were not overwhelmed with the possibility."

But that began to change as students explored the Poetry Out Loud website. Here students had a chance to delve into and pick one of more than 600 poems —sonnets, elegies, ballads, free verse and every other form—covering a space of more than 300 years, from "On Monsieur's Departure," by Queen Elizabeth I, all the way to the work of Billy Collins and Sherman Alexie. Some of Mitchell's reluctant reciters began to feel comfortable browsing the 25-Lines and Fewer category.

A Poem for Every Student

The important thing says Cynthia Dean, a teacher at Maine's Erskine Academy whose students have twice won the statewide competition, is that students find a poem with which they can engage.

She tells the story of one student who chose the poem "Playing Dead" by Andrew Hudgins. The poem tells the story of a father who liked to play dead while the speaker and his siblings try to bring him back to life, tickling "his huge pink, stinky feet" and pushing "our fingers up his nose," and finally jabbing him "in the jewels."

Dean wasn't sure about that one. "It didn't seem very poetic," she said. But the boy persisted, performing masterfully.

Students' poem selection is often full of surprises. Both Dean and Phil Wormouth, who teaches high school in Ellsworth, Maine, say many of their New England students elect Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice," but others go for what Wormouth calls "the obscure." His local winner this year chose "Follow Thy Fair Sun" by Thomas Campion (1567-1620).

If a poem is to work in recitation, adds Mitchell, the student must own it. "Students need to understand its story, to get inside the language of the poem." Comprehension matters.

The next step, says Wormouth, is to find a way for students to "live with their poem." What Wormouth does is run off 40 to 50 copies of each student's poem and have them post it everywhere they go—"in their lockers, on the refrigerator, inside the refrigerator."

Wormouth brings in local actor volunteers to coach his students and takes advantage of the services of "Ned the Poet," a "biker dude" who works as a custodian at the school, and doesn't fit any student's stereotype of an effete scribbler of verses.

Mitchell takes advantage of the Poetry Out Loud website where videos of both the national and statewide competitions are posted, to give students models of top performances.

Mitchell says when students start reciting their poems, the positive vibe becomes contagious. "They impress each other," he says. They'll tell him, "I heard that Christy did a really great job," as word gets out about Christy's classroom recitation in this school of 400.

More Than Recitation

The benefits of Poetry Out Loud, however, go well beyond the immediate focus on memorization and presentation. "Students are asking questions about the poem they are learning," says Mitchell. "I think there's some carryover as we look at other poems."

For these three teachers, Poetry Out Loud has served as a springboard for all sorts of poetry-related activities. Mitchell has organized an evening event for parents and community members around the recitations. Dean's reciters have become poets themselves and created chapbooks. Wormouth's Poetry Out Loud participants have worked with younger students to write poetry.

Poetry Out Loud has inspired poetry slams and coffee house poetry events at these Maine schools and has convinced these teachers, as well as hundreds of others, of the value of asking students to commit a poem to memory.

Mitchell says he is going to post on his classroom whiteboard a claim made by Jim Holt in "The Case for Memorizing Poetry" in the New York Times: "Memorize enough poems, and you'll never need an iPod."

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