Sunday, November 22, 2015

Poetry Out Loud: Step-by-Step to a Life Changing Lesson

Darian killing it with a little John Donne.
About a month ago, I was looking on our Tulare County Office of Ed website to confirm a PD date, when a little icon jumped off the page: POL: Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Competition.

I clicked on the link and was transported to the website which housed over 900 poems. In this contest, students choose from the poems provided, memorize and recite with dramatic flair. They are graded on accuracy as well as voice, gestures, and articulation.

Wait, it’s not a slam? They aren’t writing poetry? I was hesitant. They are simply memorizing someone else’s words.What’s the big deal about memorizing a poem? Boy, was I wrong. Very, very wrong.

My 100 plus Speech Communications students became my tall guinea pigs and dove in. “We are entering a contest, everyone!” “Yay,” say the naturally competitive teens. “It’s based on poetry,” I reply excitedly. Crickets...Crickets...And then a collective and rather flat. “Oh.”

They weren’t as excited as I was. Shocker.

“I hate poetry.” “Poetry sucks.” “Like Edgar Allen Poe?” “Can I write my own?”

Well, a little teen angst hasn’t stopped me before and certainly won’t now. I pulled up the Poetry Out Loud Website and played one of the national finalists from last year. A young woman, Sophia Elena Soberon who recited “Bilingual/Blingue by Rhina P. Espaillat. She performed, she sparkled, she seamlessly braided Spanish with English: she seduced my kids in a way I could not.

“Whoh.”  “That’s what you do?” “That’s tight.” “Can we look at the poems?”

And so we began and, if you would like to join me, here is how the lesson is playing out:

1.) PICKING POEMS: Via Chromebooks and phones, we all jumped on the Poetry Out Loud Website and picked one poem for starters. This takes awhile, so put on some relaxing music and cuddle in with the kids as they hunt, laugh, share, and pull their hair out because “they can’t choose.” This was tough because there wasn’t a search bar for “topics” just for poets, and my kids don’t really know poets. So, it takes awhile, but the intensity was there. They cared about what they chose because they were performing it.

2.) WHAT DO THEY MEAN?: Once they picked their poems, we printed them all out. You need an old school piece of paper because the students need to organically tear them apart for meaning first-what do THEY think it means- and that requires a pencil and hiding the interne from them.
a. Paraphrasing: what is the poet literally saying first. We have to understand this in order to express it. This lends itself to a beautiful lesson on literal vs. figurative. The kids sat down and on a piece of lined paper “retold the story” of their poem without the use of internet. This led to such rich discussions because many didn’t know what the poet was trying to say, they just thought it sounded “cool” (which is a totally valid reason to pick a poem!). After we wrestled with language on our own for a day, we then ran to the internet for help using a website called Genius | Annotate the World. It’s main focus is song lyrics (this will side track your kids for awhile, but no worries - songs are poems, right?), but if you click on “lit,” you will find hundreds of poems, not all but many, many will be on there and their analysis of the poetry is solid. One of my students, Simon McGulpin, found this site for us and I will use it over and over!

1st read through and candles that won't get me fired!
3. FIRST READING: I then bought 50 flameless candles (battery operated) and placed them all over the room. We dimmed the lights, circled our chairs up and read the poems out loud for the first time. Some voices were shaking, some were strong. Some added a bit of dramatic flair, some monotoned it. Some poems were repeats and kids wanted to change theirs. We snapped after each one read and got to know one another a little bit better that day.

4. TONE CHART: Next class, we went back to the paper copy of our poem and assigned tones to lines, stanzas, and phrases. I provided them with a tone word menu (there are many out there). The kids then had to assign a tonal quality to each section of the poem and mark the shifts - one of the most challenging exercises to do in poetry analysis. I had kids telling me: “It’s all calm, Mrs. Jones.” We then discussed how boring and pedestrian a choice that was - there are different levels of calm, different shades of calm. Finding those subtle nuances is the key to not only understanding poetry but reciting it with passion.

5. SECOND READING (memorized? not many): This is when my class started to split. We circled up again with our poems in our laps and did what was supposed to be a memorized read around. Most of them were not memorized on this second day, but the key to this exercise is that about 10 out of each class of 35 were and this inspired (and kind of scared) my kids. This is when some students started to emerge as stars. This day inspired us to research “how to memorize.” We looked up how the brain best captures information and found that even the Poetry Out Loud website has a section on tricks the top performers do to lock the poems into their brain. Discussions turned to studying for Human Bio and driver’s license tests - how to memorize something is a vital life skill; yet, we don’t really talk about how to do it. I was starting to see how this little poetry contest was becoming much, much more than just that.

In the meantime, my Speech and Debate Club were busy planning our Writers’ Cafe: Poetry Out Loud edition. We put on two Writers’ Cafes a year showcasing student writing and music: it’s our own little hip and cool coffee just happens to be housed in the faculty lounge. We have coffee, cappuccino, cocoa, tea, and every baked good imaginable. This year we would do something different; we would have our top ten poetry performers compete for the three spots at the county competition.

7. THIRD READING (what sold me on recitation!): Meanwhile, back in the classroom...the kids were now expected to do a memorized read through in front of class. We projected their poem on the screen behind them (their back was to it, so the class could see poem, but not them). We assigned one prompter per class: they were the only one allowed to give hints and only when the performer pointed at them. This is important. Trust me, you don’t want 34 kids prompting the petrified performer on stage when they take one millisecond to collect their thoughts. This was MUCH better and most kids did have their piece memorized. The most impactful part of this day was seeing the complete and total engagement in each kid as they struggled and reached for those words. The concentration was insane. I really felt as if I could see their brain synapses firing. This is what sold me on recitation. You had kids searching for the definitions of words and the pronunciation of words...not because I asked them to...because they NEEDED to. They wanted to get it “right” because they were on stage in front of their peers. Talk about a deep, genuine quest for literacy. Wow.

8. 1ST ROUND COMPETITION: The 1st round took place in class. I have three periods of Speech Communications with 35 kids in each class, so 105 were duking it out for the chance to make top 10 and perform at Writers’ Cafe. Some of them really, really “brought it.” Some, not so much. They “dressed to impress” and took center stage in class. I assigned one student as our Accuracy Judge using the POL accuracy rubric and I played the part of a Performance Judge using the overall presentation rubric, both located in the very thorough POL Judge's guide.

Top 10 out of 105 contestants! They were incredible.
It took us two and a half class periods to allow enough time for everyone to perform. I then had the daunting task of picking our “top 10.” Honestly, I could have picked a top 25 probably, but had to narrow it I did.

Poetry Out Loud edition: Our Writers’ Cafe hosted over 100 people in the audience. We do not charge any admission, my Forensics Speech and Debate club fundraise all year to raise money so we can provide free food, drink and admission to anyone who would like to come. We take over the faculty lounge: hanging white and purple twinkle lights, sprinkling flameless candles everywhere, and covering two 6 foot tables with every sweet treat and hot beverage imaginable from iced lemon cake to dark chocolate brownie drops to vanilla cappuccino to coffee with caramel spice creamer. Y.U.M.

I booked four adults to help me: two were performance judges using the overall performance rubric above, and one was the accuracy judge using that specific 8 point rubric. The accuracy judge never lets his eyes leave the page, the rubric is super specific (-1 point for misused pronoun, -2 points for line out of place, -3 points for using prompter).
The last adult was a tabulator (adding scores after each performance). I also booked one of my reliable students to be the “prompter.” She sat in front close to the stage with a binder of all poems printed. Her eyes followed the poems and if a performer needed help, they pointed to her.

We had two rounds: 1st round all 10 finalists performed their 1st poem, back to back. We then had a 15 minute intermission filled with an acoustic guitar performance by one of my students as we filled up on yet more sugar and carbs and then resumed our audience position for the 10 finalists to recite their 2nd poem. Some were incredibly nervous, having never performed in front of anyone ever. Others were a little more comfortable on the stage, but all of them shone. AND, it showed in the scores - many were just mere points apart.

After score tabulations were completed, the crowd held their breath as we announced our top three who are on their way to the county competition on February 3rd. They will be performing THREE poems that night, so they are all off scouring the website for a third piece now.
Lupita, Laura, and Edward head on to County Contest Feb. 3rd!

I took a risk with this assignment and, yes, lots of “work” came with it, but watching all 105 of my kids go through this process, I am sold that memorizing poetry has a power that belies its simplicity. This was proven in one of my student’s blog posts I read just yesterday. This boy had made the top ten and wrote about Writers’ Cafe. I will leave you with his poignant recap of the experience:

“I will be competing in Poetry Out Loud tomorrow night, a competition that encourages high school students to overcome their fear of public speaking, build self-confidence, and to enjoy poetry. So far it has done its job: I have witnessed improvement in my public speaking skills, which I didn’t have before this. I don’t feel as nervous as I used to feel. Now, I’m more comfortable when giving a speech, something that I never imagined would occur. There is a list of things I hate, and poems were included on there, but now they are out of that list for good thanks to Poetry Out Loud.”

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