Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the number of performers who could qualify for prizes of $1,000-$20,000, plus money for their schools, in the national Poetry Out Loud competition. The correct number is nine.
Mount Vernon, Wash.
Everyone is standing up and shouting at once in Lance Fisher’s English class, and that’s exactly what he wants them to do.
Fisher’s 12th grade students are reciting—more like hurling—poems at the walls. They stand in a big circle, facing outward, simultaneously reciting poems they’ve memorized (or almost memorized). The teenagers work on projecting their voices, animating their faces, gesturing with their hands. Snippets of verse by dead and living poets zig through the air.
In this class, poetry isn’t a sit-at-your-desk-and-try-to-stay-awake affair. It’s a stand-up-and-get-into-it thing. But this isn’t “slam” poetry, where students perform their own work. Here, students memorize and recite other people’s poems.
The idea seems old-fashioned, even quaint at first. Until you get hit with a flying chunk of Natalie Diaz (“Angels don’t come to the reservation,” one girl snarls), or wince at a melancholy slice of Robert Frost (“I’m done with apple-picking now,” says one student, trying out a wistful tone).
Fisher’s work with these students is part of a national program that seeks to persuade students that reciting other people’s poetry can be as transformative as performing their own.
A Powerhouse Teaching Tool
English teachers say that memorizing and reciting aren’t dusty relics, but powerful levers that help them impart key skills to students: acquiring deep understanding of text structure and author’s purpose; building vocabulary, and finding a personal connection to written language.
“I just like them having the words in their mouths,” said Fisher, who has been teaching English at Mount Vernon High School, an hour’s drive from the Canadian border, for nine years. “The language is so much higher than what they’re normally using.”
He finds that the memorize-and-recite approach supports his teaching of common-core standards in reading and speaking. It also helps his English-learner students by exposing them to aspects of language they don’t otherwise use, Fisher said.
There are many ways to teach poetry through memorization and recitation, but the one Fisher is using is called Poetry Out Loud. It was developed in 2005 by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, and is supported by NEA grants to states. Free for schools, it includes an online anthology of 900 poems by a diverse array of poets, performance videos, and a teacher’s guide with lesson plans.
Schools that participate in the program host schoolwide competitions that feed into regional contests. Local winners perform for cash prizes at the state level, and those contests produce an elite crop of about 50 who come to Washington, D.C., all-expenses paid, each April to vie for the national title.
The top nine performers on the national circuit can win $1,000 to $20,000, plus additional cash for their schools. More than 300,000 students from 2,300 high schools across the country competed last year.
‘You Really Have to Understand’
Eileen Murphy became a fan of Poetry Out Loud 12 years ago, when she was a high school English teacher in Chicago. She taught creative writing and coached slam poetry, but she found that having her students memorize other people’s verse deepened their understanding of written and spoken English in unique ways.
“To memorize, you have to assume the voice of the speaker, and to do that, you really have to understand what they’re saying,” said Murphy, who wrote a book about using poetry to teach complex text and now runs a Chicago-based company that supports writing instruction.
That’s what Ava Ross, a student in Fisher’s class in Washington state, discovered. She had to read her chosen poem, “Mr. Darcy,” a contemplation of marriage priorities by 47-year-old American poet Victoria Chang, many times to master its meaning and rhythms. Knowing she’d have to say it out loud to other people required her to dig deeper than if she only had to read it silently to herself, she said.
“To get the delivery right, to pause in the right places, to emphasize the right words, you really have to get everything that’s going on in the poem,” Ross said.
In Fisher’s class, memorization starts with the hands. He asks his seniors to copy their poems by hand five times, a repetition that helps students cement the words in their heads, he said.
Then they move into another approach: They reduce the poem to abbreviations. They write only the first letter of each word in each line. Then they have to decode each line by remembering what the letters stand for.
Gradually, they take on bigger pieces of their poems. They’re encouraged to recite chunks of the poem to friends, to the bathroom mirror, walking to school, anywhere they can.
Moving From Memorizing to Reciting
Ross’ target was the windshield of her car. She recited her poem while driving to school or to friends’ houses.
“I just did it over and over while I was driving around,” she said.
The Poetry Out Loud program teaches students the art of poetry recitation. The competition includes 53 students from each state, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. After the two-day competition, which was held in the nation’s capital, Samara Elan Huggins from Georgia was named the 2017 Poetry Out Loud National Champion for her recitation of “The Farmer” by W.D. Ehrhart:
While students are memorizing their poems, they’re also writing journal entries about them, and discussing them in class. Fisher uses the popular TP-CASTT method to help students analyze their poems. (TP-CASTT stands for title, paraphrase, connotation, attitude/tone, shift, title, and theme.) The students paraphrase each line, then wade into guided discussion about themes and tone.
Recitation strategies can be fun: Students perform tongue-twister exercises to work on diction. Fisher encourages them to stand up tall and talk “to and through” the walls (loud, in other words). Your aim, he tells the students, is to let the strength of the poem—not a hefty dose of drama—carry the delivery.
“You don’t have to die on stage like in Shakespeare to make this meaningful,” Fisher said. “Just anchor on that poem and deliver it with power.”
Before students stand up to recite simultaneously, he guides them to think about places in their poems where they could use an appropriate hand or facial gesture (“like when you talk to your friends”), places they could inject a meaningful pause, or speed up; places they could use a slightly higher vocal pitch to emphasize a point.
First, the students work in pairs at their desks, reciting their poems to each other. They repeat that exercise in table groups of four. Then they form the big outward-facing circle, and launch into the all-at-once recitation.
Snippets of Victoria Chang crash into lines from Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, James Whitcomb Riley, and David Dominguez. It’s a loud, spirited collision of words. But few students are comfortable enough yet to throw in even one hand gesture.
Facing the walls was supposed to put students at ease; they didn’t have to see an audience. But now they have to up their game. Everyone in the big circle turns from the walls inward, to face one another. They recite again. This time most students seem more relaxed, though a few nervous smiles punctuate the poems. More practice lies ahead.
Whether any of these students makes the cut for regional, state, or national competition is a question for another day. Right now, at least a few are enjoying a surprise: It turns out that they like poetry.
Ajeetpal Punian had to study poetry in other English classes. He never liked it; the teacher assigned poems, and the ensuing class conversations made him feel like there was a right way and a wrong way to understand them.
In Fisher’s class, he got to choose his own poem: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Arrow and the Song.” OK, so the fact that it’s short—12 lines—was pretty cool, he said.
But as he read it over and over, trying to memorize it, he really got into it. The structure of the poem appealed to him, and his inner scientist—Punian aspires to be an astronautical engineer—responded. His love of rap music also opened him to a connection with the words of this guy who’s been dead for 135 years.
“I like that it rhymes. I love the structure, how the pieces fit together,” Punian said. “This poem could be a rap, the way it flows.”
Music also helped connect Ava Ross to her poem, “Mr. Darcy.” A trombonist, she enjoys marking Chang’s verse in places where she can raise and lower her voice, or shift the pace of her delivery speed, much like musical notations that direct volume and speed.
Punian said he’d signed up for Fisher’s English class to help him write college essays. But the poetry portion of the class has “opened me up to a different world.”
“I didn’t really care about literature very much,” he said. “Now I understand there are layers to writing, and if you can decode them, you can understand what it’s about.”
An alternative version of this article ran in the February 14, 2018 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as Breathing New Life Into an Old Art: Poetry Recitation