Ask most seventh graders to recite a poem, and you’re likely to be met with blank stares. But not at View Ridge Middle School, where seventh grade English Language Arts (ELA) students are participating in Poetry Out Loud, a national arts education program encouraging the study of poetry. Every student here will memorize and recite a poem as part of the program.
There is a nervous energy in Courtney Thompson’s class as they prepare for Poetry Out Loud. Papers rustle as students review their poems one last time. A tall microphone stands in front of the black and white Poetry Out Loud logo. Three adult judges file into the classroom and sit in the front row. It’s all a little intimidating.
One of today’s judges is Paige McBee, the school security officer. She turns to ask the students if any of them are comfortable with public speaking. Only a few hands go up. “What I tell people who are nervous about public speaking is just to pick a few people and have a conversation with them,” McBee said. “Just speak with them, not at them, and you’ll do fine.” She smiles, and the students relax a little. It helps to know there are other people who are uneasy about speaking in front of a group.
Thompson comes to the microphone and reminds students to put their poems away so they can listen attentively to their classmates. “Let’s get started. And don’t worry. You know what you know,” she reassures them. “Talen, you can start when you’re ready.” Talen Blaine walks to the microphone to recite the first poem, “In Praise of My Bed” by Meredith Holmes.
One by one, the students come to the front to recite their poems from memory. Some of them have practiced over and over, adding dramatic flair to phrases and hand gestures to emphasize key points. Others are less confident, rocking back on their heels and raising their eyes to the ceiling as they struggle to remember the next words. Thompson is there to offer prompts when needed; she has the text of each poem in front of her—though she has heard them often enough to know them by heart herself. But any momentary stumbles pass quickly as memory takes charge. The students have recited these poems over and over in class and at home, until the poem is ingrained in their minds.
Each student has selected a poem that means something to them, and it’s a joy to watch as they recite poems in rhymes and in free verse; about ants and baseball, water and words, love and war. Jaxson Perry recites Jericho Brown’s “Crossing”, Lillian Edgren performs “Mad Song” by William Blake, and Robert Hull takes on the lengthy “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. There’s applause after each recitation, and then the judges fill out a short review form.
When everyone has had their turn, there’s a hearty round of applause from all the students and judges. The mood has lightened now that the required recitations are over. Next week, ELA teachers will select one or two students as school representatives to recite poems before the high school Poetry Out Loud competition on January 11. But for now, they’re relieved to be done.
Thompson praises the students for their hard work and great performances and gives them the last few minutes of class to talk quietly among themselves. The students are excited, and several even volunteer to return to the microphone. Now they stand for the enjoyment and excitement of sharing spoken words with each other. Poetry feels different to them now, more personal, and more real—which is what Poetry Out Loud is all about.