New Jersey Poetry Out Loud turns 10 this year! During the 2014-15 school year CavanKerry will celebrate this significant anniversary by inviting New Jersey teachers and students to write about their NJPOL experiences. If we’re lucky some of them will also share their own poems.
I find it quite fitting that a piece by Holly Smith is launching this series because she was the first recipient, in 2013, of the CavanKerry Press scholarship to the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching because her student, Cameron Clarke, was the state runner-up that year. Holly is a Language Arts teacher and departmental coordinator at Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, NJ. She currently teaches AP Literature, Journalism, and Critical and Creative Writing.
-Teresa Carson, Associate Publisher
Saying Yes to Poetry Out Loud
by Holly Smith
The last thing you want to say to a teacher in the first month of school is “Hey, how about you organize a whole-school, nationally affiliated, kinda-of-a-big-deal poetry program in your building. Now.” When you’ve barely got your roll book set up, the papers are mounting into a summit that needs climbing, and you’re nursing your first cold of the year.
But I am telling you that Poetry Out Loud is the stuff we need to make time for. And that it is the best teacher-cheat in the world. Students will hand you a list of high-interest poems of literary merit to use in the classroom.
Trust your students and their voices and that the poems will speak to them.
For those of you who simply cannot add another thing this year, here’s the seed to plant:
- Look up the State Regional Competition for your county.
- Shoot an email to the regional coordinator to set up getting free reserved spots for however many kids you can bring (a full house is welcome for the competition).
- Come late Fall, pick a small but hardy group of freshmen, sophomores and juniors to take to the competition as spectators. Let them know. Show them the Poetry Out Loud website. Perhaps select one or two seniors who might be able to come back next Fall to help coach or guest judge a school competition. Pick students who show a love of drama, or are flagrant bookish types, or are just so hardworking that you know if they get lit up with excitement will follow through.
- Then, a few days after the Regionals, have a chat with them about what they saw.
I hope that you will also find they will own it and be eager to take the next steps to bring POL to the school. You can start the program with a small handful of committed kids that have seen it in action, and “get it.” Keep it as small as the POL rules allow until the program builds the word of mouth (ha, puns). You might even find allies in your Department or school will emerge to help.
If you are already on board with the idea and ready to bring Poetry Out Loud to your school – my suggestion is to use your teacher sense of backwards planning.
The POL website can be a bit daunting with dates, rules, etc. Pull out your planner, your school calendar, fire up the browser window– now work backwards.
- When are Nationals? (Ah, the “luxury problem “ of making it to Nationals!)
- When are States? (Another “luxury problem.”)
- When do you need to have your 2 school competitors reciting at Regionals locked-in with poem choice and poem order?
- When do they need to be coached and off-book?
- When does the school-wide competition need to happen?
- When do classroom competitions need to happen?
- When do we get the word out to teachers and students?
- When can you have an informational meeting with students (planting that seed)?
Pacing and planning gives you and the competitors time to prepare. Let’s face it, we are asking them to do something so anachronistically un-teenage. In public. Under a spotlight. We want them to have a good experience and honor their effort.
My school is entering into our second year of full-on Poetry Out Loud action. And backwards planning has saved me. Here’s what it looks like on the playback in chronological order:
- I put Poetry Out Loud on my staff meeting agenda from the first day of school.
- Our school is registered with NJ Arts.
- We have selected Nov. 19 as our school-wide competition date, and it is on the school calendar. (I learned last year December is way too crowded. I got the competitors, but not the audience.)
- On October 1, I will do an after school info session open to any interested student. This can be as simple as a walk through of the Poetry Out Loud webpage and viewing recitations on Youtube.
- In-class competitions with participating teachers will begin in mid-October. Mine are October 20th, and I have already posted the rubrics and criteria to my class wiki.
- Then we move from classroom to whole school. A few willing teachers will judge an audition-type preliminary on November 5 to select the 12 school-wide competitors.
- Those competitors will have some vacation days to memorize two pieces (for most of them, is just adding one, as they did a piece in class). We will coach the 12 during the week of November 10th. I will get the 12 students excused from class early and do a dress rehearsal on the 19th for the school-level competition.
- Once we have our winner and alternate from our school competition, we can take our time and guide the two Regional representatives through the process of selecting pieces, finding voice, and practicing recitations in December and January.
- In January, there are submission and paperwork deadlines. Then practice until Regionals in February.
And then we breathe.
Unless we’ve made it to States. But that’s another blog entry.
And, did I mention, Poetry Out Loud is a free program?