Long the bane of high school English students, poetry is taking center stage at the Early College High School of Design. So much so that a recent competition there had students reading poetry to an audience estimated at nearly 200 in number.
It was part of the school’s second Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest, which generated quite a bit of excitement, according to English teacher Andrew Chilton. Recently the individual classroom winners moved on to a school-wide competition, reading in front of the large audience.
The school’s winner, senior Katie Hall, attributed her interest in poetry to not only the competition itself, but also Chilton’s daily dose of poetry, which Hall said “opened the door” to her own exploration of poetry.
Chilton said Hall, who read “Sweetness” by Stephen Dunn, “really identified with the poem” which helped her internalize it. “You could tell the poem really meant something to her when she performed it in front of the school.” He added that all the students at the school-wide contest were wonderful, and everyone was impressed with the level of talent.
Hall agreed, and said the poem she selected to read really meant a lot to her. Now, to prepare for the state-level contest, she must select two additional poems.
The Poetry Out Loud competition is a nationwide contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, along with the Poetry Foundation, who partner with state arts agencies, including The North Carolina Arts Council, to “encourage the nation’s youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation,” according to the Poetry Out Loud website, located at poetryoutloud.org.
Chilton said he incorporates a “daily dose of poetry” at the beginning of each class as a way to expose his students to a wide variety of poetry, and also to hopefully generate interest in poetry through exploring different subjects.
Student interest was piqued by regular exposure to poetry, which led to the participation in Poetry Out Loud.
“It started as something we wanted to do because we just love poetry and wanted to include it in class, then when we heard about this competition we decided to try it. It’s pretty formal…outside judges come in and the winners from class competition compete in front of the entire school,” Chilton shared.
The rest of the English department also participates, including teachers Jenny Alyn Key and Stacy Libbert. Chilton said both teachers were “integral in making this [contest] happen.”
The build-up leading to the competition generates excitement among the students and teachers, with posters displayed for the competition throughout the school. Poems are selected from a group of around 1,000 poems posted on the poetryoutloud.org website, and students are allowed to choose the poem that resonates with them, which adds to the experience, Chilton said.
“They have to love the poem they choose, because they memorize it and perform it in front of a lot of people. Students who are successful with this are able to connect with their poem,” Chilton said.
He encouraged his students to memorize their poems through multiple techniques, including memorization games with note cards and fun competitions. One of the students’ favorite memorization exercises is writing a summary of the poem, but writing it in their own words as a diary entry. Learning the meaning behind the poem helps with memorization, Chilton added.
The students also turn the poem into a creative project, such as a work of art or short film, then students present the creative projects during the classroom competitions.
Hall said poetry was a relatively new thing for her, as far as her interest-level is concerned. “Poetry was always just sort of an EOG-mandated study thing, but now Mr. Chilton has introduced it to us through the daily dose poetry lessons and we have presented our own poems. I started enjoying poetry through that experience. It opened the door for me.”
As a senior at Early College High School, Hall is now opening a door looking toward her future. She will graduate this year, one year ahead of schedule. The typical Early College student graduates in five years, with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Hall will graduate with her diploma and associate’s degree after four years of high school, and will enter Salem College in Winston-Salem in the fall with a psychology major. She added that she would love to continue studying, reading, and writing poetry, because of the “wonderful experience” she had in high school.
Chilton said his student’s positive and excited reactions to both the daily dose of poetry and the Poetry Out Loud contest is “what you dream about as a teacher, what you hope for your students.” He added that on the surveys the students fill out at the end of the year, many students say the daily dose poetry is their favorite.
Judges for the competition included Associate Dean of Learning Resources Dr. David A. Wright, English Professor Sarah Wright, and Surry County Schools Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction Jennifer Scott.
Hall will move on to the state Poetry Out Loud contest on March 15. The winner of the state contest will receive $200 and an all-expenses paid trip with an adult chaperone to Washington, D.C., to compete in the national competition, where the overall winner receives a $20,000 prize.
Last year’s state winner was Casey Goggin of Pinecrest High School. The national winner was Langston Ward from Spokane, Washington.